Joel Kotkin doesn’t know what a “garden city” is, but he knows he loves it

Longtime Market Urbanism readers will know that we’re not huge fans of Joel Kotkin. But his most recent article on megacities (spoiler: the “triumphalism” surrounding them “frankly disturbs me”) sets a new low for sheer factual inaccuracy. I’m speaking specifically of his policy prescription, which appears to be based on the most innovative planning theories of 1911:

One does not have to be a Ghandian idealist to suggest that Ebenezer Howard’s “garden city” concept — conceived as a response to miserable conditions in early 20th Century urban Britain — may be better guide to future urban growth.

Rejecting gigantism for its own sake, “the garden city” promotes, where possible, suburban growth, particularly in land-rich countries. It also can provide a guide to more human-scale approach to  dense urban development. The “garden city” is already a major focus in Singapore, where I serve as a guest lecturer at the Civil Service College. Singaporean planners are embracing bold ideas for decentralizing work, reducing commutes and restoring nearby natural areas.

Singapore: Not a garden city

Singapore: Not a garden city

First of all, Singapore is flat-out not following a garden city model. The garden city is a very specific thing: It’s a turn-of-the-century suburban planning style with small, self-contained towns of relatively low-density buildings segregated with single-use zoning and surrounded by open fields. Singapore, on the other hand, is a typical high-density wealthy East Asian city-state with a strong downtown and a well-used metro system. Kotkin may have gotten the idea from what appears to be a Singaporean parks-building program called “Garden City” (here and here), but it’s of an entirely different magnitude than the traditional garden city, which is dominated open space. Given that Kotkin is a guest lecturer at a university in Singapore, he must visit from time to time, so I’m not quite sure how he could have missed that fact.

But secondly, there in fact is an Asian city that has adopted a real garden city model, and it’s right next door to Singapore: Kuala Lumpur. And unlike Singapore, a developed country, Kuala Lumpur has a middle-income economy similar to the megacities like Mexico City and Manila that Kotkin starts out talking about. Here’s what I wrote about the Malaysian capital last September:

The city was practically brand new when it was made capital of the Federal Malay States in 1895, and as a British protectorate, the Crown sent New Zealand planner Charles Reade to the Malaysian capital in 1921 to head its planning department. Schooled in the methods of the nascent Garden City movement in the UK, Reade made a name for himself by spreading the sprawling, proto-suburban style throughout Australia and New Zealand before his posting in British Malaya. Under Reade’s aegis, Kuala Lumpur became a test case for the movement’s applicability outside of the industrialized West.

Kuala Lumpur: Garden city!

Kuala Lumpur: Garden city!

In other words, Kuala Lumpur took exactly the path that Kotkin is advising for the third-world megacities. And the planners largely achieved what they set out to do: The city is very auto-oriented, and does not have significant rail infrastructure (which Kotkin associates with the slums of our grandparents). But unfortunately for Joel, Kuala Lumpur is roundly criticized as a planning disaster. Though it has the right population size according to Kotkin (he cites Chennai and Hyderabad, which are similar in size to KL, as preferential to Mumbai), its polycentric layout and extremely congested roads make getting around very difficult and time-consuming. In other words, it has the same problems that Kotkin hates so much about cities many times its size. And to make matters worse, not every Malaysian is wealthy enough to own a car yet, so it’s only going to get worse.

If Kotkin truly believes in the suburban, car-oriented model for third-world cities, then he should defend Kuala Lumpur, not Singapore. And if he really thinks Singapore is so great, then he probably shouldn’t be cheering on garden cities. Then again, given his apparent ignorance about what a “garden city” even is, I’m not sure that he’s really qualified to be writing about it at all.

Edit: I forgot possibly the weirdest part of the whole article, where he uses traffic fatalaties to argue for…er, more car-oriented cities?

More serious still, the slum-dwellers face a host of health challenges that recall the degradations of Dickensian London. Residents of mega-cities face enormous risks from such socially caused maladies as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, urban violence, unsafely built environments, and what has been described as  ”the neglected epidemic” of road-related injuries. According to researchers Tim and Alana Campbell, developing countries now account for 85% of the world’s traffic fatalities.

