A Phoenix Future?

By Phoenix I'm referring to both the city and the university (U of P). Ask this question of Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin and you are likely to get two very different answers.


May 24, 2010

By Phoenix I'm referring to both the city and the university (U of P). Ask this question of Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin and you are likely to get two very different answers.


In Florida's new book, The Great Reset: How New Ways of Living and Working Drive Post-Crash Prosperity, places like Phoenix represent much of what has gone wrong with the American economy and social arrangements over the past 40 years. Florida argues that we need to move away from the model of low-density, car based, and spread out suburbs that Phoenix embodies. This model, according to Florida, is both unsustainable (for environmental and economic reasons), and undesirable to the emerging "creative class" of workers. The great recession has refocused people's priorities away from owning the ever-larger home and the ever-bigger SUV towards a desire for economic agility and embeddedness in thick social/economic networks. This agility and embeddedness is best achieved in walkable cities and close-in (first ring) suburbs, ones served by mass transit and characterized by high proportions of educated knowledge workers. People want to rent rather than own, take high-speed rail and zip cars as opposed to garaging the big SUV, and be free to spend their energy on resources on human capital enhancing actives such as education, creative work, and the arts.


In, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, Joel Kotkin paints quite a different picture of the future of Phoenix and similar cities (and regions). Kotkin sees the amazing growth of the population of Phoenix as a leading indicator of how demographic and economic trends will play out over the next 40 years. People move to Phoenix because of a combination of a strong job market and affordable housing. These two factors will continue to drive migration patterns, as more people gravitate toward good jobs, affordable housing, and -- where possible -- good schools for their kids. According to Kotkin, the cities so beloved by Florida such as NYC, Boston, San Francisco are "luxury cities" - affordable to only the most highly paid professionals (or those who inherit money). Young people may want to start out in a luxury city, but will quickly choose to re-locate when they move into their child-raising years. While people might say they like urban living, they act as if they prefer the suburbs - with bigger and more affordable housing, decent schools, and access to a growing number of suburban-based jobs.


It is no accident that U. of P. is based (and takes its identity) from Phoenix. U. of P. represents everything that Kotkin finds laudable about Phoenix and everything that Florida finds disturbing. This includes an emphasis on serving students who are geographically and socially spread out, with classrooms that are conveniently located off highways or through online courses. U. of P. offers courses and degrees that are accessible to students who don't live in the dense urban neighborhoods or college towns that Florida admires so much, to people who may or may not include themselves within the "creative classes". What is lost in a U. of P. degree is the ferment and churn inherent to a campus where students, faculty and staff congregate to learn and to live. What is gained is increased access to education and credentials.


Will our future be one of density, renting, train riding, and place (campus) based higher education? Or will the flexibility and attractive amenities of the suburbs (with lower housing costs but longer car dependent commutes) define where we will live and work? Does the growth of online learning make a suburban (Phoenix) future all the more probable, or will people choose to give up a suburban life to live and study in close proximity to their fellow creative class learners and citizens?


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