Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Renewing the old urban-suburban battle

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.")

13 comments:

consultant said...

The great migration to the city has happened. Upper income folks and young people moved back to cities.

What also happened was the increasing costs of living there. Housing, before the collapse, became unaffordable. The poor were pushed out and working/middle-class families could no longer afford the taxes. They left for places they could afford, the suburbs and exurbs.

Most city schools had long since gone to he##, so the people moving back were anyone with money and people with no kids (private schools were packed).

Our cities and metro areas are becoming more European in their income demographics. People with money in the cities and the poor and working class in the outer burbs.

The long emergency we've entered is going to change how we see all of this. Basically, everyone is stuck where they are and will remain there for a good while. We will no longer talk about willingly changing our "lifestyle".

Moves in the future will be because you have to, not because you want to.

Last point: the next 3 hours or so will tell the future of the BP disaster. If they can't maintain pressure in the oil pipe, they'll have an impossible time trying to "kill" the well with mud.

The two subjects of course are linked. Our metro areas are what they are because of cheap oil. We have run out of cheap oil and therefore have to drill in dangerous places to feed our car dependent culture. We aren't changing our culture fast enough to deal with the realities of vanishing oil supplies. Ouch!!

This is like asking those well off parents in cities to send their kids to public schools. Culture is hard to change and we've run out of time.

consultant said...

Sam,

Give it a rest. By the way, will BP close the well this week?

bai said...

Sure, I'll live in an urban area.

In China.

Not in the US.

Too many dangerous people just hanging around the streets here.

It is not safe.

J said...

I'd like to present a different angle to this debate.

Living in SE Charlotte very close to the border with Matthews, most would say I I am "suburban." But I live in a condominium, which is generally associated with "urban" living. Let me give you the pros and cons of living in a condo:

Pros: reduced energy costs (there's no better way to insulate the top of your home than to put another home on top of it), garbage disposal (just walk the trash to the dumpster rather than piling it up and hauling it all to the curb and retrieving the container), lawn care provided.

Cons: lack of privacy (we have put a man on the moon, but we have not yet figured how to build a multi-family dwelling that doesn't allow for every sound in the other units to be heard in your unit - and that can get awkward if one of the residents..er, uh... procreates in a vocal manner), no recycling (Charlotte's recycling program is for single-family houses only), HOA dues that border on extortion.

If I do well financially the next few years, I can easily see myself ditching the condo for a single-family house, as the cons of the condo outweigh the pros for the most part.

So it's more than just house-friendly zoning and developer greed that fuels the growth of suburban single-family houses. And I doubt the cons I listed will ever go away.

John said...

850 words of ineffective damage control. Nice try, Mary.

Escapist said...

^
Luckily, Charlotte offers an "urban lifestyle" in a single family house. Neighborhoods like NoDa or Plaza Midwood may not be urban in the sense of New York or even Baltimore, MD or Richmond, VA - but the appeal of "urban-life" is not the human density, but the things like walkability, convenience to culture/services, proximity to mass transit which density affords.
Using this argument, I would say that Dilworth, Wilmore, Elizabeth are (in fact) urban, but the planning trends in Charlotte around the turn of the century (see John Nolen and Edward Latta, et al) who created these neighborhood plans, broke the original Charlotte street grid to build beautiful "garden" suburbs (after all, only farmers lived in the country). As the city expanded into the farmlan, these "sub-urbs" became just "urbs" and the farmland became the suburbs. But the street and style of the suburban planning was left behind in Dilworth and Elizabeth. This is why today, we ask the question - is Dilworth urban? Yes it is - although you can convince yourself otherwise if you that's your goal.

Danimal said...

Mary hasn't been the same when she found out that Athens, Greece doesn't preserve its 'old buildings' and not all prople in Venice support the arts. Considering that Dilworth, Elizabeth, Plaza-Midwood, NoDa, heck even places like Baxter and Birkdale have walkable areas where you can go to a grocery store, eclectic shops, bars, restaurants, schools, and offices all without using a car. You may have to walk an extra further, and walk acros a busy street at some point, but it can be done. That's what crosswalks are for. Boston, New Yorks outer borroughs, chcago have neighborhoods just like these as much as Charlotte, Atlanta, LA, and more rural communities do. I would personally love to live in an area where I can walk more or at least have shorter rides, but I also like having a lower cost of living and good neighbors too. you can't have it all.

Larry said...

I volunteer in the challenged schools and inner city communities and this is the common thread.

Those who are trying the hardest have the dream of getting out of the city and getting out to the suburbs.

The fact is people know when they are stuck like rats in boxes on top of each other. Expensive boxes or not they are still just boxes designed to support paying a lot of taxes to pay a lot of social programs.

Ryan said...

I think much of it has to do with people simply wanting something different. Most in my generation grew up in the suburbs and have seen and done it. We want to be where everything is close by and convenient. This is why you see so many young college graduates aggregating near the city core in metro's around the country.

I now live in Washington DC and everyone I work with under the age of 30 lives in the city while most of the 30+ crowd lives in the burbs.

A lot of the 55+ crowd also moves back to the city because they no longer need the big house and cannot/do not want the inconveniences of owning a home.

Bréanainn Séaghdha said...

I would define uptown as "urban" but only in relation to the rest of Charlotte. Tall buildings and expensive condos are not what make a place urban, but whether you can access everything you need in your life without having to 'travel' to get there.

If work, entertainment, education, and living necessities are all accessible without having to put your key in the ignition, then you truly live in an 'urban' environment. I'm reminded of Rome when I talk about this, because it is a city of two million but its buildings would be dwarfed by the monstrosities of uptown Charlotte. It truly is an 'urban' city in every sense of my preceding definition, but high-rise offices and condos aren't a part of that definition.

