Mayors Won’t Rule the World

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 is a Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and Executive Director for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism. His last book was The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us (Agate, 2017). His next book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, will out from Encounter early next year. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin

Photo by Scott Szarapka on Unsplash


  1. Thanks for the article I’m glad I’m not the only millennial who is doesn’t see the allure of city living when the suburbs have everything and more(besides “culture” but who cares when you can drive 30 minutes to the city on the weekend). A few aspects I would be interested in reading more about would be:

    • Rational for current zoning laws and the possible reluctance for cities to build apartments increasing housing costs.
    • The pressures on the artistic community. If artists are being pushed out due to living expenses a city may lose its culture. Nobody wants to live in a “uncool” city.
    • Effect of the internet and mass entertainment. Why live in a city to see live shows when I can work remote and watch Netflix in the suburbs and keep my money.
    • The voter turnout in city elections. Perhaps the populace looks to national elections to solve their problems when in fact it is the local politicians who should shoulder the blame and take responsibility.
  2. How delusion does one have to be to take a beautiful large city turn into a crime ridden feces infested hell hole and call it progress? Mayors may not rule the world but they are ruling the Institution. The policies of the Left become increasingly out of touch by the day.

  3. Fairly easily actually. You need to be in a social class far removed from the people your trying to help. Add in the bourgeouis mentality of superiority and not wanting to actually interact with the people you want to help(dirty peasants) and it pretty much happens naturally. Look at fund raisers and galas to help impoverished people. Spend a lot of money to have a good time and socialize with friends but pretend that its for something noble. I think it’s similar to what Marie Antoinette was thinking before everything blew up.

  4. Suburbia is the answer to so many problems. So it’s not surprising suburbia is so hated by “experts” whose carreers depend on problems persisting and never being solved.

  5. What a great piece. Strong case. Tons of citations. Thought it was really solid, but I might be biased because this personally resonates with me.

    I own a small business in Portland Oregon, a mid size city with an exclusively progressive city government. Some of my fellow small business owners with brick and mortars in downtown are seeing business decline as the homeless encampments, feces, and needles pile up. It’s purely correlational speculation, but man, everyone I talk to about the city core says the same thing…”What a disgusting shit show!”.

    On top of that, Antifa occasionally riots, breaks business windows, and sets shit on fire with no repercussions.

    It’s not a business friendly environment. It’s not affordable (though who, with kids, would want to live in a high rise?) housing and with the 3rd worst schools in the country due to administrative overreach and disciplinary issues it is not attractive for families.

    For the record, I live in a north neighborhood in the city proper, I want and like to live there, but my kids will go to private school and besides the convenience of being close to most of my job opportunities, I could take it or leave it.

  6. Full disclosure, I’m a second generation Architect who grew up in the heart of the biggest City in the country. My father at one point had me along on a trip to the Chezch republic where there were frantically building new suburbs after decades of soviet rule. He was lightly critical of their suburbanization of the lands surrounding Prauge explaining to me the inefficiency of suburbs such as so many more feet of pipe, roadway, electrical grid per person in the low density suburbs. This was early in my education as an Architect and his observations sort of reinforced a view I was being fed at school. The profession has most certainly been spearheaded y thinkers espousing “new urbanism” which falls very close to the Jane Jacobs tree of urban understanding. It has been focused on more and more densitifcation in the name of efficiency and greening of things as a sort of antidote to the “Sterile suburbs”. I must admit I bought into this and with it a certain kind of snobbish certainty about the rightness of dense urban cores being the right way to go.
    However, like so many of the critiques argued here about progressive planning policies I was personally able to insulate myself from the effects of those policies when I joined the real estate marketplace. I bought a nice single family dwelling just outside the urban core in what was once a suburb. I’m lucky in that I can walk to work so I don’t have to or try to endure public transit as part of my day to day experience of the City. I’m a member of a private club I can get to in 30 minutes and it removes me entirely from the experience of the City when I go there to recreate.
    As an Architect I can spout the benefits of urbanization and densification as easily as breathing as almost all of the policies we are forced to interact with support these goals.

    All that having been said, I have become much more skeptical of these goals in the recent past. I don’t look down my nose at the burbs any longer as now I understand what it means to have a back yard of my own where I could let my kids and cats loose without fear of predation. I can make the noise I want in my own castle without answering to a condo board for my transgressions. I can make as much or as little investment in my own home as I wish without a stack of neighbors weighing in on the issue. I have much more respect for young families who want a simpler slower life. While it may have a kind of uniformity that I would have previously looked down my enlightened nose at I am much more likely to understand why people, lots and lots of people want their own land, their own yard, their own castle in a medium to low density setting, even if its in the middle of mile after mile of similar housing.

