Joel Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University and an untiring defender of the suburbs, begins a recent column in the Washington Post with a valid question: “What is a city for?” He then proceeds to get that question completely wrong. But really, we should be thanking him. In his article, he neatly sums up many of the key myths emerging from the anti-urbanism set, making my job of debunking these myths a lot easier. Without further ado, here are 7 key points that critics get wrong about New Urbanism
Myth 1: Population growth = urban success
In recent weeks, the US media has whipped itself into a frenzy over the fact that people are leaving cities in democratic leaning “blue” states for republican leaning states. Kotkin and other new urbanism critics have seized on this as proof positive that sprawl is awesome, as if to say, “See? More people are moving there so they must be successful.” At first this would seem to make sense. But while population growth is an important factor in determining the effectiveness of cities, it’s not everything. Paul Krugman points out that wages are lower in these red state boom towns. And in addition, blue state cities still outperform red state cities in GDP overall. Also, using population growth as the only measure of urban success stops making sense when taken to its logical extreme. In developing countries, poor informal settlements lacking basic services are growing faster than suburbs in the US, but my guess is Kotkin would still prefer suburbs.
Myth 2: There is only one type of density
Referencing a study by the National Association of Realtors, Kotkin asserts that “roughly 80%” of the general public wants to live in a single family home (his link is broken, though the page he probably intended to link to can be found here – citing a study from three years ago!). While this is technically correct, it is a highly misleading interpretation of the study. Kotkin doesn’t mention that of that 80%, a great deal want to live in a single family home in a middle density neighborhood with apartments and with easy access to markets and public spaces. Many critics of new urbanism present a false dichotomy between sprawling low density suburbs and Manhattan-esque mega density. In reality, many new urbanist activists recognize and stress the importance of middle density neighborhoods in building more sustainable and equitable cities and urban areas.
Myth 3: Dense cities are elitist
Kotkin insinuates that proponents of new urbanism want to cede control of cities to elites. He cites Michael Bloomberg as saying that, “to survive, a city must be primarily ‘a luxury product,’ a place that focuses on the very wealthy whose surplus can underwrite the rest of the population.” First, it’s a bit odd for Kotkin to feel this way. In 2011, he made it clear that he felt the only way to improve Los Angeles was to empower the elite. To be sure, elitism can always be an issue with cities. But there’s no reason to think that this will be more so that with suburbs, which depend on government funded roads and services. Cities may in fact help to promote average citizens into greater participation.
Myth 4: More houses and cars means more opportunity!
The idea that houses and cars are engines of opportunity is so ingrained in the American psyche that to question it sometimes seems sacrilegious – and Kotkin and similarly minded people are all to happy to take advantage of this conventional wisdom. Kotkin’s basis for dubbing cities like Memphis and Austin “opportunity cities” is that more people are moving into houses and driving in cars. The contributors Kotkin chooses for his New Geography website, where he is the editor, Are telling. See for instance Ed Braddy, the head of the hyperbolically named “American Dream Coalition”, a hard line group that maintains that the only valid measure of success is home and car ownership.
Sure, there will always be people who consider home ownership as the uncontestable indicator that one’s life has value. But it’s incorrect and even dangerous to conclude that higher home ownership levels equal more opportunity. Such attitudes generate unhealthy desires for owning homes that lead to widespread problems such as the subprime crisis from back in 2007, which we still haven’t fully recovered from. This is not to say that we should eliminate private cars and houses – though it would be good to stop unfairly subsidizing them. But we shouldn’t accept them as the only way to measure how successful certain places are.
Myth 5: Sprawl is good for the environment
In Kotkin’s article, not once does he mention the environmental effects of sprawl. But in most cases, when sprawl advocates are called on their lack of interest in solving pressing environmental issues, they either ignore them or pretend that sprawl is better for the environment. This has been proven time and time again to be false. The usual argument is that cities like New York produce more pollution than smaller cities like Nashville. True, but on a per-person basis, dense cities pollute significantly less. Also, it’s important to remember the massive amounts of natural habitat that is destroyed by sprawl.
Myth 6: Hipsters aren’t people
It’s easy not to like hipsters. So easy that hipsters have become a sort of urban boogeyman, and a common enemy for groups which otherwise would have absolutely nothing in common. Kotkin and other sprawl advocates don’t like them because they’re widely perceived as lazy, and thus by his logic their usual preference for denser neighborhoods are invalid and ought to be completely ignored. In fact, Kotkin finds hipsters so loathsome that he uses the specter of hipster-based urbanism as a scare tactic, putting it in the title of his article: “The people designing your cities don’t care what you want. They’re planning for hipsters.” The horror! But hipsters are just as villainous to left-leaning social justice oriented groups, generally staunch opponents of Kotkin’s ideology, who dislike hipsters because they are seen as the number one cause of gentrification, and therefore anti-poor. Even hipsters themselves dislike hipsters, because doing so is ironic, and hipsters love irony.
There’s certainly plenty to criticize hipsters on – the general public can only listen to precious few ukulele bands fronted by breathy-voiced singers before losing patience – but critics take it too far. Just because hipsters aren’t a majority of the population doesn’t mean their urban planning desires are invalid. In fact, this anti-hipster attitude promoted by Kotkin serves at times as a passive-aggressive mask for bigotry, as a Salon article recently points out.
The social justice criticism deserves a lot more serious consideration. Gentrification is a real threat to minorities and people struggling to get by. It’s also difficult to come to any definitive solution to gentrification that leaves everyone happy (as City Lab points out), and the presence of hipsters in a neighborhood can potentially disrupt well established working class communities. This is a difficult issue, but hating hipsters is not the answer. And one thing is for sure: it won’t be solved by building low density suburbs.
Myth 7: Dense cities don’t provide opportunities for working class people
As if to swat down Kotkin’s claims about how “luxury cities” don’t provide opportunity for the working class, a study was released soon after his article proving that despite the high housing costs of dense cities, they make up for it with excellent transit (comparatively speaking) and proximity of necessary services like markets. This can be critical for people whose income levels make owning a home or a car prohibitive, or simply an unwise financial move – not to mention the fact that living in an apartment without a car is better for the environment too.
The exception that proves this rule is Los Angeles, a city that used to be beloved by people like Kotkin who, capitalizing on its basically correct but overstated reputation as sprawl central, overstated the city’s positives and ignored its negatives. Today, LA is undergoing a housing crisis similar to the better known housing crises in San Francisco and New York, despite not having their level of transit service. The writers at Curbed LA ran the numbers and found that this is bad news for affordable living conditions in Los Angeles. Kotkin now opts to lump Los Angeles in with the rest of the “luxury cities”, ignoring this important fact. This could easily come to pass with the so-called opportunity cities once they run out of room to sprawl. Fortunately, LA is undertaking a major expansion of its transit system, and its bike network as well, a point which for me as a native Angeleno tired of the stereotypical criticisms of my hometown is important to point out. This may improve affordability in LA, at least from the transit side of the equation.
Of course, there’s still the gentrification issue. The fact that dense neighborhoods are essential for the upward mobility of the working class means that it’s all the more important for these neighborhoods not to be gentrified out of existence. Making sure this doesn’t happen will be a major challenge for the urban planners of today and tomorrow. But there’s one thing that won’t be a challenge for urban planners: proving that pro-sprawl arguments from people like Kotkin don’t hold water.
Drew Reed is an online media producer and community activist specialising in sustainable transportation. He lives in Buenos Aires.
Image via Phil Roeder