Kotkin bashes urbanism

MLewyn's picture

Joel Kotkin is one of America’s most prolific commentators on urban affairs. At first glance, he appears to support something very much like New Urbanism. According to one newspaper story quoted on Kotkin’s website, he favors “suburbs that are not defined by sprawl but a sense of community. He wants village-like suburbs that combine parks, restaurants and some retail within walking distance of single-family homes.” (JoelKotkin.com) Similarly, New Urbanists have created suburbs such as Celebration, Fla. which combine stores and housing.

Despite the apparent similarities between Kotkin’s “New Suburbanism” and New Urbanism, Kotkin has inexplicably attacked both New Urbanism and “Smart Growth” reforms that seek to promote infill development. Kotkin insinuates that New Urbanism is only relevant to cities, that cities are essentially obsolete, and that smart growth reforms are responsible for every conceivable ill from suburban sprawl to deindustrialization to low birth rates. His arguments rest on a mass of factual errors.

Myth #1: New Urbanism is only relevant to cities.

In a July 2006 Newsweek article, Kotkin wrote: “the new urbanism, built around downtown revival and beloved by the celebrated starchitects, will cede pride of place to the new suburbanism.” (http://joelkotkin.com/Urban_Affairs/Newsweek%20Building%20up%20the%20Bur...) Kotkin’s statement that New Urbanism is “built around downtown revival” implies that New Urbanists are only interested in downtowns.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Two of the earliest New Urbanist developments were in suburbs: Kentlands near Washington, D.C. and Celebration near Orlando. A recent
“Guidebook to New Urbanism in Florida” lists 35 suburban New Urban communities in Florida alone. Like Kotkin, New Urbanists seek to mend suburbs rather than to end them: to make them communities not just for drivers, but for pedestrians, bicyclists and transit users. The SmartCode, a New Urbanist model zoning code, contains not only a “downtown” zone (referred to as a T6 zone) but also a “suburban” zone (the T3 zone) and two intermediate zones (the T4 and T5 zones), which, like most neighborhoods between a city’s downtown and its suburbs, are less dense than the former and more compact and intense than the latter.

Myth #2: Cities are obsolete.

Kotkin’s recent work reveals an almost obsessive focus on declaring cities dead or irrelevant. In his Newsweek article, Kotkin writes: “In Europe, Canada, Japan and Australia, growth is spilling out of urban centers, even in places that boast extensive mass-transit systems. In London, the center has been losing population since at least the 1960s . . . In Japan, too, high prices and congestion have propelled an exodus [from Tokyo].” (http://joelkotkin.com/Urban_Affairs/Newsweek%20Building%20up%20the%20Bur...)

Kotkin’s “facts” are simply out of date. Although London and Tokyo lost population for a couple of decades in the mid-20th century, both cities have rebounded in recent years. Since 1981, the population of Inner London (the former city’s 123 square mile core) increased from 2.5 million to 2.9 million, an increase of about 15 percent. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Inner_London By contrast, Outer London (the city’s inner-ring suburbs) population increased by only 6 percent (from 4.25 million to 4.48 million). (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Outer_London)
Similarly, Tokyo’s inner core has become more populous in every year since 1997. (http://www.mlit.go.jp/english/white-paper/mlit02/p1c2s1.pdf )

Kotkin writes in a January 2006 Wall Street Journal article: “nowhere is the commitment to low-density living greater than the U.S.” (http://joelkotkin.com/Urban_Affairs/WSJ%20The%20War%20Against%20Suburbia... ) So one might think that even if London and Tokyo are growing, American cities must be declining. But in fact, even American cities have also grown in recent years. 17 of America’s 20 largest cities gained population between 1990 and 2000, including even a few cities which, like New York, are trapped within their 1950 boundaries and thus unable to annex suburban territory. Kotkin tries to minimize the importance of this fact by pointing out that mid-decade Census estimates have led to slightly different results; three of the 17 (Chicago, Memphis and San Francisco) allegedly lost population between 2000 and 2005, and some other cities may have grown slowly during the early 2000s than in the 1990s. (See THE WORLD ALMANAC AND BOOK OF FACTS 2006 at 480 for population changes).

