Surely there's something we can do about this.
Simon Kuper sketched a dismal picture in the Financial Times over the weekend of the end-game for what he's calling the "great global cities" – places like New York, Paris, London, Singapore, Hong Kong – where the fortunes of a few have become entirely detached from the sputtering economy most of the world has experienced over the last several years. Elsewhere, manufacturing jobs have dwindled, agricultural work has disappeared, and wages have stagnated. Meanwhile, in the great global cities, increasingly only the very rich can afford to live.
These once-poor and crime-riddled cities have become highly desirable over the last decade. However, Kuper writes:
There’s an iron law of 21st-century life: when something is desirable, the 'one per cent' grabs it. The great cities are becoming elite citadels. This is terrifying for everyone else.
More specifically, he argues that places like New York and Paris are turning into "vast gated communities where the one per cent reproduces itself." He identifies the means as something worse than gentrification:
Now comes plutocratisation: the middle classes and small companies are falling victim to class-cleansing. Global cities are becoming patrician ghettos.
This is a real fear. But Kuper treats the near future of wealthy city-citadels as a foregone conclusion, never contemplating that perhaps things don't have to turn out this way. Great cities don't naturally evolve to serve only the super-rich as if through some organic process. They come to exclude people by decision and design. Yes, the more desirable a place becomes, the more expensive it is to live there. But cities also become unaffordable when zoning regulation limits the supply of new housing, or caps the height of new construction. Cities become out of reach when no policies are in place to maintain affordable or mixed-income housing.
Kuper diagnosed the problem, but he didn't identify the causes – or the slightly more optimistic view that if our intentional choices about how to design and govern cities make them unaffordable, we might also attempt to actively prevent that from happening.
Without any such efforts, it's indeed likely that these citadels will become unsustainable. Cities where only the super-rich can live will cease to function like cities are supposed to. Much of what we understand about what makes urban clusters of people so powerful is tied directly to their inherent diversity, to people of varying skills and incomes and ideas bumping into each other. That is the theoretical view. The reality is also this: Rich hedge fund managers will always need people to pour them coffee.
As we've previously written, segregation drags down the economic growth of metropolitan regions. This is true of racially segregated places, but it's also true of cities segregated by skills, where the high-skilled, highly educated elite live in one part of town, and the priced-out people who serve their lunch and fix their cars live far, far away.
A city with only one narrow class of people isn't a city in the truest sense. In fact, it's more like a suburb.