Monday, April 29, 2013

Kotkin stays trolling

Joel Kotkin has a new piece out in the Daily Beast repeating his now well-worn shtick on the unqualified preference for single-family homes for the majority of Americans and the defeat of tyrannical "retro-urbanists" who want to impose an urban lifestyle on innocent Americans. The thing with Kotkin is that I can't disagree with him on some really basic facts, but like Randal O'Toole (who's vociferous criticism of transit boondoggles like Portland's Streetcar are fairly spot on) he has such a visceral hatred for planning and the city represents that it drowns out decent points. And because he's so hell-bent on taking down folks like Richard Florida and the entire field of urban planning, he loves to stretch arguments out too far and basically turns into one of many trolls we find with an outsized voice. A few reasons why we should ignore 90% of what Kotkin ever says (while keeping the last 10%)...

Suburbs are growing but not all suburbs are the same...

Kotkin is entirely correct when he talks about consumer preferences for "suburban" living. Ignoring the idea that the "preference" for certain suburban living may be partially constructed due to marketing and that we have subsidized suburban construction while neglecting the upkeep of our central urban areas, it's not unreasonable to recognize that a lot of people would like a single-family home of their own. But this assumes a rather uniform style of suburban development.

Look, not all suburbs are the same, just as not all cities are the same. Urban oriented commentators don't pretend that Houston and New York are the same thing even though they're both large cities and central to their MSAs. We recognize that they have dramatically different forms but still call them "cities". Kotkin, like other "pro"-density urbanists are falling into a rhetorical trap here that seeks to impose one manner of development on a highly heterogeneous array of settlement patterns. The fact is that there is no clean break between the "suburb" and the "city". Yes, we've seen massive sprawl over the past 60 years but we are also seeing a return not only to the "city" but also to inner-ring suburbs and a densification of suburban areas through the development of edge cities and other areas. Frankly, the development of suburbia is much more complex than an undifferentiated spread of cul-de-sac fueled development.

We really don't try to house everyone in the city who'd like to be...

Probably the most egregious set of comments in the piece that best show Kotkin's disdain for planners and really for poorer folks, in general. Here's the quote:

 Suburbs have never been popular with the chattering classes, whose members tend to cluster in a     handful of denser, urban communities—and who tend to assume that place shapes behavior, so that if others are pushed to live in these communities they will also behave in a more enlightened fashion, like the chatterers. This is a fallacy with a long pedigree in planning circles, going back to the housing projects of the 1940s, which were built in no small part on the evidently absurd, and eventually discredited, assumption that if the poor had the same sort of housing stock as the rich, they would behave in the same ways.

Yes, planning has a dark history around environmental determinism and assuming physical planning tools will instantly solve social problems through either disciplining a population or demonstrating a better way of living through design. But this is a total mischaracterization of the push for greater access to housing in cities and pathologizes the poor in a way that is, frankly, indefensible. The fact is that since before the 1940s, going all the way to back to slum and tenement reform programs, planners, public health advocates, social workers, labor unions, and neighborhood groups have called for more housing in urban areas that was not hopelessly deteriorated and ill-maintained. That call still goes on today. The fact is that because this country doesn't actually have a coherent affordable housing policy the poor have consistently lived in older, more dilapidated housing stock. The recent observations around the "suburbanization of poverty" only reinforce this idea as poorer folks have moved into poorer, older inner ring suburbs who's housing stock is quickly approaching obsolescence.

The fact is that this country still does not make legitimate attempts to integrate its population with each other, preferring to let segregation by income and race be dominant factors in settlement patterns and relying on housing "filtering" to substitute for building good housing for all. It's dishonest for Kotkin to not even engage with this and its patently offensive that he'd sit there and just say that poor people can't have nice housing.


Kotkin adamantly refuses to address the question of the supply of housing because it adds a wrinkle of complexity and ambiguity to the argument and that is what are the primary motivations that push or pull people to the suburbs. Yes, it is widely recognized that construction of suburbs and even exurban areas is starting to recover and that we saw a massive bit of building before the recession. But why were builders building out in the suburbs at such high rates?

