The New Geography

I had the great pleasure of seeing my friend Joel Kotkin earlier today — he has a wonderful new website that I strongly recommend.

Joel is often criticized as by urban enthusiasts as reflexively pro-sprawl. I think this is all wrong. He is sensitive to the fact that there is deeply held desire on the part of most Americans with children for elbowroom, and he believes that efforts to fight this tendency are doomed to fail. He also thinks that cities that aren’t child-friendly and that don’t provide avenues for upward mobility are doomed to fail, which is why he’s so critical of Bloomberg’s New York and Villaraigosa’s Los Angeles and Newsom’s San Francisco. He also recognizes that smaller American cities — boomburbs, and older regional centers in the South and Midwest — are a crucially important of the metropolitan landscape. Low-cost metros have become hubs of innovation because of their high quality of life. Ed Glaeser put it best.

Glaeser likes to point out the close correlation between a city’s average January temperature and its urban growth; he also notes that cars per capita in 1990 is among the best indicators of how well a city has fared over the past 15 years. The more cars, the better — a conclusion that seems perfectly logical to Glaeser. Car-based cities enable residents to buy cheaper, bigger houses. And commuters in car-based cities tend to get to work faster than commuters in cities that rely on public transit. (The average car commute is about 24 minutes; on public transportation, it is around 48 minutes.) While many of his academic peers were looking at, and denigrating, how the majority of Americans have chosen to live, Glaeser (though no fan of the aesthetics of sprawl himself) didn’t think an economist should allow taste to affect judgment. “You shouldn’t go around thinking that all these people are just jackasses for deciding to drive an automobile,” he says.

As a reporter, Joel identified a lot of the broad structural shifts Glaeser has since documented in his scholarly work, particularly regarding the role of property developers and other powerful incumbents in undermining the economic health of older American cities. I think of them as kindred spirits in many respects, though I sense that Joel is far more inclined to back infrastructure-driven economic strategies.

A few NG pieces I recommend:

(1) Joel and Mark Schill on a rural strategy for the Democrats

(2) the same authors on why child-friendliness matters for the future of cities; and

(3) a neat class-based critique of the New Urbanism from Richard Morrill.

And, before I forget, (4) Joel on the multiculturalism of the streets.

The site is well worth your time. One of these days I hope to have something to contribute. Briefly, I think Democrats in New York city should think seriously about Joel’s message — after two terms of Bloomberg, an economic strategy focused on the interests of working class and lower middle class New Yorkers in the outer boroughs will prove very appealing. My sense is that New York needs to undo the tangle of subsidies and sweetheart deals that privilege Manhattan, and that we need even more radical school reforms to retain the parents of young children.

You should also check out Joel’s critiques of Christopher Leinberger’s celebrated Atlantic essay. One interesting factoid:

The growth of telecommuting, fed by technological advances, further ensures that suburbia has a future. By 2006, the expansion of home-based workers had grown twice as quickly as in the previous decade. And by 2015, according to demographer Wendell Cox, there will be more people in the country working electronically from home full time than are taking public transit.

And, for the hard-hitting conclusion:

Continuing high energy prices will likely change the nation’s geography, but not in ways some urban theorists are predicting. Rather than cramming more people and families into cities, they may instead foster a more dispersed, diverse archipelago of self-sufficient communities. From here, that looks like a far more pleasant scenario not only for suburban and exurbanites but for urban dwellers who don’t want to live under dense conditions reminiscent of 19th century industrial cities or the teeming metropolises of the contemporary Third World.

Joel also notes, in The Washington Independent, the potential elitism of the New Urbanist vision:

what he fails to point out is this: New Urbanism’s greatest failure has been its inability to provide for mixed-income housing. That was the idea at the start – all this neighborliness and high-density development was supposed to include people of all income levels. That was the dream. But the developments proved to be so popular, and so expensive, that the moderate income houses never did get built on any substantial scale. The only mixed-income living at Kentlands turned out to be the Au pair suites above the garages.

Leinberger also is a real-estate developer. That should tell you something about his view. It’s nice to talk about desirable communities and walkable urban centers. But the biggest dilemma for urban planners and developers is not building these traditional-style towns. It’s giving everyone a piece of the dream.