A Sit Down with Joel Kotkin, America’s Uber-Geographer

January 25, 2024
Julie Curtin and Joel Kotkin's headshots on a dark blue and teal background

For the last five years I’ve had the opportunity to guest lecture at Chapman University at the personal invitation of Joel Kotkin, a long time professional friend. The class is called “Marketing Cities,” which as you might imagine, is a topic for which I have deep experience, passion and interest. 

It’s a delight to join Joel in the classroom once a year for this opportunity to inspire young, smart minds around the complexities and possibilities of marketing cities.

Julie Curtin and Joel Kotkin standing in front of a screen that reads "How to Market A City for Investment and Talent Attraction."

Joel Kotkin and Julie Curtin co-teaching “Marketing Cities” at Chapman University

So Who is Joel Kotkin?

The New York Times called Joel Kotkin “America’s uber-geographer.” He is an internationally-recognized authority on global, economic, political and social trends. Joel is a long time thought leader on how America’s populations and geographies are shifting. Among his many published writings, he wrote the book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class. Joel is the Roger Hobbs Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University, and is also the Executive Director for Urban Reform Institute in Houston, TX. A dinner conversation with the man is simply fascinating. 

In tandem with the “Marketing Cities” class that Joel and I co-taught, I took the opportunity to ask him a handful of questions that are sure to interest economic development marketers.

Among his major advice, Joel stressed that building on growing economies and prioritizing safety are key strategies for economic developers. Also, having research that uncovers who is migrating from states—and not just how many people—is important to assess your particular situation. Browse his answers below for more in-depth takeaways.

1. Challenges for Cities

JC: What are the greatest challenges cities will face over the next decade?

JK: I would start with safety and order. This has always been a prerequisite through history, as I wrote in The City: A Global History. People move to the suburbs and exurbs in part to escape chaos.

The second related factor is political. The progressive-run cities have become utter disasters, in large part because they harass businesses, particularly small ones, and refuse in many cases to enforce basic laws. This is one reason, for example, why I prefer to live in Orange County, which has a strong two party system and many moderate Democrats, and where the DA actually enforces the law, unlike Los Angeles.

The third, and perhaps hardest to fix, is public education. This has been a bulwark in the past for helping working class people and newcomers rise, and also keep the middle class in cities. There are painfully few urban schools that people would attend by choice, and these are being weakened by the imposition of indoctrination and a lack of teaching basic skills.

2. Opportunities for Cities

JC: What are some of the greatest opportunities cities will face over the next decade?

JK: The big opportunity will be Generation Z. Millennials, particularly married ones with children, have largely left, but the younger generation is largely experiencing cities for the first time. Affordable housing is critical here as well as jobs.

A second opportunity would be to take advantage of falling real estate prices. This was very essential to the post-1970s urban rebound and also to the brief period after the Financial Crisis. Generation Z, in particular, does not make enough to stay in our most attractive cities very long. The conversion of older offices as well as redundant retail, is important.

Cities can nurture an emerging artisanal economy by providing spaces—as has been seen in Europe and some developing countries—that they can work safely and comfortably. There’s already a model of this being developed in the outskirts of San Diego. An urban place that offers not just a space for food vendors, but for clothing, ceramic, furniture and other kinds of activities would be welcome. If the elite stores leave, there’s a space for these kinds of businesses.

3. Examples of Success

JC: As you look across the country, what cities are hitting your radar and why?

JK: The big winners so far are Dallas, Houston, Nashville, Atlanta, Knoxville, Raleigh, and potentially smaller cities at the fringe of big metro like Riverside, the Hudson Valley, and areas of the east side of the Cascades. A lot of the action will be in smaller towns and cities.

4. Talent Attraction Notes

JC: The war on talent is real. What is your advice to cities as they heavily invest in programs to attract millennial talent to their communities?

JK: Safety first. No one likes to live in ”danger” for a prolonged period. For younger talent—at least that which is not wiped out by AI—entertainment, experiential diversity, and a welcoming of entrepreneurs are key. But keeping talent requires harder work on schools, infrastructure and a welcoming environment for business. 

Maintaining neighborhoods, where the self-employed and hybrid workers could cluster, may be the key. In the future, Noe Valley in SF, Silver Lake in LA, and Ditmas Park in New York may be as important, or more important, than the traditional cores.

5. On the Housing Crisis

JC: What trends are you seeing and what advice do you have that would help city leaders navigate the growing housing crisis nationwide?

JK: The clear answer is to build more housing, particularly the kind that might appeal to middle income people. There are two different challenges. Regions that are growing need to allow development on the fringe to accommodate their new residents. Those that are not could focus more on rehabilitating depopulating neighborhoods but also should allow some peripheral development for families.

6. Last Words

JC: Any last words for the economic development community as we head into 2024?

JK: Be ready for the decline of offices, and sometimes retail. Try not to focus everything on the central part of cities. The growth almost everywhere is on the fringe. Successful places like the Woodlands, Irvine, Plano are cities too, albeit in a different form. Regional dynamics may prove more important than strictly those of traditional urban areas. 

The key question is how to define a city. If we insist on the traditional downtown-oriented view, we are in an era of dispersion and we have to look at the whole region as essentially one city, and all its dwellers, as Frank Llyod Wright pointed out, as part of the city. 

Looking to modify your economic development or talent attraction strategy based on any (or all) of these fresh ideas? Get in touch with Julie Curtin at [email protected] to learn how DCI can help.

Written by

Julie Curtin

President, Economic Development Practice