NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Urban Legends

October 8, 2010

The human world is fast becoming an urban world -- and according to many, the faster that happens and the bigger the cities get, the better off we all will be.  The old suburban model is increasingly behind us, we're told.  The only problem is, these predictions may not be accurate, says Joel Kotkin, a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University.

Yes, the percentage of people living in cities is clearly growing.  But it's far less clear whether the extreme centralization and concentration advocated by these new urban utopians is inevitable -- and it's not at all clear that it's desirable.

The suburbs are not as terrible as urban boosters frequently insist, says Kotkin.

Consider the environment.

  • Though it's true that urban residents use less gas to get to work than their suburban or rural counterparts, when it comes to overall energy use studies in Australia and Spain have found that urban residents can easily use more energy than their less densely packed neighbors.
  • Moreover, studies around the world have found that packed concentrations of concrete, asphalt, steel and glass produce what are known as "heat islands," generating 6 to 10 degrees Celsius more heat than surrounding areas and extending as far as twice a city's political boundaries.

When it comes to inequality, cities might even be the problem.

  • In 1980, Manhattan ranked 17th among U.S. counties for income disparity; by 2007 it was first, with the top fifth of wage earners earning 52 times what the bottom fifth earned.
  • In Toronto between 1970 and 2001 middle-income neighborhoods shrank by half, dropping from two-thirds of the city to one-third, while poor districts more than doubled to 40 percent.
  • Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty, the highest level in Britain.

Source: Joel Kotkin, "Urban Legends," Foreign Policy, September /October 2010.

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