    I’ve come to realize that hyper-urbanization is not an unalloyed good beyond question. It can create grinding tension for residents and constant infrastructure headaches particularly when combined with myriad regulations The complexity of urban systems now is astounding and not always more efficient. Whatsmore, hyper urban environments I do not think are likely to be very resilient to calamity. A major electrical supply interruption can cripple a dense city more effectively than it can less dense areas.

    So my heartfelt apology to all the suburbanites I dissed in my youth and a word of caution to young architects and urban planners to consider carefully all the kool-aid you are being asked to drink, at the end of the day we design for humans and they have very human wants and needs and we disregard those at our peril.

    Thank you to Joel, I’m reading The Next Million right now and I’ve become more aware of your work through recently a quite enjoying the fresh voice on planning issues.

  7. That you begrudge people who are helping the impoverished while enjoying themselves and doing their status display suggests envy. Many are fine if you covet their wealthy by force, but think it evil that they help without the appropriate level of “low status display” you’d prefer.

  8. The author mentions Sydney. The thing about Australian cities is that they don’t have the same borders as American cities do. Nor do they have mayors that have anywhere near the power of a US mayor.
    Most Australian government services are provided by State governments which are situated in the middle of the biggest city in each State. Sydney isn’t really a defined area like San Francisco. Yes, the actual place called SYdney in an area of a few square miles around the central business district. All else is suburbs, some of which have CBDs of their own. But it’s all known as ‘‘Sydney’’.
    I notice when I ask Americans who live in the suburbs where they come from they will tell me that live in such and such county, which is near such and such city in such and such state. In Oz, you would just say the name of the city, even if the centre of it is 50 miles from where you reside.

  9. Are those borders the limitation of Sydney’s taxing authority or duty to provide city services?

  10. It certainly could, DOK, but my own observations from inside such fundraisers supports the assertion that there is a sizable percentage of participants that vote and agitate locally in complete contradiction to the aims of the charitable organizations for which they publicly vow “support.” Often, the most visible charities, the ones sponsoring the glittery events, are the organizations with the lowest real percentage of funding for the causes they purportedly espouse.

    There’s nothing quite like watching someone pledge an impressive amount to a charity with an administrative overhead well north of 40% and then sponsor ordinances limiting the property rights of others that attempt to directly assist such populations as the homeless.

    Was that a general statement or directed toward a specific individual? If directed individually, I’m not too sure that an assertion about preference is warranted.

  11. Yes they are. But you must keep in mind that the city council (local governments here are called councils) does not provide that many services, only garbage removal, some streetworks. libraries and building approvals. Education, health, public transport, sewerage, water supply, electricity and major infrastructure are all looked after by the State government or private enterprise. Welfare is mostly a Federal government concern.
    So you can see we don’t define a city by reference to its local government area. We look more to the metropolitan area in general as being the city. For us, neighbourhood and suburb have the same meaning. In fact the question you get asked when you first meet somone is ‘‘what suburb do you live in?’’ If you do live in the central business district (which a few people do) you would say ‘‘the city’’ which everyone accepts as just another suburb.

  12. Yes, very sharp. The revival of cities began way back in the late 1970s, and really hit its stride in the 1990s and early 2000s. But this is but an echo of the great urbanization from 1880 through 1950. The long-term trend is unmistakable: the age of mass urbanization, in the developed world, is coming to an end. The winners in the US are the smaller cities and the metro areas around larger cities – suburbs, in other words. But these suburbs are not our parents’ suburbs, merely bedroom communities. They are increasingly junior, “mini” cities in their own right.

  13. I always say: “Big cities are waste disposal areas. That is why pigeons, rats, robbers and drug addicts thrive there. They occupy the same ecological niche.” (Leftists included!)

  14. Hah! :slightly_smiling_face:

    Cities have their place and are great to visit. But they are demographic graveyards. They used to have a compelling economic rationale, but not so much today.

  15. Very interesting article. I wonder if Mr. Kotkin could comment on those economists who claim that large cities have an economic benefit that only grows with their size, putting smaller cities and suburbs at a competitive disadvantage.

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