At least someone thinks California is going to emerge from its mess.
According to the recent issue of the venerable Foreign Policy magazine, 11-figure deficits, municipal bankrupticies, shrinking beaches, and a train to nowhere will not dim Calfornia's spotlight on the world stage. According to FP's recent ranking of the 75 "Cities of the Future," no fewer than three California heavyweights are going to guide the world economy into the 21st century. The magazine describes all of these cities as "powerhouses of the urban revolution," under the premise that economic growth both at home and abroad will be housed in cities.
FP's exuberance points to a paradox that plagues many pleasant places. Whereas cities in Texas and North Dakota face few strains, many of California's cities are a wreck precisely because they are so attractive. There's the population burden, but that's not all. As Paul Peterson wrote three decades ago in City Limits, the most attractive cities can, in essence, get away with the most.
Cities can get away with fiscally risky moves like offering generous social services and pension plans because they know that the demand for real estate and the influx of new residents will keep them vital. San Francisco has played this hand skillfully, though at the expense, say some, of becoming a "boutique city." Los Angeles, however, is just hanging on. As for San Diego, let's just say that things have been looking up since 2008. That's what happens after your economy nearly hits rock-bottom.
What the FP list suggests is that to the rest of the world, California remains as attractive as ever. So, for all the lumps the California Dream has taken, this news should be heartening, inspiring, and sobering. It should remind us that if we can fix our fiscal messes -- at both the state and local levels -- that brighter days may yet be on the horizon. Especially since, in the coming generation, the brightness will be coming at us from the west.
On a not unrelated note, Forbes magazine recently released one of its ubiquitous city-ranking lists, and this time California also cleans up. Among US cities with the "happiest young professionals," California takes spots 1-3, 5-6, and 9. In order, that's Los Angeles, San Jose, Sunnyvale, San Diego, Irvine, and San Francisco. I can't help questioning a ranking that puts Irvine's toddler-fest above a place that permits public nudity. Nevertheless, young adults are probably the ones who are going to connect with the global economy, and if they're still happy here--perhaps because they're oblivious to many of the state's bigger challenges--then more power to them.
The news is even more heartening when you judge California against the world's other mere mortals--i.e. those cities that aren't in China. I'm sure you can't name 29 American cities of over 1 million people (because there aren't), but that's how many Chinese cities are going to be dominating the global economy before you can say "ni how."
Shanghai tops the list, and six other Chinese cities populate the top 10. Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shenzen are there, but you only have to look as far as No. 3 to find a city (Tianjin) that, as far as its global reputation goes, might as well be a thatched hut and a rice paddy. Of course, that's exactly what many of them were 30 years ago.
I'm writing this in part because last month I visited No. 1. I feel like a Parisian writing about New York in 1900. With scant exceptions, the streets of China offer little charm. I, for one, would be happier in an Irvine McMansion than in a Chinese superblock--and so would most other young adults, I think. The business of China is business. Nowhere is that more true than Shanghai, where the richness of Chinese culture dissolves into a vascular network of surface streets, elevated highways, and the world's most rapidly constructed subway system all designed to maximize the use of human capital.
(I envy only the Maglev, which actually exists. If you've heard of Maglev, you'd be forgiven for thinking it sounds like a middle school science experiment. But, as it turns out, the Pudong Airport "demonstration line" is not the 1/4-scale model that its name implies but rather a smooth, silent projectile that covers 30 kilometers in seven minutes. You do the math. Its only moving parts are the doors.)
I'm glad, then, that California cities are still investing in infrastructure despite their financial desperation. We have to keep up appearances as long as we can, even if that means telling people in Beverly Hills to sit down and just eat their caviar. That might also mean figuring out a replacement for redevelopment ASAP. China probably redevelops more acres in a month than California did in 55 years.
Ultimately, Shanghai can have its global dominance. I'll take the beach, the Mission, and a burger at Father's Office. But given the mistakes we have made in California, I think we all should be excited -- and thankful -- just to still be in the game.