By Joel Kotkin
Penguin Press, 2010, 320 pp., $25.95 hardcover
In The Wall Street Journal on Jan. 14, 2006, Joel Kotkin wrote that back yards are “despised as wasteful and ‘anti-social’ by new urbanists and environmentalists.” This was a bizarre claim. The vast majority of houses in new urbanist communities have back yards; I’ve seen loads of them myself. So I wrote a commentary about this in the March 2006 New Urban News, and we sent it to Kotkin so that he wouldn’t repeat the mistake. Yet on page 72 of his new book, The Next Hundred Million, he writes that “many adherents of new urbanism” are “fundamentally hostile to backyards.”
Disseminating information that doesn’t withstand scrutiny seems to be characteristic of Kotkin, who writes for many periodicals and is a Distinguished Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures with Chapman University in Orange, California.
On page 88 of his book, Kotkin tells of a study that finds that “For every 10 percent reduction in density, the chances of people talking to their neighbors increases by 10 percent, and their likelihood of belonging to a local club by 15 percent.” That was wrong, too. A commentary by editor Robert Steuteville in the January 2007 New Urban News made it clear that the study, by researchers at the University of California, “really found that a 93 percent decline in density results in only a 5 percent higher chance of talking with neighbors regularly.” And the densest areas departed from that; in high-density places, the study found, people talk to their neighbors and hang out with friends more frequently, not less.
Kotkin seems to be on a mission to disparage dense development, central cities, smart growth, and ambitious government planning. In The Next Hundred Million, he reports, “Even in Portland, Oregon, a city renowned for its urban-oriented policy, barely 10 percent of all population growth between 2000 and 2008 took place in the urban core while the vast majority occurred in suburbs, particularly in the outer fringes.”
When I tracked down the raw figures, it turned out that from 2000 to 2009, the population of the City of Portland rose by 46,809 (to 575,930), accounting for 22.7 percent of the region’s growth. Ethan Seltzer of Portland State’s School of Urban Studies and Planning informs me that “over half of all new housing permits granted regionwide during the period [Kotkin] references were granted in the City of Portland.”
Moreover, the aim of Portland metro officials has been to accommodate growth in city and suburbs alike — some of it in new forms such as mixed-use development within walking distance of rail service. Thus the impression that Kotkin gives — that Portland has been a disappointment — is quite misleading.
The ostensible purpose of The Next Hundred Million is to explain what the US is going to be like as its population rises to 400 million by 2050. The book “seeks to illuminate the paths that can lead to a potentially brighter future.” To his credit, Kotkin is friendly to newcomers from abroad, arguing that immigrants have repeatedly made huge contributions to the country’s success and will continue doing so in the decades ahead. He prizes entrepreneurial spirit.
Yet in many respects, he is a backward-looking pundit — intent on stopping postwar suburban traits from fading. “Over time, as population forces land prices to rise, the one- or two-acre lot may become less common, and some forms of midrange density, even in the exurbs, may become more prevalent,” he says. “But the basic pattern of the future metropolis will be built upon a predominantly suburban matrix dominated by cars, road connections, and construction such as is familiar to the denizens of contemporary Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Houston.”
What he admires about Houston is its “organic, unplanned urbanism” and a “new technology-enabled freedom in terms of distance.” Spreading out across “an enormous land mass” is, in Kotkin’s view, a positive development, not a cause of monotonous commutes, global warming, or excessive resource consumption.
He argues that a haphazard metropolis with low-priced houses is better for immigrants striving to advance into the middle and upper-middle class. But 37 percent of the population of New York City today is foreign-born, and immigrants there are probably just as upward-bound as Houston’s. Kotkin never quite proves his point.
He reports that “83 percent of potential buyers prefer a single-family home,” but he never squares this with the surging popularity of urban lofts, townhouses, live/work units, and mixed-use buildings. Could it be that many people prefer detached houses in the abstract but then choose to live in smaller, attached dwellings when those are embedded in a vibrant, walkable neighborhood full of shops, cafes, culture, employment, and decent transit?
Kotkin rarely tells more than one side of the story. In fact, he expresses contempt for those who do not subscribe to his preferred mode of living: having children, practicing a religion, living in a single-family suburban house, and getting around by automobile. This is not a vision for the future; it’s a return to the fifties and early sixties, and with a surly attitude to boot. His intolerance leaves a sour taste.