American cities saw twenty years of decline (1970-1990) and twenty years of resurgence (1990-2010). But the economic bubbles that largely fueled the growth of cities are over. Almost certainly, the renaissance of American cities over the past 20 years has come to an end. But what is the future?
There are a number of trends that will continue, and some will be in cities' favor. First, American cities will continue to globalize. That is, they will continue to increase international connections and influence, which will help to keep real estate values up, provide more jobs, and bring increased prominence and status. As a result, American cities will become more like other world cities and less like their own regions, culturally speaking. Second, urban planning will continue to create compact, transit-oriented, walkable mixed use developments (with residences, business, retail, education, cultural institutions, and entertainment all located in close proximity.) The emphasis will be on neighborhood schools, streets with sidewalks for pedestrians, lanes for bicyclists, and so on. This is sometimes called "the New Urbanism" or "Smart Growth." There are many factors driving this, including environmental concerns, and so cities will continue to develop as a desirable alternative to suburbs as a human social arrangement. Third, since immigration laws have not significantly changed at this point, there will continue to be immigration from around the world to the U.S. (There is always some place in the world where the economy is worse than ours!) The cities that receive immigration will benefit from the influx of both working class and professional energy and ideas. Fourth, as far as I can see, the postmodernism that leads young adults to prefer city life to suburban life is continuing. These trends are pretty well established, and they will sustain the growth and continued rise of cities.
However, there are several factors working against cities. First, there are likely to be greatly increased social service gaps in cities. During hard economic times there is a sharp increase in people needing services just at the time when tax revenues dry up. For example, one report says there are 34% more people sleeping on the streets in New York City than there were 12 months ago, at the same time that the city is having to make all kinds of cutbacks and layoffs. Schools, public transit - all of them are facing a crisis. This will have to have an impact on the quality of life in cities, and it may lead to a rise in crime. Second, there are those who say that the rise of technology will make "agglomeration" (that is, the economic and social benefits of many people being located in one place) unnecessary. Technology makes social networking and communication less dependent on physical proximity. Put this together with the economic downturn (it is argued) and people simply won't pay the higher costs of living in a city. This will lead to urban population decline, or at least to "bright flight" - the loss of the highly skilled workforce.
There is no complete consensus of experts about the future of cities. Some of the most troubled, such as Detroit, are going to have to make drastic changes, essentially shrinking their urban footprint deliberately and redesigning themselves as a smaller municipality. But that will not be the norm in the U.S. I believe that immigration and broader cultural factors still make cities highly desirable destinations for the most ambitious and innovative people, and that will be crucial in continuing the rise of cities. In a fascinating article about the demise of "big publishing" in Manhattan (see here), David Carr writes that "macromedia economics... have vaporized significant components of the business model that drives traditional publishing." He goes on to say that employment in communications in New York has lost 60,000 jobs since the year 2000. So does that mean young people who want to be in publishing and media have stopped coming to New York City? Not at all.
"For every kid that I bump into who is wandering the media industry looking for an entrance that closed some time ago, I come across another who is a bundle of ideas, energy and technological mastery. The next wave is not just knocking on doors, but seeking to knock them down.
"Somewhere down in the Flatiron, out in Brooklyn, over in Queens or up in Harlem, cabals of bright young things are watching all the disruption with more than an academic interest. Their tiny netbooks and iPhones, which serve as portals to the cloud, contain more informational firepower than entire newsrooms possessed just two decades ago. And they are ginning content from their audiences in the form of social media or finding ways of making ambient information more useful. They are jaded in the way youth requires, but have the confidence that is a gift of their age as well.
"For them, New York is not an island sinking, but one that is rising on a fresh, ferocious wave." (David Carr, "The Fall and Rise of Media", New York Times, November 30, 2009.)
Not only can we be confident of a good future for American cities, but also of good opportunity for urban ministry. If cities experience great gaps in social services, this only opens a door for our churches to help in such a way that their neighbors will rejoice that we are here (1 Peter 2:11-12). Whether or not cities are rising or falling, the Christian church's ministry in and to cities can and must continue to grow.