But even if the mid-decade estimates are valid, 14 of the nation’s top 20 cities kept gaining population between 2000 and 2005, including two (Indianapolis and New York City) that had lost population for at least part of the late 20th century.

Moreover, the Census estimates are just that- estimates- and thus may well be wrong. In the 1990s, mid-decade Census estimates tended to underestimate urban population, and were thus essentially worthless. For example, Census Department estimates showed that Memphis had only 604,000 people in 1998, while the actual 2000 Census showed that Memphis had 650,000 residents - 40,000 more than in 1990, and 46,000 more than the 1998 estimate. Similarly, 1998
Census estimates showed that Minneapolis had continued to lose population, while the actual 2000 Census showed that Minneapolis’s population had grown to 382,000, 30,000 more than the estimate. (See http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/statab/sec01.pdf at page 40 for 1998 Census estimates, 2006 World Almanac above for 2000 Census data)

To be fair, Kotkin’s claims have a grain of truth: even if a city grows, its suburbs typically grow faster because they have more undeveloped land. The difference between Kotkin and New Urbanists seems to be that New Urbanists favor balanced growth that benefits city and suburb alike. In a healthy region, city and suburb both grow and flourish, giving consumers a wide range of housing choices.

By contrast, Kotkin has suggested that any efforts to promote downtown development are part of a “War against Suburbia.” In a January 2006 Wall Street Journal by that name, he writes that “there is a drive to use the public purse to expand often underused train systems, downtown condominiums, hotels, convention centers, sports stadia and star-chitect designed art museums.” Of course, government has been subsidizing such public works for decades - but to Kotkin, any public support for any form of cultural amenity in a downtown is evidently part of a “newfangled War” against everyone else. Kotkin’s language implies that urban policy as a zero-sum game: that anything that is good for a downtown must be bad for its suburbs.

Kotkin also relies on poll data to bolster his views. For example, he writes that “70 to 80 percent of Americans prefer a single-family home and only 15 percent, an apartment in a dense urban area.” Kotkin does not bother to say where this survey came from, or how it was worded. But other consumer preference surveys yield radically different results, depending on how survey questions are worded. For example, a 2003 survey of Houston residents asked:

“Would you personally prefer to live in a suburban setting with larger lots and houses and a longer drive to work and most other places, or in a more central urban setting with smaller homes on smaller lots, and be able to take transit or walk to work and other places? “

55 percent chose the “more central urban setting.” Only 37 percent chose the “suburban setting with larger lots and houses.” (http://www.blueprinthouston.org/BH_Reports.php4 )
It thus appears that as long as home ownership is an option, a majority of consumers will prefer something other than conventional suburban development if they have the choice.

Myth #3: Any efforts to reform sprawl will lead to a wide variety of disasters.

Kotkin’s most aggressive attacks are against “smart growth” policies that seek to protect cities and older suburbs from being depopulated. Portland’s urban growth boundaries, in particular, have generated Kotkin’s most inflammatory rhetoric, including a wide variety of charges - mostly inconsistent with the facts, and sometimes even inconsistent with each other.

Myth 3-A: Limiting Sprawl Leads to More Sprawl

Kotkin claims that “Strict growth limits have driven population and job growth further out . . . Suburbia [in the Portland region] has not been crushed, but simply pushed further away.”

Between 1980 and 2004, the city of Portland’s population grew from 368,000 to at least 533,000- an increase of over 40 percent - not quite as fast as its suburbs, but still a pretty fast clip. Thus, Portland’s policies obviously have made the city of Portland more appealing to consumers rather than driving them out. Even if Portland’s suburbs are growing faster than its core, Portland has succeeded in creating a region where city and suburb alike are booming.

By comparison, many older cities which have followed “business as usual” policies are experiencing continued decline. Buffalo has followed the typical American formula: build highways to make it easier to move to suburbs, and create no regional anti-sprawl policies to discourage suburban growth- so the city of Buffalo, which had 357,000 people in 1980, and had only 292,000 in 2000- a 17 percent decrease. Some other cities have fared even worse; Detroit, St. Louis and Pittsburgh have lost over 20 percent of its 1980 population.