  • Alon Levy

    Good work, Stephen. I’d add just one thing: it’s borderline criminal to write an article about megacities and their problems, and not mention Tokyo and Seoul, which happen to be the two largest. They’re for the most part trouble-free, have never been extensively urban-renewed, and have higher population growth than their respective countries’ provincial cities (in Seoul the growth is entirely in the suburbs, but in Tokyo the central city is outgrowing the suburbs).

  • Alon Levy

    Good work, Stephen. I’d add just one thing: it’s borderline criminal to write an article about megacities and their problems, and not mention Tokyo and Seoul, which happen to be the two largest. They’re for the most part trouble-free, have never been extensively urban-renewed, and have higher population growth than their respective countries’ provincial cities (in Seoul the growth is entirely in the suburbs, but in Tokyo the central city is outgrowing the suburbs).

  • http://twitter.com/LaddKeith Ladd Keith

    Great rebuttal. I agree with Alon, you can’t mention megacities without talking about Tokyo.

  • awp

    I don’t think Kotkin managed to string more than two sentences together that didn’t misrepresent or misinterpret reality, unless it was a complete non sequitur.
    Apparently he thinks the POOR world should develop all the same wasteful subsidies to suburbanization that the RICH world has, and that they would then still be able to feed themselves.

  • awp

    Kotkin: “Unfortunately such places were often not so nice for the people who actually lived in them. After all, they have been moving from higher to lower density locations for over fifty years, a trend still noticeable in the new Census. As my mother, who grew up a slum-dweller, says of her old Brooklyn neighborhood: “Brownsville was a crappy neighborhood then, and it’s a crappy neighborhood now.””

    So rich world denizens are able to make rational judgments on their own and poor people are idiots who can’t weigh their available options and make the decision that is best for themselves. Even in the poor world dense living is more expensive. If people were better off living in the countryside or in suburbia, why aren’t they doing it? Why are they choosing to live in the slums/city? Is Kotkin arguing that there is some kind of subsidy for slum living?

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    See, that’s the thing about Kotkin – unlike Wendell Cox or Randal O’Toole or other pro-suburbanists, he doesn’t believe in the suburbs because it’s the will of the free market. He just likes it, period, and he doesn’t feel like he needs to do much explaining one way or the other. So the fact that people have chosen to make the opposite choice is really of no consequence to him – he likes the suburbs, so goddamnit, they’re the best option for everyone, reality be damned.

  • Anonymous

    This is a beautiful takedown. There are a lot of people out there (like Wendell Cox) espousing wrong-headed planning ideas, but they’re not taken as seriously as planners as Kotkin is. Joel Kotkin combines bad planning ideas with a degree of actual respect as a planner, so it’s extra nice to see him called on his idiocy.

  • Anon

    “Residents of mega-cities face enormous risks from such socially caused maladies as AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases…”

    Uh…am I reading this correctly? Because if so, this is one of the dumbest things I’ve ever read.

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  • http://houstontomorrow.org David Crossley

    While agreeing with most of your remarks, I have to say that the description of Howard’s garden city is a little off. Although he did indeed like single family dwellings on their own lots, he designed them at 30 people to the acre plus the commercial amenities to make a complete community. There was zero sprawl. And they were fantastic walking environments with very close access to nature. Further, almost everything was about localism, both in terms of decisions and of the generation of the economy. Nobody has ever really built what he designed (even his two efforts were enormously compromised), but it’s still an interesting idea.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    Yeah, you’re right that his traditional garden city was denser than we imagine nowadays – it was designed before the automobile, so it had to be a lot more walkable than modern-day American suburbs.

    One reason it was doomed to failure though, I think, was the emphasis on localism. People simply don’t want to be limited to the jobs that they can walk to – if you limited yourself to working within a 2-mile radius, then what would be the point in living in a metropolitan area, period?

  • Patrick

    As long as we’re taking down Kotkin, has anyone else noticed that both he and Wendell Cox advertise that they guest lectured at crummy overseas commuter colleges?

