Professional contrarian Joel Kotkin had a piece last week in the Wall Street Journal, "The Myth of the Back-To-The-City Migration," that's gotten folks stirred up. (That link doesn't require a WSJ subscription). Here's his thesis in a nutshell: "The great migration back to the city hasn't occurred. Over the past decade the percentage of Americans living in suburbs and single-family homes has increased."
His thesis flies in the face of other analyses that show a decided uptick, compared with recent decades, in the proportion of people wanting to live in urban areas. As is always the case, some people take issue with either Kotkin's facts or his conclusions. Or both.
Here, for instance, is a two-part blog riposte that Bill Fulton wrote in 2007, in "It's Time to De-Kotkinize the Planning Debate." Fulton, a planner, publishes of the respected California Planning & Development Report, and is mayor of Ventura, Calif. He's quite complimentary of Kotkin's research for his books, but thinks the speeches play fast and loose with data.
And Sam Newberg (a.k.a. Joe Urban) offers this rejoinder, "Joel Kotkin Takes On Urbanists." In an e-mail to me, Newberg adds, " I like Joel Kotkin and most of his work. In this article - http://joe-urban.com/wp-content/uploads/2008/07/suburban-snapshots.pdf - I even found that he and Peter Calthorpe agree on the fundamental shape of regions, even if they disagree on the built form on the ground. The problem I have is that Joel Kotkin does us all a disservice by lumping the very widespread preference for mixed-use, walkable places with those who want a downtown high-rise condo – a big difference. We have not provided enough quality urban housing choices in this country – supply has not met demand. Federal policy, siloed decision-making, city zoning laws, lending practices, NIMBYs, and mechanisms for financing transportation and affordable housing are all to blame."
And if you've read this far, you're probably interested in Christopher B. Leinberger's blog posting, "Walking – Not Just for Cities Anymore," written after he debated Kotkin last week in New York. Leinberger is a developer and a visiting fellow at Brookings, who also writes for The Atlantic. He finds a surprising convergence in some of their thinking.
Leinberger and Newberg both finger one of the reasons that make me think Kotkin paints with too broad a brush. What's "urban"? What's "suburban"? That answer varies widely depending on geography, government and history. It's all in the eye of the beholder and means a lot of the statistical stuff being tossed around today is, in my eyes, squishy.
For instance, what parts of Charlotte are "urban"? I could give you a good argument that almost nothing in Charlotte is urban - not even uptown - if you envision urban as containing streets and where you can walk a few blocks down a sidewalk lined with storefronts and find dozens of stores selling goods you need for daily life (as well as interesting specialty stores), offices, apartments, nightlife, small industry, a variety of transportation options, schools and other public institutions. Dilworth, by that definition, is primarily suburban. In fact, it was designed as a turn-of-the-century streetcar suburb. It's within a mile of downtown, and it's slowly densifying, but is still predominantly single-family housing with reasonably big lawns. So is Dilworth "urban"? "Suburban"?
Is Davidson urban or suburban? What about Piper Glen? Davidson is not part of the city limits of Charlotte. But its older areas are denser, more walkable and have more urban fabric than the large-lot, single-family golf-course-focused subdivision of Piper Glen, which is within the city limits and therefore, in some definitions, urban instead of suburban.
Leinberger makes a good distinction. He writes, "Unfortunately, the concept of dividing the world into city versus suburbs is no longer so relevant. I have been dividing metropolitan places as either 'drivable sub-urban,' meaning low density, modular, and dependent upon the car/truck for most trips; or 'walkable urban,' meaning at least five times more dense and integrated and dependent upon many transportation modes (transit, biking, and, yes, cars and trucks)."I think Kotkin is right in his generalized position that many people still prefer suburban-style living. But by that does he mean half-acre lots? Cul-de-sacs? Eastover and Myers Park, which are considered in-town but which have huge lots and a sprinkiling of cul-de-sacs? White picket fences and that fabulous federal subsidy we get for taking on a mortgage? Terms must be better defined. And just because plenty of people still prefer that way of life, does that mean other people who want another way of life shouldn't be offered it, especially if the other way of life takes a lot fewer tax dollars to support?
I've seen enough studies from people who make their living analyzing real estate markets to be convinced there remains an unmet market for more urban-style living - by which I mean walkable neighborhoods where you don't have to drive so far for everything, where single-family houses and shops are rigidly kept apart from apartments and condos - basically, the kinds of places where you never see a "berm" or a buffer. ( And everything I just wrote should be read with the proviso "When the real estate market comes back.")