Buffalo, unlike Portland, is part of a stagnant region. So perhaps it would be fairer to compare Portland to other western cities with comparable rates of regional growth. But even cities benefitting from comparable regionwide growth rates are growing more slowly than Portland: Seattle’s population has grown by 16 percent since 1980, and Denver’s by 14 percent.

Myth 3-B: The Planners Are Coming To Take Our Homes Away And Cram Us Into Apartments

Kotkin claims that Portland’s growth boundaries and other smart growth policies have been misused by “planners [who have ] declared war on single-family homes, backyards, and insufficiently dense development.” Kotkin even asserts that these policies force Portlanders to “raise their kids inside sardine cans.”

In fact, over 60 percent of Portland’s housing units are single-family homes. And between 1990 and 2000, the number of detached single-unit structures (i.e. single-family homes) in Portland increased from 124,000 to 143,000. (See 2000 Census, Tables DP-1 and DP-4, available through www.census.gov) So Kotkin’s rhetoric about a “war” on homes is dishonest.

After two decades of growth boundaries and of rapid urban population growth, the city of Portland has only 3972 people per square mile-less than half the population density of Los Angeles, and less than one-fifth the density of New York City. So Kotkin’s “sardine can” analogy is simply bizarre.

Kotkin even claims that in Alburquerque, unspecified “planners” have “suggested banning backyards.” I did a search on WESTLAW (a database containing hundreds of newspapers in America and in other countries) with the terms “albuquerque /20 backyards” and found nothing even faintly resembling Kotkin’s claim. While researching an article for New Urban News, Phillip Langdon asked Kotkin where he came up with this claim, and Kotkin blamed an (unnamed) planner whose alleged proposal was quickly rejected by higher-ups within the city’s planning department.

Myth 3-C: Smart Growth Keeps Families Away From Cities

Kotkin asks: “who isn’t high on this [Portland] agenda? Certainly it can’t be families. Portland already has one of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities.” In a 2005 article for the Portland Oregonian, Kotkin claims that because of Portland’s alleged hyper-density (discussed above) families are moving “farther and farther out” because they “usually opt not to raise their children inside sardine cans”.

The 2000 Census reveals that 21.1% of Portland residents are under 18 - lower than the national average to be sure, but higher than in a wide variety of cities, including relatively hip cities like Washington, DC (20.1%), Honolulu (19.2%), Boston (19.8%) and Seattle (15.6%), and anything-but-hip places like Pittsburgh (19.9%), and Knoxville (19.7%).

More importantly, the number of children in Portland has actually increased over time. Census data show that between 1990 and 2000, the number of children under 5 increased by 6 percent (from 30,314 to 32,300), the number of children between 5 and 9 increased by 12 percent (from 27,655 to 31,184), the number of children between 10 and 14 increased by 20 percent (from 24,392 to 30,031). It may be that Portland’s progress is actually attracting families. (See 2000 Census, Tables DP-1 and GCP-P15, 1990 Census, Table QT-P1A, statistics for Portland and other cities)

In any event, the number of children in a city is not a particularly useful indicator of its attractiveness to families, because in a poor, depressed city many families simply cannot afford to move elsewhere. For example, almost a third (31.1%) of Detroit’s population is under 18- but does Kotkin really think that Detroit is a better place to raise children than Portland?

Myth 3-D: Smart Growth Keeps Babies From Being Born

Kotkin even hints that smart growth, if successful, will reduce birth rates. In his Newsweek article, he claims that the low birth rates of South Korea and Japan are caused by their “ultra dense” development because “Once everyone is forced into a small city place, there’s literally no room for kids.” Kotkin contradicts himself: on the one hand he claims (as noted above) that Japan is sprawling just like America. On the other hand, he claims that Japan’s low birth rate is caused by its failure to sprawl just like America. Joel Kotkin, meet Joel Kotkin.

