Mayors Won't Rule the World
Photo by Scott Szarapka on Unsplash

Mayors Won't Rule the World

Joel Kotkin
Joel Kotkin
10 min read

Earlier in this decade, cities—the bigger and denser the better—appeared as the planet’s geographic stars. According to Benjamin Barber, author of the 2013 book If Mayors Ruled the World, everyone would be better off if the ineffective, aging nation-state were replaced by rule from the most evolved urban areas. This, Barber argues, would provide the “building blocks” of global governance run by a “parliament of mayors.”

In reality, the validity of the “back to the city” meme was never as pronounced as its boosters believed. And now it seems, if anything, to be reversing—first demographically, then economically—as workers and key industries seek more affordable and congenial environments. Furthermore, many elite urban centers are diverging, sometimes radically, from national norms which produces a political conundrum. As big city politics shift ever further to the left, particularly on climate and “social justice” issues, not only are they becoming toxic to the middle class, they are becoming places many avoid rather than models that invite imitation.

The Demographic Evidence

In the 1990s, following decades marked by shrinking or stagnant city populations, major American cities like New York, San Francisco, and Boston began, once again, to attract residents. But the big action was in the developing world. In China, the urbanization rate increased from 19 percent in 1979 to nearly 60 percent in 2018, according to Li Tie, president of the China Center for Urban Development. By 2020, Shanghai, the largest city will have quadrupled in size to 24 million over a half century, while Beijing will have grown by three times to 20 million. Even so, in both the Capital and the financial center has been outside the urban cores.

As economist Jed Kolko has observed, the “historic” shift back to the inner city appears to have peaked. In the United States since 2012, suburbs and exurbs have been growing faster with seven times as many people as the core. Suburbs are also seeing a strong net movement among educated people, those earning over $75,000 and, especially, those between the ages of 30 and 44. More revealing still, the country’s three largest cities—New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago—are now losing population again.

Even scholar Richard Florida, arguably the world’s most influential urbanist, suggests that new growth of the “creative class”—the well-educated millennials critical to the urban renaissance—is “shifting away from superstar cities.” Growth in numbers of such prized workers is now two to three times faster in Salt Lake, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, and Grand Rapids, MI than in regions around New York, Los Angeles, or Washington, DC.

These elite cities, of course, still attract young people straight from college, but many don’t stay long. A new Brookings study shows that New York now suffers the largest net annual outmigration of post-college millennials (aged 25–34) of any metropolitan area—followed by Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Diego. Nearly half of all millennials in San Francisco described themselves as “likely” to leave the city by the Bay, a dramatic shift from a decade earlier.

Demographer Wendell Cox has noted that similar dispersive patterns can also be found in Europe. Since the 1970s, Europe’s suburbs have accounted for virtually all the growth in virtually every urban area, including Paris, Barcelona, Copenhagen, and Dublin. Zurich, a paragon of efficiency, has gone from 87 percent inner city to 68 percent suburban since 1950. Over the past three decades, across the continent’s largest 16 metropolitan areas, the suburbs and exurbs gained 8.2 million while the population overall declined in the cores. London, Europe’s premier cosmopolitan city, shows a similar pattern. Inner London grew well in the first decade of the millennium, gaining nearly 900,000 since 1991 (although it remains well below the 5,000,000 peak reached in 1911). The suburbs and exurbs, over the same period added roughly two million residents.

Much the same have been seen in Australia, despite strong policies intended to encourage density. Since 2006, Sydney’s inner ring—the core of the country’s creative economy—has grown by 100,000 while the surrounding suburbs and exurbs have gained seven times that amount.

And there are signs that these demographic shifts also are coming to Asia. In virtually every Asian city outside the city-state of Singapore—from Kuala Lumpur to Tokyo, Beijing and Shanghai—growth continues to head out to the periphery. After rapid growth in the last two decades, China’s coastal megacities and Beijing are losing out to less expensive and congested peripheral communities, as well as the less-developed western interior. The Communist regime has recently declared that these megacities are “full,” and is accelerating a decades-old policy of shifting new growth to the less populated, less expensive interior. Some of these smaller cities are luring skilled workers from places like Shanghai, where housing prices are three times those in smaller cities like Xi’an and Wuhan.

