November 10, 2000 - From the November, 2000 issue

Kotkin's New Digital Geography: Digital Revolution's Impact On Landscape

As the Information Age evolves, businesses and residents are finding they have increasing flexibility in terms of where they locate. Proximity to physical infrastructure-roads, ports, resources-is less important than ever before. But as Joel Kotkin, author of newly released The New Geography, discusses in the following TPR interview, this does not mean cities and communities will become less important. In fact, Kotkin argues it will be precisely this sense of place-of community involvement, quality of life, and neighborhood vitality--that will attract people to live, work and play, and ultimately, determine the future of our civic spaces.


Joel Kotkin

Joel, you begin the first chapter of your book, The New Geography: How the Digital Revolution Is Reshaping the American Landscape, with the following statement, "In a manner not seen since the onset of the Industrial Revolution, technology is reshaping the landscape of American communities." Could you elaborate for our readers on this major point and on the book's central thesis?

What really drove me to write this book is the large body of material currently available about new technological paradigms of cyberspace and virtual reality, and the dearth of information about their effects on people in the brick and mortar world. There has been a lack of serious thought in terms of how this technology will impact communities, families, or even how we operate as a society. That's my focus-the issue of place and community.

You go on to write, "The Digital Revolution not only accelerates the speed with which information is processed and disseminated, it also restates the relation of space and time within our communities. Decisions about where to locate businesses, for example-once dependent on questions of access to ports, roads, rails, or raw materials-are increasingly dependent instead on the ability to link often scarce human resources." Infrastructure, planning, housing and government policy have long been a focus of The Planning Report, so elaborate, if you would, on this central message.

The key issue for regions around the country is attracting Information Age workers, investors and entrepreneurs to a community-either as residents or workers. What does that mean? That means that planners, educators and government (particularly local government) have to create an environment in which these people will want to live, work and play.

Your book goes on to assert that Information Age businesses will supplant the energy and conventional manufacturing centers of our economic core metropolises. What are the planning implications of that assertion?

We're seeing the transformation of an economy away from its traditional base. The question is, will this new base be large enough to supplant the old base in a way that's going to work sociologically? Certainly, places like West L.A., Burbank, Glendale, Pasadena, Santa Monica, the 101 Corridor, large parts of south Orange County and even central O.C. have been big winners in the Information Age economy. But there are a lot of areas that are not big winners-places where the old economy has declined, and nothing has really come to replace it. An example of that is Detroit.

TPR has also covered the work of the Governor's Infrastructure Commission. Elaborate on how the economic changes that you describe in The New Geography are "profoundly alter[ing] the very nature of place and its importance by de-emphasizing physical factors-such as access to raw materials and ports-and placing greater emphasis on the concentration of human skills in dense concentrations of population." Does that mean that the work of the Infrastructure Commission, or at the Ports or LAX are any less relevant than before?

No. And in the case of airport infrastructure, it's actually more important. People in high-tech industries tend to work in terms of large global or national markets; they don't tend to be that concentrated in the local market. As a result, they're very dependent on air transportation.

However, each of the facets of infrastructure that you mentioned is important. A major reason people leave Silicon Valley or Los Angeles is that they hate the traffic. And places like Reno are pitching Silicon Valley companies to relocate to their cities where employees can live in a beautiful place and not have to commute for an hour and a half. These are all parts of the locational choice.

Again, communities and governments have to look carefully at quality of life issues now more than ever because companies are capable of moving wherever they want.

Let's continue this discussion by focusing upon another quotation from your book: "By its very nature, the emerging post-industrial economy-based primarily on information flows in an increasingly seamless net-frees location from the tyranny of past associations. Even such centers of gravity as Wall Street, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, though possessing functions and allures that are mutually reinforcing, are increasingly not mandatory for the building of a successful firm or career in finance, film, or the computer industry." Explain the implications of this assertion for a place like metropolitan L.A.?

Let's take the case of Hollywood. It's very important for the future of Hollywood that it remain an environment where people want to live-the rebuilding of Hollywood Boulevard itself is an important sign to people in the entertainment industry that being in Los Angeles is a positive experience. One need only look to the recent movement of the entertainment industry away from Hollywood to the pleasant environments of Santa Monica and Burbank as evidence that people value quality of life.

The people currently planning in Burbank are very conscious that they offer efficiency and a pleasant environment. Look at the development around San Fernando Road. "Beautiful downtown Burbank" is now truly beautiful, and that's one of the factors luring the entertainment industry.

Let's introduce a little reality therapy into this, Joel. In the mid-80s, when you were covering the "growth/no-growth" battle in Los Angeles, you tended to rail against local jurisdictions who wanted to slow development, to plan and regulate their neighborhood environments. But aren't those precisely the communities and regions that have done well in this post-industrial economy?

I don't recall being very involved in much of that discussion. But I would say that growth during the 1980s ended up backfiring, particularly in Downtown L.A. What we did with Bunker Hill siphoned away growth from the older parts of Downtown, which have only recently begun to recover. Los Angeles was definitely characterized by stupid growth in the 80s. And we weren't alone-many cities grew stupidly in the 80s.

You cite William Mitchell's book Bits and Bytes by saying, "The worldwide computer network-the electronic agora-subverts, displaces and radically redefines our notions of gathering place, community and urban life. The Net has a fundamentally different physical structure, and it operates under quite different rules from those that organize the action of public places of traditional cities." Joel, does place still matter?