Consumer preference for suburban living is certainly a large part of this. But we must also simultaneously recognize that it is still incredibly difficult to build housing in urban areas. This is an area where I fall with many market-oriented urban planners and economists who decry density restrictions in many of our growing cities. There is a real push of potential development outside of our city borders because it is not possible for developers to make any money off of relatively low-density development in already built up areas. Combine that with a non-existent social housing policy and there are very few people building any units in our cities that are accessible to folks of all income classes. The result is that a lot of housing development goes to cheaper pastures and people follow that.

A similar idea must be broached when we discuss "job sprawl". Kotkin, correctly so, points out that job growth has been and continues to grow outward and that people are moving to follow, but the same questions regarding housing supply are open here. Job sprawl has been a constant thing in American cities for nearly 70 years. Detroit had to deal with the suburbanization of industry back in the 1940s and was never able to adequately recover its lost central city industrial sites, much to the chagrin of its planners. But the question here, again, is who leads this? In the case of Detroit, at least, according to "Redevelopment and Race" by June Manning Thomas, industry lead the way in suburbanization and residential suburbs grew up in response to industrial decentralization. Frankly, the dynamics of regional expansion are never so neat as to simply ascribe consumer residential preference as the primary factor. We see waves of decentralization, some industry led, then residential, then industry...there are cycles and historical contexts to suburbanization that call into question the assumptions we have about the preference for them (on both sides of this "debate").

"Lifestyle" and the kid question...

My friend and colleague, @tressiemcphd, made a sharp observation about this Kotkin piece. She said that probably the biggest blindspot urbanists have is that kids change everything. Her point, for my urbanist colleagues who may not see it, is that even if we take all of the celebratory commentary of the "return to the city" and the preference for urban living by millenials, that all changes when these millenials reproduce.Let's be real for a second....people want the best for their kids. Because people want the best for their kids they will often do their utmost to provide that, including moving from cities to the 'burbs. The point is not to question the values of these folks but to see why they feel it is necessary to move out of our cities. Some things we can't really do much about, like guaranteeing a big yard for everyone in the central city. We simply don't have the space and the vast majority of folks couldn't afford a house with such an amenity in most cities anyway. But a major reason why people do move is the schools and perception of safety. These are things city-leaders can, and admittedly are trying, to address. But uncritical urbanists will continue to be mystified by demographic and economic trends that show a robust demand for increasingly segregated suburbs if they don't start seriously examining the schools.

The trick here is to actually try to provide folks with the services necessary for them to live and grow without them leaving. It's especially grating that this concern is now being taken up by the usually design and development-oriented urbanist set because they don't want to lose the precious millenial population they believe makes up their cities while ignoring the millions of poor and working class, largely minority, communities that have clamored for better schools for years. All of this is to say that Kotkin is right to point out lifestyle preferences as driving residential choices, but we should be seriously asking ourselves what people find in some suburbs as opposed to central cities or denser areas of our metros?

To Conclude: On the one hand...

All of this space has been to try and say that, as with most things involving human settlement, the "truth" is much more complicated than either Kotkin or some non-reflective urbanists would have us believe. Last year I wrote a piece warning people that the vaunted "Death of Sprawl" was grossly immature and largely based on folks not moving as much due to the economic recession and a misunderstanding of the census designation of "urban areas". My point then is the same way I have now except I now aim it both at doctrinaire urbanists and trolls like Kotkin. And that is always to show me the data and give me a good theory to help explain it. Though Kotkin mocks many urbanist commentators, he suffers from the same weakness they do, creating a convenient narrative from cherry-picked data. The competing narratives are basically the same in that they both ascribe a near-universal qualitative preference for either city-living or suburban-living. Neither theory is correct or even widely applicable in most cases.

So, on the one hand, Kotkin is a troll. On the other hand, he makes some good points that planners and some urbanists absolutely have to think about. But on the other-other hand, both sides tend to ignore or gloss over the heterogeneity of our urban areas and both sides often don't try to parse out the push and pull factors that operate differently in many of our regions. This "debate" could be more fruitful if everyone were just more honest and recognized not only the messiness of the real world, but stopped trying to fit one solution onto everyone else. Suburbia is not the answer. But neither is the "city". I am close to rejecting the entire discussion because we have drawn a too-sharp, false distinction between the two that not only limits our own imagination on how to deal with our increasingly unruly regions, but it also does not accurately reflect the current dynamism and differentiation that exists in our metro regions.

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