    Wendell Cox first: his byline consistently says he’s “a Visiting Professor, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, Paris”, which, at first glance, sounds pretty impressive. Someone from Paris (PARIS!) thinks this guy is smart! He must be smart! PARIS! But, as it turns out, Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers (CNAM) has 80,000 students and “mainly provides courses for adults engaged in active life (technicians, managers, Ecole Polytechnique, ENS) in continuing education and night classes that allow build multidisciplinary courses and gain qualifications such as OTC, and the Ph.D. titles of engineer.” (per google translate from the french wikipedia page: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conservatoire_national_des_arts_et_m%C3%A9tiers). So, he teaches at a community college. An overseas community college. Although, to be fair, his own website doesn’t mention any actual work there since 2003 (http://www.demographia.com/r-cnam.htm), so maybe he is just holding on to that credential for as longs as he can.

    Kotkin is obviously more legitimate because an actual American college has hired him, so let’s start there. He is a “Presidential Research Fellow in Urban Futures” at Chapman University, a small but rather well-respected school in Orange, California. He gives lectures and teaches honors seminars for undergraduates. But Kotkin is a part of any faculty departments there, and is instead serving under the administration. It seems that the university is ideologically aligned with Kotkin’s brand of antiurbanism, so they offered him low-work fellowship to support his writing. It makes sense that he only teaches seminars because his background is in journalism. In Singapore he seems to have given two lectures (one in 2011 and one in 2010) to another community college sort of institution (“CSC programmes and services are practitioner-focused versus conventional academic public administration courses”).

    So, the point is – who are these guys? And why do we care what they say? Neither one has any particular credentials for the work they claim to be experts on. Kotkin has written some popular books, but his only other positions seem to be politically related. As far as I can tell neither is an actual scientist, so much as a think tank “analyst.”

  • David Sucher

    I disagree with Cox and Kotkin on most issues but while credentials are important though not dispositive.
    Challenge Cox and Kotkin on the facts and analysis.
    But questioning their credentials is a sideshow.

  • David Sucher

    I disagree with Cox and Kotkin on most issues but while credentials are important though not dispositive.
    Challenge Cox and Kotkin on the facts and analysis.
    But questioning their credentials is a sideshow.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    I have to agree…I don’t have any formal credentials at all (the closest I came to studying urbanism academically was a single class on SE Asia where the professor based our entire grade on one research paper about whatever we want, and I chose land use in Kuala Lumpur). But I would be pretty pissed if someone tried to claim that what I had to say was worthless because I don’t have an urbanism-related degree.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    I have to agree…I don’t have any formal credentials at all (the closest I came to studying urbanism academically was a single class on SE Asia where the professor based our entire grade on one research paper about whatever we want, and I chose land use in Kuala Lumpur). But I would be pretty pissed if someone tried to claim that what I had to say was worthless because I don’t have an urbanism-related degree.

  • Patrick

    Where do my responses keep going? I’ve written two long comments that haven’t appeared.

  • taybax

    These two are professional shills, cherry-pickers of half-truths and deliberately misleading numbers. People who know better know not to taken them seriously because they are not interested in serious discussion. The problem is that they seem to be everywhere, and they are very good at what they do.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    Uh oh…

    We had this problem before, and I’m not quite sure we ever got to the bottom of it. All I can say is make sure you’re leaving the comment in a Disqus comment thing and not the standard WordPress one, which might seep through every now and then if there’s some problem loading the Disqus stuff.

  • http://marketurbanism.com Stephen

    Hm, I checked the spam folder and the non-Disqus system and didn’t find anything there. Maybe the problem is on your end? In any case, I guess just do a quick ctrl+C any time you leave long comments. Sorry I can’t be more helpful, but we’re pretty much at the mercy of Disqus here.

  • Patrick

    Well, okay. The gist of my argument was that their credentials matter because people perceive them as experts. Reporters frequently call them and ask their opinion.

    -Here’s an NY Times article about Geoffrey West where the reporter asked Kotkin for his opinion on West’s work, and Kotkin, obviously unfamiliar, used the occaision to make a completely irrelevant point about how suburbs are growing faster than cities.

    -And here’s an article from the Atlanta Journal Constitution about an instance where a downtown street, overrun with pedestrians, is narrowed from four lanes to two for about four blocks. The reporter contacted Wendell Cox, who offered up his typical “Planners hate cars and economic growth” argument, as though four blocks of narrower street were going to hurt Atlanta’s economy.