Place matters more now than ever before. In 20 to 30 years, no one will want to go to Costco to buy toilet paper; they'll simply purchase it on the Net. But people will want places that are fun, interesting, and offer an experience of some kind. That is going to be very important. But the boring, uninteresting, purely functional center of the present day city will increasingly lose out to cyberspace.

What do you believe are going to be the civic organizing dynamics of this new digitally-motivated metropolis? Are we going to have, as Putnam said, more Bowling Alone, or is there some dynamic that draws these social entrepreneurs into a long-standing civic leadership structure?

I don't know where this will eventually end up. But fundamentally, the Internet reverses the structural patterns created during the Industrial Revolution, which emphasized economies of scale-where bigger is better-and professionalization in the corporate and governmental world. In fact, Los Angeles is a perfect example of that process.

What the Digital Revolution is doing is empowering smaller communities. People always say that Los Angeles is a disintegrating civic culture. Perhaps as a region and a city that's correct, but not as a locality. Throughout the Valley and the City-and even in my own neighborhood-whether it's in terms of street fairs, farmers markets, or people concerned with their neighborhood safety, there is a real resurgence of the small scale community group. There will be the Bowling Alone phenomena, but there will be other things too, perhaps harking back to something out of Norman Rockwell (but occurring in the San Fernando Valley in the Year 2000).

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If we continue to push decision-making down to this local level, the situation will only get better. Today, when you go to a community meeting in a small city or you talk to a small city's officials, they're amazingly sophisticated. They have access to the Internet, they can read the New York Times online every morning, and they can communicate with other cities by email. We have very sophisticated people in high positions in city management-like Rick Cole and Frank Benest-who have access to the same information that the U.S. Secretary and Cabinet have. This is a major change in the potential for empowering local communities. And that's what's really getting strong-people's sense of local community.

Let's tie The New Geography to this notion of "location, location, location." What should people who read your book come away with in terms of a new "iron law" for real estate development?

Well, I think there are two things going on. First, the Internet allows businesses to locate in different environments-urban environments, suburban environments, Nerdistans (the peripheral environments like Irvine), and even in the countryside. So the question is, which locations are going to work best? Well, it'll be the places that the two fundamental types of people who work in the Information sector like to inhabit.

The first involves the hard edge of technology-engineering, science and biotech. These are the people producing the pipeline, the infrastructure for the Information Revolution. They tend to be scientists and engineers who prefer antiseptic environments-new houses, big driveways, good schools-and they tend to be married with children. They want an Oakpark, a Westlake, a Calabasas, or a Thousand Oaks.

Then there's the soft edge, the people developing what you put into the pipeline. And they're a different breed altogether. They have brought a resurgence of graphics, design and other technological business to San Francisco, Santa Monica, lower Manhattan, Boston, Chicago and Dallas. All these renewed urban areas have attracted this population of young, single, often gay couples without children.

So different locations attract different people. In Southern California, the hard edge residents prefer the 101 Corridor and Orange County, while the creative soft edge prefers West L.A., Pasadena, and other urban settings.

Let's ground this interview in the reality of an open Mayor's race coming up in the spring in the City of L.A. What would you hope-having written this book and assuming the candidates have read it-to hear from these candidates as they debate their platforms for the leadership of this City in the 21st Century?

The City is so distracted by Rampart, secession and other issues that it doesn't seem to be focusing very strongly on making itself a competitive place in the Information Age.

What I'd like to see is candidates saying, "All right. Now how can we make Los Angeles a place that people will choose to live in?" Because that's really the bottom line.

L.A. has some great advantages, but if we continue to push an agenda that prioritizes the use of the public sector as a device to engineer a socially just democracy, we're going to be in serious trouble. That's an Industrial Age solution to an Information Age problem. What we need to do is empower people.

Another quotation from your first chapter reads, "Workers in the Information field-whose numbers are projected to nearly double between 1994 and 2005-represent the ascendant new middle-class of the 21st Century, earning roughly twice as much as other private-sector workers." Joel, you've always been an advocate and spokesman for the middle-class-what policy choices should the middle-class of metro L.A. argue for over the next decade?

If we cannot retain a large number of this "Information middle-class," the City will have no future. And I'm not talking about the millionaire in Brentwood. I'm talking about the people who own homes in Sherman Oaks, Rancho Park and South Pasadena-the incredibly important cogs in the Information Revolution.

If we can keep those people here and the industries dependent on those skills stay, L.A. has a chance. But if we continue to pursue the politics we've been pursuing, we'll end up with a core of very wealthy people living in a few selected neighborhoods surrounded by mostly poor people in the valleys.

Are the things that make great communities in the Information Age going to be the same as the things that have made communities great in the past?

The fundamentals are basically the same. People don't decide to live and stay in an area solely because of the climate, the architecture or anything easily definable-it's the spirit of the place. People decide to stay in Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Manhattan, or a small town like Grand Forks, North Dakota because that's where their church or their synagogue is, that's where their friends are, and that's where they feel like they can make a difference. A famous quote says, "People don't live together just to be together; they live together to do something together." I think the more involved people are in their communities, the better those communities become. And that's absolutely crucial to success in the Information Age.

In closing, Joel, what's keeping you in Los Angeles?

I'm part of the Los Angeles community. And in some small way, I feel that I have an impact on what happens. When I drive through a declining neighborhood or I drive down Hollywood Boulevard and see something happening, I get excited. I identify with it. I care.

So what keeps me in Los Angeles? This is my home, and this is where I'm involved.

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