Traditionally, defenders of suburban sprawl have been skittish about proclaiming that government should promote sprawl and halt infill development. Instead, they have taken a libertarian tack, arguing that government should allow any kind of development while asserting that a level playing field would favor automobile-dependent suburbia.
But in his new book The Human City, Joel Kotkin, who, among many other titles, is the executive director of a pro-sprawl organization called the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, appears to take a different view. Like more libertarian defenders of the status quo, he generally opposes attempts to limit new suburban development. But he also writes that both city residents and suburbanites aggressively resist “densification”- that is, when nearby landowners want to build new housing or offices. For example, he writes that Los Angeles neighborhood activists “have rallied against attempts to build denser buildings, which generate more congestion and erode both the area’s livability and its distinct urban identity.” Similarly, he writes that some New Yorkers opposed “Mayor Bloomberg’s attempts to further densify already congested Midtown.” But Kotkin never suggests that turning a cornfield into a subdivision creates congestion, or that doing so would erode an area’s “distinct rural identity.”
He also doesn’t seem to think that new housing belongs in existing suburbs: in describing zoning that prohibits such housing, he writes that “suburbs generally can be expected to, for the most part, resist high degrees of densification”, including “attempts by planners to impose strict regulations on construction and impose higher densities”. This language implies (erroneously) that “densification” is something imposed by a distant government, rather than by landowners who want to build places for people to live.
So if I interpret his book correctly, it seems that there is nothing libertarian about Kotkin’s views: he wants strong local governments that keep new housing out of cities but allows it in undeveloped exurbs where it belongs.
Kotkin defends this policy by emphasizing society’s need for more and larger families- indeed a real problem, because lower birthrates mean fewer workers to support retirees. He notes, correctly, that birthrates have plunged throughout the Western world (and even in non-Western countries like Iran and Morocco) and that families are more common in suburbs than cities. Therefore, he suggests, more suburbs equal bigger families.
However, his logic crashes into one of his other claims: that suburbia will continue to dominate real estate development because affluent nations (especially the United States) have become more suburban over time. If suburban sprawl has become the norm in affluent societies, and birthrates keep going down, suburban sprawl obviously has not raised birthrates, and will not raise birthrates in the future. By contrast, before the growth of suburbia, birthrates were far higher: in 1925, there were 25 American births per 1000 people, roughly twice the current level. In other words, the United States has tried Kotkin’s policies for decades, and they have failed dismally at keeping birthrates high.
Kotkin correctly points out that families are often priced out of cities. But if he really opposes new housing in cities, his book is part of the problem rather than the solution. The less housing we build, the more expensive it is- and the more expensive it is, the more city-loving families will leave. Conversely, more housing means lower prices, which means that more families will stay. Maybe Kotkin believes that families will never tolerate urban life no matter what we do- but since he discusses the large Brooklyn families of his parents’ youth, I doubt that he really believes this.
Kotkin argues that urban construction is inherently more expensive because “the cost of developing a garden apartment is roughly one-third that of developing a high-rise.” But he, of all people, should know that “urban” and “high-rise” are not the same thing: his own father grew up in low-rise Flatbush, a neighborhood with 65,000 people per square mile- more than fifteen times the density of suburbs such as Orange County, California (where Kotkin now lives). And because construction costs are sometimes only a small percentage of overall housing costs, mid-rises are often only slightly more expensive than walk-up apartments. I pay $2300 for a studio in a twelve-story building in Manhattan’s Murray Hill, only about 10 percent more than nearby walk-ups.
Kotkin also points out that suburbs tend to grow faster than cities, and that the overwhelming majority of building permits are for detached homes. He’s not wrong. But, again, here also the policies that he favors created the status quo. Building houses in undeveloped suburbs is easy, because there are few neighbors around to object. Building any form of housing in a city is more difficult, because neighbors can often persuade the city council to refuse a rezoning and thus exercise its veto power. And building apartments in a city is even harder than building houses there, because a city’s homeowners are even more likely to object to apartments than to houses- sometimes because they fear more crowding, and sometimes because apartments mean poor people and lower property values.
Kotkin is simply in denial on this issue: he writes that housing shortages have “been exacerbated by a regulatory and economic environment that has made it much tougher to build houses. Aimed at limiting suburban growth and fostering urban densities, these policies have broken the long, consistent relationship between housing costs and incomes.” But while he is correct that many anti-sprawl regulations exist, American land use policy is mostly designed to limit urban density: if Kotkin had bothered to read any city’s zoning code, he would have noticed a variety of anti-density regulations, including laws excluding apartments from many zones, requiring houses to gobble up large amounts of land, and requiring landowners to install government-dictated amounts of parking where housing could have been.
In addition to going on offense, Kotkin plays a superficially plausible game of defense. For example, he claims that even though city-dwellers drive far less than suburbanites, cities really produce more greenhouse gases than suburbs. He reasons that most studies of greenhouse gas emissions overlook “emissions from common-area elevators, lighting, space heating and air conditioning” but not similar emissions from single-family homes.
But here too, Kotkin relies on a false dichotomy between low-rise construction and dense urbanism. He claims that a study by EnergyAustralia (an energy company, not, as he erroneously writes, an “environmental group”) found “that both townhouses and detached housing produced less GHG emissions per capita than high-density housing.” Thus, Kotkin seeks to draw a distinction between “high-density” (bad) and “townhouses and detached housing” (good). But in fact, “townhouses and detached housing” exist in cities as well as suburbs, and can often be pretty dense. Philadelphia’s Italian Market area, dominated by rowhouses, has 42,000 people per square mile, ten times as many as Orange County. (Having said that, I couldn’t find this alleged study online so I can’t verify Kotkin’s description; he links to a report by pro-sprawl commentator and Center for Opportunity Urbanism fellow Wendell Cox, who in turn links to a dead link).
Kotkin cites another study claiming that residents of downtown Halifax, Nova Scotia have carbon footprints as large as those of suburbanites. But according to the news story he cites, the author of the study admitted that “part of the reason for the higher than expected carbon footprint in the core is that Halifax is not as dense as other cities, where assumptions about people living outside of the downtown core tend to have higher carbon footprints may hold true.” In other words, the study actually supports the idea that compact urban neighborhoods are more environmentally friendly.
Kotkin also claims that New York City, “despite its mass transit system and high density- was the most environmentally wasteful of the world’s roughly 30 megacities, well ahead of more dispersed, car-dominated Los Angeles.” In support of this view, he cites a study contained only two US regions; its abstract asserts that “the correlation between per capita electricity use and urbanized area per capita is shown to be a consequence of gross building floor area per capita, which is found to increase for lower-density cities.”- in other words, that lower density means more electricity use, not less. So why does New York use more energy than Los Angeles? First, the actual study compares metropolitan areas (including New York’s very low-density suburbs) not cities. Second, New York’s colder and more variable climate increases energy use related to home heating, while Los Angeles’ temperate climate reduces such energy use.
Unlike some conservative urban commentators, Kotkin at least treats air pollution and climate change as real problems. And unlike some liberals and urbanists, he sees high housing prices and low birthrates as serious problems. But his analysis is not always well reasoned, and his apathy (if not hostility) towards infill development renders his solutions counterproductive. Even more, this hostility causes him to misinterpret the nature of modern consumer demand, and the broader future of urban America. The high returns brought by dense development–and the organized resistance against it, through regulations, by entrenched interests–suggests that there are an awful lot of people who want to access the jobs and amenities within major U.S. cities. Kotkin’s apparent desire to stop this demand for urban life, and for neighborhood control over land use, is not libertarian, nor is it a particularly wise vision for society.