Tuesday, January 17, 2006

A "War" Against Suburbia?

Many of you will note that I have been somewhat of an advocate of the writings and positions of Joel Kotkin (New Suburbanism) in some of my previous blog entries. Although as I have analyzed what Kotkin is saying and what New Urbanists say, I am coming more and more to the conclusion that there is not a lot of difference between the basic principles of the two, and it doesn't really matter what we call it, so long as we work towards improving the character of all that new development on the suburban fringe.

Kotkin's latest commentary published in the Wall Street Journal, however, while still very much "on target", seems a little over the top in places. Titled "The War Against Suburbia," he presents some valid criticisms of many planners today, but maybe over-generalizes just a bit.

Kotkin is still right in that the preponderance of people seem to want that single-family house with a yard and a car in the suburbs, and that many urban commentators and planners seem to focus more on high density living near the urban core, which has a real but rather limited market appeal.

But to suggest that "Acolytes of such worldviews in our City Halls are now working overtime to find ways to snuff out 'sprawl' in favor of high-density living," while having a grain of truth, may be a bit too pessimistic.

What think ye, readers? Is Kotkin right?


At 7:03 AM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

There's some interesting commentary on the Kotkin article HERE
Kotkin may be right about people choosing suburbia, but I'm afraid many may soon regret their choices, and many more in the future will make different choices . It will become increasingly obvious that the "freedom" of personal automobility that created this pattern of habitation has morphed into the trap of increasingly unnaffordable auto dependence as we sink deeper into the oil crisis.

At 2:09 PM, Blogger James said...

Great commentary on that page, Google, I agree.

I think Kotkin makes some interesting points, but I'm still not sure where people have gotten the idea that the New Urbanists are clamoring to sway everyone to live that type of lifestyle.

Based on the results of surveys that I have seen, approximatly 1/3 of those surveyed preferred a NU environment, while 2/3 still liked suburbia. Most New Urbanists simply want the regulatory structures set up in such a way that cities can accomodate a decent portion of the population in this way. Anyone pushing for "all or nothing" (on either side of the fence) is off-base.

Or maybe Kotkin is off-base in depicting planners and the like as being all smart growth, because in order to bring any real change to a system with so much inertia (suburbia), you almost have to be almost overzealous in your convictions and discussion to sway anyone's opinion. In turn, I can see how this would be interpreted by Kotkin (or others) as a "Watch out for those crazy planners, they want us all stuffed in apartments!!"

The response I would give to such a reaction would be to re-establish some perspective. NU wants choice to be available within the existing system, not to take over the system.

At 7:43 PM, Blogger Wilf said...


You took the words right out of my mouth. I too have thought that perhaps the overzealousness that Kotkin and some others see in "planners" (that's a rather broad stereotype, but that's how many of us think these days)is in order to make a dent in trying to change the system as it exists.

Regardless, while I agree with a lot of what Kotkin says about the prevelence and desireability to many of the suburbs, I fail to see that there is really a "war" against it by NU advocates.

At 12:33 AM, Blogger UNplanner said...

I am going to refrain my usual criteque of urban development from a sustainability standpoint to comment from a more conventional planner's perspective.

Los Angeles's recent planning moves away from conventional postwar suburbia towards alternative, presumably NU development standards reflects the fact that Los Angeles is virtually built out. Aside from a few remaining greenfield sites and the massive PLAYA VISTA project http://www.thevillageatplayavista.com (who says NU won't work in LA?) the city is largely built out. Any future development will be by necessity, either infill or outright demolishment. What are the most logical choices for that? 1950/60's era SF homes and aging commercial plazas. There simply isn't any other option.

Kotkin ought to realize that GEOGRAPHY is a major limitation to sprawl in western US cities, something not of much concern to those east of the rockies. We Westerners will simply run out of (if we havent already) virgin land to build upon. The metro areas as a whole arent faring much better. This fact is borne out in statistical (census) data that shows that the densest METRO areas are all west of the rockies. Los Angeles and it's suburbs are denser than New York and its suburbs. When you have steep mountains, oceans and miles of Federally owned (and offlimit) lands, any wonder why most of the NU proposals originate out of the west?

Developers are starting to wise up on this. Compare many western SF developments to their Eastern SF counterparts and you will see larger lot sizes and more unbuilt parcels at the outskirts of DC or NY than near LA, SD or Portland (all of which I have seen first hand). Smaller lot sizes mean more possible sales. New residents really don't have THAT much of a choice. If they don't like it, leave the west. Some have, BTW.

Speaking of many of those residents, let us not forget that many of those seeking housing are immigrants. Most are from countries with far denser forms of development (many of which were overcrowded). I wonder how many of these immigrants were querried on their opinions on living arrangements. Now, granted most NU developments are hardly immigrant magnets (due to their unaffordability) but the concept of dense urban living is certainly not foreign (or unwelcome) to many of those individuals.

None of this obviates the fact that both New Urbanist and Old Urbanist developments are fundementally dependent on cheap energy and are of questionable value at best when those sources are depleted and nothing has been made available to replace them. It's just at this point in time, rising energy prices have yet to really fuel (pardon the pun) any fundemental change in land use patterns anywhere in the US--or elsewhere for that matter. As a consequence, Kotkin's perceived war on suburbia is largely a result of many western metro areas simply running out of easily built properties to continue the postwar conventional suburban model of development onto.
For more info, check out the Brookings Study on "sprawl" in LA.

If you have the idea that retail owners and developers are hesitant to pursue mixed use, think again.
This article (aimed at retailers) describes mixed use from an investor/developer/retailer's perspective, and not at all negatively either. Note the strong western bias towards most projects...

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Urbatron said...

Both discussions from this blog and the Plantizen board are really valuable. If I didn't know better, I'd think Kotkin was playing the 'Devil's Advocate' to light a fire under our...

I don't buy the 'reality of the system' argument that is really just a mask for unfettered development. The reality is that it's broken, and needs fixing. I love the Plantizen comment about how Kotins "rhetoric which would prevent us from organizing our own future into some version of sustainable, because that organization might not be the work of an invisible hand." Amen.

The proliferation of varying and well designed living choices (which is a planners job to facilitate) will allow the market to show us that people can choose wisely.

At 1:59 PM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

Another excellent commentary on the article from Bouhponia

"Another problem is that to Kotkin, resources are infinite for all intents and purposes. Depleted or contaminated groundwater, loss of agricultural land, peak energy...none of these things counts for much in Kotkin's world. (In regards to a peak-oil scenario, he simply argues that in some countries, sprawl has continued despite increased energy costs, which is like arguing that one can survive getting run over by a tank because one survived getting run over by a tricycle.)"

At 6:59 PM, Blogger saraandres8997 said...

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