In India, Prime Minister Modi, in response to the dysfunction of New Delhi and Mumbai, has initiated policies to steer growth into smaller cities and villages. His vision has been to promote “100 smart cities” that would be smaller, and less expensive, than the existing megacities. Snigdha Poonam interviewed many young people in India for his book Dreamers, and was surprised to find that many of them now regard big city living as a form of “slavery,” with little hope of upward mobility and awful living conditions.

The Economic Equation

The “new urban renaissance” meme rested not only on demographics but also on the notion that only large global cities have, what Neil Irwin of the New York Times says is, “the best chance of recruiting superstar employees.” But new technologies also make it increasingly easy for companies to employ skilled workers far from the dense megacities; dispersed regions like Austin, Salt Lake City, Dallas-Fort Worth, and Phoenix, as well as smaller cities like Madison, WI and Boise, last year grew their tech employment as much as twice as quickly as much ballyhooed hubs like New York or Los Angeles.

A similar pattern is emerging in Europe where, according to a recent study by Swedish economist Nima Sanandaji, the fastest tech growth is taking place not in the celebrated global cities but in less expensive, smaller places like Prague, Bratislava, Bucharest, and Budapest. This is driven largely by wages, living costs, and overall attractiveness to skilled workers. Bratislava may not be widely regarded as a tech center, but it now has the highest regional concentration of tech workers in Europe. Growth in these eastern European “hotspots” far exceeds that of much larger cities such as Madrid, Rome, or Vienna.

In China, the government’s desire to move people and industry into its vast interior has brought high-end development to cities like Chengdu, where much of Apple’s production takes place. Arguably the country’s most important social media company, Tencent, is located not in Beijing or Shanghai, but in Shenzhen, while Alibaba, the Amazon of China, has its headquarters in Hangzhou.

Although not largely a product of governmental edict, much of India’s tech and overall job growth is now taking place in smaller business centers. The biggest markets for new tech jobs, according to jobs website Indeed, are in Bengaluru and Pune, both comparatively small cities. As India accelerates its industrial growth, much of this is likely to take place outside the largest cities, not least due to the cheaper land costs there.

The New Urban Politics

But arguably the biggest future challenges facing the elite cities are those they impose on themselves. As cities, particularly in the West, increasingly become dominated by singles, their politics have shifted far to the left of the rest of their respective countries, notably on social issues and climate. In many cities, centrist and conservative politics have largely ceased to exist.

The trend towards one-party progressive rule has helped to undermine Barber’s claim that they are inherently more efficient, much less make them places ideally suited to “harbor hope.” Instead, they are now toxic to the aspirations of the middle class; according to Pew research, the greatest inequality now exists in “superstar” cities such as San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles, and San Jose.

London exhibits the same highly bifurcated class dynamic. Home to many of the world’s richest people, four of its boroughs also rank among the UK’s poorest and, according to British journalist David Goodhart, 27 percent of the population lives in poverty. The Financial Times’ Simon Kuper has wryly noted that to live within 25 minutes of Soho, as he once did, “one would have to be the Queen or a homeless person.” Much the same pattern, with widening gaps between the top and the bottom of the social hierarchy, can be seen in Europe’s other leading cities, including Oslo, Amsterdam, Athens, Madrid, Oslo, Stockholm, and Vienna.

The emerging configuration of the new urban politics threatens many of the gains made over the past two decades. New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio and increasingly militant anti-police protesters are actively unraveling the tough, but effective policing policies that worked under both Rudy Giuliani and his successor, Michael Bloomberg. The erosion of civil society, along with the introduction of high taxes and regulation are, according to a Bloomberg News report, leading to the flight of billions in capital from the city to states such as Florida.

This political evolution may just be beginning. For the time being, New York’s political future belongs to socialist firebrands like 30-year-old Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. She and her allies persuaded Amazon not to establish a proposed second headquarters in her working class Queens district, with the consequent loss of 25,000 jobs. Meanwhile, Ocasio-Cortez’s socialist doppelgangers in Seattle, Amazon’s hometown, are effectively chasing the company, which occupies nearly 20 percent of the city’s Class A office space, out of the region entirely or to its periphery. Amazon recently revealed plans to move its worldwide operations team to the nearby suburb of Bellevue.

The biggest challenge, however, may well be social disorder. San Francisco’s tolerance of people sleeping on the streets and of property crime, has helped create a city with more drug addicts than high school students, and so much feces on the street that one website has created a “poop map.” Remarkably, San Francisco just elected Chesa Boudin, the son of unrepentant radical terrorists, on a platform further de-emphasizing criminal prosecution for property and vagrancy. Good luck with that.

