The backlash against the urbanist agenda now appears to be coming from the hipsters—the same "elitist" crowd Erica and I are supposedly a part of. The New Yorker, of all publications, published a piece by staff writer Nicholas Lemann this week—a review of several recent "pro-city" books—with a clear contrarian itch to knock them down. (Sorry, the link is only an abstract.)
The article, called "Get Out of Town," takes on books with titles such as Triumph of the City; The Cosmopolitan Canopy; The Great Reset (written by the main guru of the cities-are-cool school, Richard Florida) and---getting into dreamy Jetsons territory here---Aerotropolis.
The themes of these rah-rah cities books are familiar by now: Density is efficient, good for the environment, and creates support networks; cities attract and give others proximity to creative, smart, inspiring people; and melting pots promote equality. These traits, the urbanists argue, are the key to the prosperity and success of the future. (Aerotropolis offers an original, if odd, version, arguing that the key ingredient for successful cities—much like the port cities that dominated the 17th century—is a 2.0 airport that connects its hometown to the global economy.)
As much as I was kinda rooting for the article to hit with an ultra cool dose of contrarianism (I'm a masochist), it ultimately doesn't make a compelling case against urbanism.
Which isn't to say it isn't a witty piece:
What's the connection between them ... kids with scruffy beards and tattoos who have alt-rock bands, script iPhone apps, and wait tables ... and prosperity ?... (Their parents are probably asking the same question.)
Nor is that to say Lemann doesn't make some good points. 1) Silicon Valley (a car-centric economic hub of bland office parks that predates today's urban tech culture) is wired to Stanford, "not serendipitous pedestrian culture." 2) Suburbs are popular for a reason! The article notes that the suburban portions of America's metropolitan areas outweigh the urban portions, surmising that the car-friendly burbs are more conducive to raising a family.
And, more of a tough question than a counterexample, 3) "Why are cities so economically successful?" Lemann asks. He concludes that the batch of theories—Richard Florida's "creative class," airports, the public markets—are insufficient and anecdotal explanations.
But Lemann's very question includes in it another obvious, pro-urban, point: Cities are economically successful. So, if cities are so successful, why the anti-city backlash?
In my opinion, the legitimate knock against cities, which Lemann only notes in passing when he mentions that a feature of suburban culture is "PTA meetings," is poorly performing schools.
Yes, Stanford (and the UW, for that matter) are key to successful communities. But so is K-12 education. Smart, creative, entrepreneurial parents want their kids to go to good schools. Cities definitely struggle when it comes to providing consistent, high quality public schools.
To me, the key to urban success is improving city schools. If someone wants to mount a serious challenge to the unabashed city cheerleading that's in vogue right now, they should challenge urban schools.
It's worth noting that Newsweek also published an article this week called "The Best High Schools in America." Though there are a number of city schools on the list, most are in the suburbs, including three in Bellevue (and none in Seattle): International School, Interlake High School, and Newport High School.