    So, though I sound like a jerk, I think it’s worthwhile to criticize their projection of credentials because the popular press keeps calling on their “expert” opinion. I don’t think what they have to say is worthless, and if all they did was blog about it, I wouldn’t care. But when they keep making ignorant comments in the newspaper I get irritated.

  • Alon Levy

    The I view laypeople like you and me is, we advertise that we’re just interested in the subject and have read on it. We don’t start thinktanks with impressive-sounding names, or write bios that inflate credentials to make us look super-important. The issue with Cox (which isn’t as true of Kotkin, by the way) is mainly that he displays symptoms of a classic crank, and the pretense for credentials is part of it. Overall I’d say it’s fine for a pair of threads with about thirty critical comments between them to have one that discusses credentials.

  • Anonymous

    In re: to the last paragraph you cite, are more sprawling cities also meant to reduce AIDS? I suppose because people have less chance to meet others? Not to trivialize an issue, but when urbanism starts to be blamed for every ill, ignoring the irony that the city Kotkin praises – Singapore – is a prime example of urbanism.

    I too worry about megacities – I think they eventually get too big for their own efficiency and livability, with many suffering while providing an environment for internationalized elites. But I have never found Kotkin to be, well, very perceptive on urban issues.

  • Anonymous

    This is true that Joel kotkin didn’t know about the green city and he loved it. Singapore  is very nice city and developing as like garden city.
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    Gardening is the activity of growing and maintaining the garden. This work is done by an amateur or professional gardener. A gardener might also work in a non-garden setting, such as a park, a roadside embankment, or other public space. Landscape architecture is a related professional activity with landscape architects tending to specialise in design for public and corporate clients.

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    “Residents of mega-cities experience substantial challenges from such culturally induced ailments as AIDS and other std’s…”

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    The Great American Streetcar Myth · Rent Control Part 2: Black Market, Deterioration and Discrimination · Joel Kotkin doesn’t know what a “garden city” is, but he knows he loves it · Rent Control Part 1: Microeconomics Lesson …

  • Anonymous

    Gardening is actually a good past time for adults and even for kids. Children should know at their very young age the importance of plants around us.

  • http://jolantagulbe.com/ Hannah

    I’ve seen the garden city and I tell you, it’s the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen! I super love it! You guys should see it! :)

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  • J.D. Hammond

    His love of Singapore as a suburban paradise is unsurprising, given that he also considers Arlington, Virginia to be an ideal suburb. His idea of what constitutes the ideal suburb is remarkably consistently contained within urban cores.

  • JD

    This Forbes article from 2010 identifies Joel Kotkin as an adjunct fellow at the Legatum Institute:

    http://www.forbes.com/2010/01/11/dubai-burj-united-nations-opinions-columnists-joel-kotkin.html

    This article idenifies the Legatum Institute:

    http://business.financialpost.com/2012/11/05/u-s-slips-out-of-top-10-most-prosperous-countries-while-canada-keeps-no-6-ranking/

    “The Legatum Institute is the public policy research arm of the Legatum Group, a Dubai-based private investment group founded in 2006 by New Zealand billionaire Christopher Chandler.”

    I wonder what the priorities of a Dubai-based investment group founded by a billionaire be?
    Does Kotkin still have ties or get money from this institute?

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    Take a closer look at Howard’s Garden City. As a couple of other folks have commented, his plan called for 30,000 people on 1,000 acres, with another 2,000 or so in the surrounding agricultural greenbelt. 30,000 people on 1,000 acres puts Garden City’s density at #14 on Wikipedia’s list of “Incorporated places with a density of over 10,000 people per square mile”. That beats San Francisco. Those 30,000 people would have a maximum 8 minute walk to the center, and even though it has single use zoning, everything is within walking distance, including a rail connection to other cities. The green agricultural belt of 5,000 acres brings food into the city with the shortest imaginable supply chain, and insures that you can “meet your farmer” by taking a short stroll. Oh, it could be better – if the 145 acre and the 115 acre parks set within the city, were set instead just outside at the perimeter the place would have a density just a tad less than New York City. We Americans would have to all live at a density of just under that of Queens to preserve as much open land as Howard’s proposed Garden City would.

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