Other left-dominated core cities like Portland, Seattle, and Los Angeles are also experiencing massive problems with homelessness and disorder. Los Angeles’ core city—filled with overbuilt, overpriced apartments—is ringed with homeless camps overrun with rats. A UN official last year compared conditions on the city’s Skid Row to those of Syrian refugee camps.

A somewhat parallel tide of incivility can also be seen Europe, where cities were, in recent history at least, safer and more orderly. Some of this can be traced—although the media tend to downplay it—to mass migration from the Middle East and North Africa. Migrants, particularly Muslims, have difficulty finding higher wage jobs in the continent’s rapidly de-industrializing and slowly growing economies. Unlike previous immigrants, they rarely ascend into the middle class.

Today, great cities like Paris have become graffiti-scarred as large numbers of young, aimless men gather on street corners. In many immigrant hubs—notably in Germany and Sweden—crime rates have jumped dramatically in recent years. Europe’s multicultural capital, London, by some measurements, now has an overall higher crime rate, in some months including homicides, than New York. In Paris, another city where property crime is now rife, my wife’s family suggested that she not wear jewelry on the streets even in broad daylight.

Failure to integrate these populations could prove catastrophic. Foreign immigrants account for 37 percent of London’s population, mostly from outside Europe. In Brussels, Zurich, and Geneva, foreign born percentages hover over 40 percent. History shows us repeatedly that huge income gaps and a sense of diminished opportunity undermine social stability, and lead to disorder, alienation, and a breakdown of the civic culture. Ancient Rome, industrial-era London, Manchester, St. Petersburg, and Shanghai, for example, all experienced revolts and, in some cases, revolutions led by neglected classes bereft of hope

A Revolt against Cities

As large core cities move to the left, their politics are increasingly out of sync with the rest of their countries. This divide was sharply evident in the election of Donald Trump, who won despite almost lock-step urban opposition. Similar voting patterns could be seen in Brexit, where inner London voted strongly to remain, but smaller cities, suburbs, and the countryside mostly tilted the other way.

The dividing line between core cities and the rest has been heightened by climate politics. As cities have de-industrialized, they have become increasingly detached from the physical economy. With little in the way of basic industries, they regard energy, like food, almost as an abstraction that can be ruthlessly suppressed. Green parties in places like Europe, North America, and Australia generally do best in urban areas.

The agenda coming from these cities is largely hostile to the middle class that has been deserting them. Greens envision a world in which there are no private cars, and people are crammed into shared “co-living” spaces that leave little room for privacy or family. It has, as one observer put it, something eerily in common with a “homeless tent city.”

The nature of this divide is perhaps clearest in France. Paris Mayor and media darling, Anne Hidalgo, and President Macron, have pushed for policies boosting petrol prices for those who drive to work. At the losing end are the vast majority, some 90 percent, of regional residents, who work outside the central district. Her efforts to create a “green Paris”—including a failed bike-sharing scheme—have decimated her political support even within the boundaries of the city. Meanwhile, as in the “green” cities on America’s west coast, basic concerns about sanitation and rat problems remain unaddressed.

The biggest reaction against these policies has been the gillets jaune rebellion which drew its support from Paris’s own outer suburbs, as well smaller cities and towns of La France Périphérique. Other rebellions against the urban climate agenda have spread to normally more placid places like Norway and the Netherlands.

The recent Australian national elections demonstrated this growing divide. Pressured by its urban constituencies, the Australian Labour party endorsed strict regulatory “green” policies on housing and energy production. These were strongly opposed in the suburbs and particularly in resource-dependent blue-collar areas like Australia’s Queensland.

A similar result occurred recently in Canada, where the ruling center-left party, the Liberals and its more leftist counterpart, the New Democrats, lost the popular vote to the Conservatives, particularly in the smaller towns tied to energy and manufacturing, as well as to the French nationalists in Quebec. Canada’s “first past the post” systems allowed green-oriented Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to form a minority government, but the result has left him in a greatly weakened position.

Given the current urban trajectory, perhaps it’s time to bury the idea that mayors of our biggest cities should “rule the world.” They would be better off considering the advice in Luke 4:23 to first heal themselves. The fundamental appeal of cities has not disappeared, but a return to the bad old days of urban decline can only be reversed if they once again become hospitable to the aspirations of ordinary people.


Joel Kotkin

Joel Kotkin is the presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His most recent book is 'The Coming of Neo-Feudalism.'