In any event, Kotkin’s attempt to tie low Asian birth rates to density is erroneous because European countries with much lower density have equally low birth rates. South Korea has 10.1 births per 1000 people. Germany and Italy, which are half as densely populated as South Korea, have 8.5 and 9.1 births per 1000 people respectively. Spain, which has only 209 people per square mile (less than one-sixth as many as South Korea) has the same birth rate as South Korea. (See 2006 Statistical Abstract of the United States, pages 863-65, 868).

If sprawl increased birth rates, America’s birth rates would have soared in recent decades, as urbanites moved to suburbs. Instead, birth rates were almost cut in half, from 24 per 1000 in 1950 to 14 per 1000 today. (Id. at 64). Evidently, Americans’ bigger houses have not spawned more children, just more gadgets.

On the other side of the coin, less space doesn’t mean less children. The Hasidic Jews of Williamsburg (a neighborhood in Brooklyn) live in a neighborhood with over 30,000 people per square mile, over twenty times the density of South Korea-yet the average Hasidic family has eight children. (See http://www.demographia.com/db-nyc-wardrank.htm for Williamsburg density statistics; http://newyorkmetro.com/news/cityside/16864/index.html for birthrate statistics). So Kotkin’s assertion that in cities, “there’s literally no room left for kids” is flat-out false.

Myth 3-E: Smart Growth Means An Unbalanced Economy

In his Oregonian article, Kotkin claims that Portland is an “ephemeral city” - one of a group of cities that “don’t create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people [that] mostly exist to celebrate themselves.” According to Kotkin, such cities don’t “compete with lesser places- you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls- for jobs, companies and investors” but instead have an economy based “on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.”

Kotkin makes no effort to supply any factual basis for these claims- perhaps because there is none. If Portland was unable to supply jobs for middle-class people, one would find that Portland had a disproportionate number of very poor or very rich wage-earners- say, households earning over $100,000 or under $10,000.

But in fact, as of 1999 only 10.3% of Portland households were in the top category, and only 8.6% in the bottom category, leaving 81.1% in the intermediate “working and middle classes.”

More importantly, Portland was actually less polarized than the nation as a whole. Nationally, 9.5% of American households earned under $10,000 (fewer than in Portland), and 12.3% earned over $100,000 (more than in Portland), leaving 78.2% in the middle. So Kotkin’s claim that Portlanders are less middle-class than other Americans is just rubbish.

Obviously, self-esteem doesn’t produce jobs. Perhaps Kotkin is trying to say that only manufacturing jobs are “real”, while services jobs are “not.”

But even if this strange assumption is correct, Kotkin’s attack on Portland is dead wrong. Portland has manufacturing and strip malls just like other cities. In fact, 12.5% of Portlanders work in manufacturing, only slightly lower than the national average of 14.1% and more than in sprawling Sun Belt cities such as Houston (10%) or Atlanta (7.7%). (See 2000 Census, DP-3, statistics for Portland and various other cities).

Myth 3-F: Smart Growth Leads To Either Too Few Immigrants

Kotkin claims that Portland’s economy is somehow diseased because it lacks a sufficient number of, in his words, “Hardworking Latin laborers or opportunistic Asian traders.” He complains that these groups are “the canaries in the economic coal mine [and] seem to be opting instead for less-lovely but more commercially vital places such as Los Angeles, Phoenix or Houston.”

Once again, Kotkin plays fast and loose with the facts. Portland’s population is 6.3% Asian- a higher percentage than not only the nation as a whole (3.6%) but also Houston (5.3%) or Phoenix (2.0%).


Kotkin's most venomous work is simply chock-full of errors. It is simply not true that New Urbanists are only interested in downtown. It is not true that cities around the world are losing population. And Kotkin’s attack on Portland’s smart growth policies is one long spin in a “No Facts” zone.


Peter Calthorpe speaks

In his address to CNU XV, CNU co-founder Peter Calthorpe said of Kotkin's "New Suburbanism," "it is an unbelievably perverse thing." He was not at all happy about his work being cited by Kotkin as examples of "New Suburbanism."


Write your comments in the box below and share on your Facebook!