With the exception of some older northeastern cities, the United States has extremely low habitation density relative to office density in its cities. They aren't real cities, just really tall office parks.

I say that uptown Charlotte is 'urban' relative to the surrounding region because we can get most of my living necessities by walking (grocery store items but not clothing, furniture, or electronics which we mostly just order on the internet and have shipped), and all of our entertainment is walkable, but we still have to drive for work and school. In all, better than most regional areas (we put about 2000 miles on our car per year), but still not truly 'urban'.

The old planning adage, 'a city grows out before it grows up' should probably be changed to 'a city grows dense before it grows out, and only grows up when everything has grown dense.'

Rex said...

This is a comment on the duality problem, I've posted elsewhere and you may have seen, but just in case…

Paul Lewis is co-author of “The Complexity of Public Attitudes toward Compact Development: Survey Evidence from Five States” with Mark Balassare. In my brief e-mail exchange about the article, Lewis said, “it’s true, the “d” word (density) scares off respondents, whereas they are much more willing to embrace mixed-use and a small home, short commute combination, as well as, infill development (which was only asked in the 2002 California survey). The article published in JAPA in April 2010 includes analysis of respondents from four other states interviewed in 2007. These were Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
The survey asked respondents to make tradeoffs between compact places and sprawling places. In these tradeoffs, the respondents tended to be more receptive to the idea of living in a mixed-use place over one described as having high density. The survey sought to discover consumer preferences involving four dimensions of “compactness” mixed use, commuting, and choice of residence, including infill development. Developers know that one does not occur without the other, but the perception of what density is varies greatly. In New York City, the average is close to 30,000 people per square mile and nearly all of its neighborhoods retain an extensive list of mixed uses in walkable convenience for both goods and services. The range runs from almost 90,000 people per square mile in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the 5,000 per square mile in Hollis, Queens.

Promoting an end game in the world's relentless urbanization that does not confront its damage responsibly is bad planning. Would you not recommend taking a step back from America’s enslavement to market forces in housing? This brief step would reveal the damage it will do to us all. This is a time to lead not follow (the data), and it is people like Lewis and Balassare that can help people like us to do it. As a sharp observer of trends you must realize that most of them are manufactured components of the knowledge economy. Predicting is good, but leading is better.

Rex said...

This is a comment on the duality problem, I've posted elsewhere and you may have seen, but just in case…

Paul Lewis is co-author of “The Complexity of Public Attitudes toward Compact Development: Survey Evidence from Five States” with Mark Balassare. In my brief e-mail exchange about the article, Lewis said, “it’s true, the “d” word (density) scares off respondents, whereas they are much more willing to embrace mixed-use and a small home, short commute combination, as well as, infill development (which was only asked in the 2002 California survey). The article published in JAPA in April 2010 includes analysis of respondents from four other states interviewed in 2007. These were Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
The survey asked respondents to make tradeoffs between compact places and sprawling places. In these tradeoffs, the respondents tended to be more receptive to the idea of living in a mixed-use place over one described as having high density. The survey sought to discover consumer preferences involving four dimensions of “compactness” mixed use, commuting, and choice of residence, including infill development. Developers know that one does not occur without the other, but the perception of what density is varies greatly. In New York City, the average is close to 30,000 people per square mile and nearly all of its neighborhoods retain an extensive list of mixed uses in walkable convenience for both goods and services. The range runs from almost 90,000 people per square mile in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the 5,000 per square mile in Hollis, Queens.

Promoting an end game in the world's relentless urbanization that does not confront its damage responsibly is bad planning. Would you not recommend taking a step back from America’s enslavement to market forces in housing? This brief step would reveal the damage it will do to us all. This is a time to lead not follow (the data), and it is people like Lewis and Balassare that can help people like us to do it. As a sharp observer of trends you must realize that most of them are manufactured components of the knowledge economy. Predicting is good, but leading is better.

Rex said...

This is a comment on the false urban duality question , I've posted elsewhere and you may have seen, but just in case…

Paul Lewis is co-author of “The Complexity of Public Attitudes toward Compact Development: Survey Evidence from Five States” with Mark Balassare. In my brief e-mail exchange about the article, Lewis said, “it’s true, the “d” word (density) scares off respondents, whereas they are much more willing to embrace mixed-use and a small home, short commute combination, as well as, infill development (which was only asked in the 2002 California survey). The article published in JAPA in April 2010 includes analysis of respondents from four other states interviewed in 2007. These were Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.
The survey asked respondents to make tradeoffs between compact places and sprawling places. In these tradeoffs, the respondents tended to be more receptive to the idea of living in a mixed-use place over one described as having high density. The survey sought to discover consumer preferences involving four dimensions of “compactness” mixed use, commuting, and choice of residence, including infill development. Developers know that one does not occur without the other, but the perception of what density is varies greatly. In New York City, the average is close to 30,000 people per square mile and nearly all of its neighborhoods retain an extensive list of mixed uses in walkable convenience for both goods and services. The range runs from almost 90,000 people per square mile in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the 5,000 per square mile in Hollis, Queens.

Promoting an end game in the world's relentless urbanization that does not confront its damage responsibly is bad planning. Would you not recommend taking a step back from America’s enslavement to market forces in housing? This brief step would reveal the damage it will do to us all. This is a time to lead not follow (the data), and it is people like Lewis and Balassare that can help people like us to do it. As a sharp observer of trends you must realize that most of them are manufactured components of the knowledge economy. Predicting is good, but leading is better.