Why is Joel Kotkin Extolling the Virtues of Suburbia?

Why is Joel Kotkin extolling the virtues of suburbia? A land use argument meant to appeal to the auto-oriented middle class is beginning to sound more like partisan rhetoric.

An Atlanta suburb. Maik

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The increasingly mainstream frame of thinking about the American suburbs, at least according to most planners and academics, is that they are inextricably linked to the center city and that metropolitan regions as a whole will be the building blocks of the nation’s economic and social future.

This perspective, however, has been vigorously rejected by prolific and omnipresent Chapman University fellow Joel Kotkin. According to the professor, who is celebrating the release of his most recent book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, and who writes for New Geography and Forbes, the suburbs and the large cities are locked in an intractable battle for supremacy. The elites are fighting to ensure the dominance of their preferred built form and the Obama administration, he claims, is in an all-out “war on the suburbs” — but low-density sprawl will eventually win out.

Kotkin envisions a future in which major American cities will be reduced to impotence and auto-centric suburbs will assure the future economic health of the country. It’s a counter-conventional approach that rejects many of the mores of modern planning, including a call for denser, environmentally sensitive, and walkable communities.

Kotkin’s arguments are premised on the idea that the middle class prefers the suburbs and that patronizing urbanists and city politicians want to force people into dense urban neighborhoods.

What makes Kotkin’s hyperventilating about the evil elites and their underlying aims so bizarre is that on the face of it, he appears to share many if their goals. He wants to transform suburbs into livable, walkable places with town centers and a village mentality. He argues that even if only one-fifth of the one hundred million more Americans expected to join the population by 2050 choose to inhabit the big cities, those old centers would still see significant expansion and improvement.

Kotkin’s suggestions about how to improve urban environments are reasonable: He thinks they need to address “public safety, business climate and political reform.”

On these matters, it’s hard to argue with the professor.

But it is when Kotkin extrapolates a “war on the suburbs” from the Obama administration’s support for improved public transportation and “livable” communities that one begins questioning whether to believe his claim that his interest is simply to work objectively in the interests of the country’s middle class, which he sees as the basis of the country’s wealth.

Kotkin’s writings are filled with the much-repeated myth that the middle class has “chosen” to live in the suburbs and that to design communities in a way that isn’t driven by auto-centric single family houses would be to ignore the desires of all those who have moved into them.

Though his writings espouse strong convictions of the power of modern-day decisions to significantly alter the lifestyle patterns of suburbanites, rarely does Kotkin admit that today’s huge population in the suburbs is no coincidence, either. How can he claim that the middle class simply wanted of its own volition to live at the urban frontier when governments at all levels of the federal system have been over-funding highways, ignoring the needs of inner cities, and putting no price on environmental degradation for decades? Present conditions are by no means a representation of the way things have always been.

But more relevant to today’s political climate, the theory suggests that people like their communities as they are and want them to remain that way: For most Americans, the single-family home surrounded by a lawn on four sides and within reach of most retail, jobs, schools, and entertainment by cars alone is nothing short of the ideal living environment, he claims. Any kind of change brought on by changes in funding by the federal government — be it expanded public transportation access or increased densities — represents nothing short of “a conscious and sustained attack from Washington.”

Kotkin claims that “forced densification” — it should be noted that most federal policies promote just the opposite — “could augur in a kind of new feudalism, where questions of land ownership and decision making would be shifted away from citizens, neighbors, or markets, and left in the hands of self-appointed ‘betters.’”

What fear mongering. It’s preposterous to argue that most people have a clearer say in the development of new suburban communities than the expansion of existing urban ones; the only individuals who have much involvement in subdividing most exurban plots are the developers themselves, while established cities provide clear paths to democracy in land use choice through community boards and civic organizations. Nor does it make sense to suggest that “citizens” and “neighbors” are choosing how they live today when decades of government policy making and resulting funds already made the decision for them.

As evidence for his sense that people simply don’t want to live in communities that fit his suburban standards, Kotkin cites the recent electoral success of Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Jersey and Virginia as proof that people simply don’t want the smart growth promoted by the “urban-centric regime” that is Mr. Obama’s White House and the Democratic Party around the country.

He doesn’t seem persuaded by the fact that voters seemed to express exactly the opposite intentions just a year and a half ago, voting out sprawl-pushing Republicans in devastating numbers. It does not occur to him that the primary concern of the electorate may have nothing to do with growth patterns at all.

Nor does he seem willing to make the evidently even more shocking admission that Democratic Party policies aren’t all that radical, even compared to those of their Republican antecedents.

The federal government’s 2010 budget awarded roughly three times as much to highway construction as it did to transit system operations and infrastructure. Those funds were basically set in stone when the Republican Congress passed the last transportation bill in 2005, but even the economic stimulus, passed with huge Democratic majorities and signed by a Democratic President, gave $28 billion to roads and $8.4 billion to public transit. It’s hardly the “precious little that will benefit suburbanites, such as improved roads” that Mr. Kotkin maligns as missing from the Obama Administration’s priority list. These facts make it hard to see Mr. Kotkin’s arguments as anything more than partisan rhetoric.

More essential, though, is the fact that Kotkin fails to acknowledge the positive effects of the policies that he deems anti-suburban. Advocates of metropolitan planning argue rightfully that all parts of a region — from the downtown to the far exurbs — need to be healthy for a region to work well. By simply ignoring the inner city, which Mr. Kotkin seems willing to do, you eventually produce a metropolitan area with no core. Suburban places, by definition, are subordinate to somewhere else, and without a center, the cohesiveness of a regional economy starts to fall apart.

Meanwhile, most suburbs are not made of the middle-class single-family home monotony Kotkin frequently extols: They’re often mixed-use environments with shopping malls, apartment complexes, and industrial zones, just spread apart in ways that usually make them unwalkable. Providing planning tools that can reorient these zones towards pedestrians and transit users does not limit the freedom of suburbanites but rather provides them an alternative to their existing situation, which is defined by a forced attachment to private automobiles, not superior mobility.

This is especially a problem because of the increasing concentrations of suburban poverty. The government has a social obligation to ensure the transportation needs of every member of the population—something it wouldn’t be doing were it to follow Kotkin’s advice. It also has a responsibility to avoid devastation as a result of climate change—an important issue that Kotkin sidelines but which is directly linked to issues of land use.

In other words, the needs of the inner cities and the suburbs aren’t so different, after all.

Why spend so much text refuting the work of an academic whose writings are well read but only mildly influential in today’s political discourse? Because Kotkin’s hyper-sensitive discourse, founded on the pain of the suburban middle class — a sort of silent majority, as he sees it — is not unappealing from a political perspective. After all, the tens of millions of Americans who do live in the suburbs don’t want to feel threatened.

Though Kotkin frequently attempts to downplay his arguments as merely a reflection on the downright suburban nature of much of the United States, his discussion is founded in an anti-urban mindset. As cities finally experience a rebound, politicians will have to promote solutions for them, including improved transit and laws that govern heightened density. The danger in Kotkin’s argument is that suburban dwellers can be convinced that those investments are actually intended to kick them out of their homes and into urban tenements, as Michele Bachmann puts it.

It’s a fear that has little basis in reality. Since when, however, has that mattered when it comes to politics?

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Yonah Freemark is a senior research associate in the Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute, where he is the research director of the Land Use Lab at Urban. His research focuses on the intersection of land use, affordable housing, transportation, and governance.

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Tags: public transportationpovertysuburbsyonah freemarkgrassroutes

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