Mr. Kotkin Talks About What "People Really Want"

MLewyn's picture

Joel Kotkin recently wrote in the Washington Post that unspecified urban planners want "to create an ideal locate for hipsters and older, sophisticated urban dwellers" rather than focusing on the needs of "most middle-class residents of the metropolis." He claims that these people want "home ownership, rapid access to employment throughout the metropolitan area, good schools, and 'human scale' neighborhoods" as well as "decent-pay [job] opportunities." He doesn't really explain how these goals can be achieved, other than noting that Sun Belt cities continue to grow more rapidly than high-cost northern cities, and thus must have somehow achieved these goals. Kotkin's claims miss three realities.

First, smart growth-oriented planners seek to achieve some of these goals. By improving public transit and substituting street grids (which allow traffic to flow through a broad range of streets rather than being confined to a few major streets) for cul-de-sacs, they seek to expand "rapid access to employment throughout the metropolitan area." Smart growth-oriented planners also seek to make cities more "human scale" by making them more friendly to pedestrians as well as automobiles. By contrast, much of America is "car scale" rather than "human scale." And by expanding the urban housing supply, smart-growth oriented planners seek to make more homes available to more people. (Having said that, I agree with Kotkin that planners in "luxury" cities have failed to meet the latter goal- partially because density-phobia has limited development and thus artificially constricted housing supply).

Second, some of Kotkin's worthy goals are beyond the reach of urban planning. Nearly all Americans are for "good schools" but urban planners don't have any special expertise in how to create them. Other central-city policymakers have struggled with this problem for decades, usually without much success. Similarly, urban planners have no special expertise in how to create jobs, especially in the teeth of the post-2008 worldwide economic downturn. Even before the 2008 recession, Rust Belt metros like Buffalo struggled with job creation.

Third, to the extent a city can't solve the "school problem", it might as well try to attract the people who don't need schools: singles and empty-nesters. Although Kotkin may sneer at these groups as "hipsters", the fact of the matters is that the number of nonfamily households has exploded over time. In 1940, 47 percent of households were either married couples with children or single parents with children; today, only 30 percent do. Kotkin may bemoan the growth of nonfamily and empty-nester households, but they exist and need places to live too.


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