Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sunday afternoon listening: Joel Kotkin on new urbanism

Is there anything more satisfying than a random encounter with a fresh POV on a familiar subject--one that challenges your lazy assumptions (based on half-remembered statistics and the anecdotes of a friend) and encourages you to pursue some of your more thoughtful suspicions. I heard just such an argument this afternoon on a truly spectacular autumn day in central VT on VPR.

It was Joel Kotkin--author of The New Geography and The City: A Global History--presenting at this years Aspen Ideas Festival. (You can hear a clip here.) He covered a lot of ground, but I was mainly interested in his surprising positions on suburban sprawl and the future of the urban experience.

In general, his argument was less based on ideology or taste than statistics. No matter what you might hear about the revivification of American cities, all the numbers suggest that most of the momentum is still heading in the opposite direction, out to the suburbs. There are a number of reasons--including the strong American desire to own property--but the strongest one is economic. As the core of America's great cites (New York, San Francisco, Chicago) become increasingly too expensive for the middle class, driving out everyone but the very rich and those who serve them. In fact, it might not be long, Kotkin argues before some suburban and ex-urban communities are more diverse than the residents of the city-centers that condescend to them for being homogeneous.

His positions were equally surprising on some other new urban myths: how about all those boomer empty-nesters moving back to the cities? We all might know isolated examples but in terms of percentages, Kotkin says, it’s a tiny minority and it’s easy to understand why. If you’ve owned a house for 20 years and sell it for 2x or 3x or 10x the original price, are you likely to make an even trade for an expensive condo in the city? Or take on more debt? No, you are far more likely to move further out and become what Kotkin calls an “equity refugee,” living on the difference. Another reason the boomers aren’t moving back, their kids and grand-kids are all moving out.

What’s already happening, Kotkin argues, is the urbanization of the surburban and ex-urban environments with town and small city centers providing small urban centers to people who increasingly don't need to commute into the city. More and more companies, Kotkin points out, are accepting telecommuting as a valid if, not more productive, alternative to commuting an hour each way. The vast majority of the IBM consulting workforce is already telecommuting. And there is evidence that these suburban and exurban centers are not complete cultural wastelands, such as the spread of regional theater.

When asked if he thought the metropolis could hold onto the middle class, Kotkin said it wasn’t impossible but it was unlikely. City mayors would have to commit to rebuilding city infrastructure: schools and other public services. But it’s a lot easier, Kotkin reminds us, to put up a few jazz clubs and say you’ve turned the city around than to fix public education.

But Kotkin sees no reason to despair. Many of us might not like the idea of these ex-urban towns, and prefer the excitement and beauty of NYC or San Francisco, but Kotkin reminds us that our collective romance with the old idea of the city always makes us intolerant of the emerging model; most visiting Europeans in the 19th and early 20th-century had a distinctly unfavorable impression of the great American core cities—finding them ugly above all--but that didn't stop them from growing

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