Saturday, April 3, 2010

Kotkin: "Nothing, Nothing, Nothing. Wow, What a Terrific Audience."

A gentleman named Joel Kotkin was in town recently as a guest of the local chamber of commerce for a book signing, an overpriced keynote address, and several recent articles about Texas including this one I found in Forbes.

Further, he was interviewed by a cheerleading, sycophantic DMN, which was referenced by a DMN "editor" in a truly bizarre DMN blog posting. Apparently, the DMN was under deadline and didn't have the time to actually analyze what Kotkin writes or says. Kotkin is so far from a "new urbanist" that actual members of the Congress of the New Urbanism were quizzically wondering whether it was an April Fools joke. Distilled, Kotkin promotes new highway construction and rejects transit and does so using the tired boogeyman of big, bad government taking your cars away. So why was he here?

The entire trip comes off as a metaphorical handjob for everyone and anyone that is willing to mindlessly declare Dallas as a world class city despite all evidence to the contrary without any understanding of what actually defines a world class city and how those traits emerge through concerted cultivation and stewardship. Fitting, because Kotkin routinely displays all the writerly hypocrisy of unprincipled, think-tank whorishness.

Don't Mess With Texas
Joel Kotkin, 03.30.10, 12:00 PM ET

One of the most ironic aspects of our putative "Age of Obama" is how little impact it has had on the nation's urban geography. Although the administration remains dominated by boosters from traditional blue state cities--particularly the president's political base of Chicago--the nation's metropolitan growth continues to shift mostly toward a handful of Sunbelt red state metropolitan areas.

During the exposition of any piece whether it is literature, cinema, or even a little Forbes article, the audience is particularly sensitive to hints of where the author is planning on taking us. Nice of Kotkin to warn us immediately that in this piece, like all of his work, he will be cloaking this ideological trope with his trademark phony intellectualism. Real urbanists take great care in both showing and proving that real urbanism is a large umbrella that supports the primary logical tenets of both right and left. Kotkin has a very specific and narrow audience. He is using a tried and true divisive technique to incite the reactionary.
Our Urbanist in Chief may sit in the Oval Office, but Americans continue to vote with their feet for the adopted hometown of widely disdained former President George W. Bush.

Point proven. Kotkin, ignoring that more people in history voted for Obama for presidency nationwide, is clearly pandering. And considering Dallas County went 58-42 in favor of the current president, something is obviously on his mind other than self-determination.
According to the most recent Census estimates, the Dallas and Ft. Worth, Texas, region added 146,000 people between 2008 and 2009--the most of any region in the country--a healthy 2.3% increase.

Other Texas cities also did well. Longtime rival Houston sat in second, with an additional 140,000 residents. Smaller Austin added 50,000--representing a remarkable 3% growth--while San Antonio grew by some 41,000 people.

Where are these people coming from and why? This is standard fare for Kotkin: overly simplistic analysis in order to bend data to his rhetoric. At a time, where people have less choice in the matter, he suggests that people are moving to Dallas specifially for the suburbs. Not sure if you, dear reader, has ever travelled or lived anywhere else, but there are suburbs in every city of the country. People are might be escaping out from under expensive houses where they may or may not be underwater. Perhaps they like warm weather. Also, as we have discussed, Texas has largely avoided huge housing because of regulation in the mortgage market.

The underlying issue is that it is not about suburbs it is about building cities that we can 1) afford and 2)are resilient, in that they remain useful to the economy. What Kotkin espouses is detrimental toward revitalization or to the future of cities. I will now spend the rest of this article stating why...

In contrast, most blue state mega cities--with the exception of Washington, D.C.--grew much more slowly. The New York City region's rate of growth was just one-fifth that of Dallas or Houston, while Los Angeles barely reached one-third the level of the Texas cities.

The other day I was out in downtown for a walk. Whilst playing frogger with my life aka putting our lives at the mercy of Dallas drivers conditioned to punch it first and ask questions later, I exchanged empathic glances with another individual crossing the road in the opposite direction. This person was wearing an "I (heart) New York" t-shirt. Go to any country in the world. Ask the locals about American cities. Ask college grads which cities would they like to live in. The data undermines his entire argument that it is about choice. People are moving to cities for reasons OTHER than choice.
These trends should continue: According to Moody's, Texas' big cities are entering economic recovery mode well ahead of almost all the major centers along the East or West Coasts. This represents a continuation of longer-term trends, both before and after the economic crisis. Between 2000 and 2009 New York gained 95,000 jobs while Chicago lost 257,000, Los Angeles over 167,000 and San Francisco some 216,000. Meanwhile, Dallas added nearly 150,000 positions and Houston a hefty 250,000.

If you could draw trend lines to infinity would one city have all the people in the world and every other city would head the way of Detroit? Things are much more cyclical unless you cynically expect all city leaders/citizens to be fully incompetent or dispassionate about the welfare of their particularly city, their home. If he is suggesting that people relocate solely by choice, then wouldn't their be more love, more desire to nurture their home, and cultivate their city?
This leads me to believe that the most dynamic future for America urbanism--and I believe there is one--lies in Texas' growing urban centers. To reshape a city in a sustainable way, you need to have a growing population, a solid and expanding job base and a relatively efficient city administration.

This baseless non-sequitor is disconnected from his entire argument. A sustainable city needs a growing population?! Why? Theoretically, that makes no sense whatsoever. The only way to be sustainable is to grow infinitely. Lest we forget that we live in a world of finite resources: land, capital, capability, oil, water, air, etc.

Kotkin and his ilk lack the ability to decipher what the difference is between "cutting edge" Texan new urbanism and urbanism anywhere else. What they don't understand is that urbanism is an objective framework for local people, materials, customs, and culture to flavor. Successful urban places are defined by commonalities that transcend all boundaries, despite what his mindless pandering will have you believe.

They feel that they are losing control and the people (like the Middle Class for whom Kotkin purports to be the great crusader) are being hoodwinked by some mythical oppressive force. Fortunately, this crowd who is largely underwritten by the sprawl industry and employed as status quo defenders, they seem to have reached bargaining stage of the grieving process:

"okay, you can have your urbanism and your sustainability whatever that is but Portland's version sucks and the disconnected cul-de-sac high-rises of Dallas and Houston are awesome!!! Now I can haz more highwayz plz?"

None of these characteristics apply to places like President Obama's hometown of Chicago, which continues to suffer from the downturn--but you would never know it based on media coverage of the Windy City.

The New Yorker, for example, recently published a lavish tribute to the city and its mayor, Richard Daley. But as long-time Chicago observer Steve Bartin points out, the story missed--or simply ignored--many critical facts. Mistaking Daley's multi-term tenure as proof of effectiveness, it failed to recognize the region's continued loss of jobs, decaying infrastructure, rampant corruption and continued out-migration of the area's beleaguered middle class.

Wow. Job losses during the worst recession in generations during a complete repurposing of the economy, decaying infrastructure when DOTs, cities, and states across the country are overextended if not bankrupt and corruption, those are clearly issues Chicago and Chicago-only is dealing in Kotkin's mind. "It must be because they have mass transit. Or are in a blue state. Whatever disconnected trait I can pull out of context to rouse the rabble."

Kotkin is clearly pandering once again; an attempt to marshal support for a movement to counteract the groundswell of urbanism for business interests or populations that aren't prepared to adapt to a changing world. Luckily for all cities, this will fail because there is no soul. It is an unprincipled and cynical attempt to dam the inevitable waters of progress and history. Things change when people are ready for them and a meme becomes a movement.

Generally speaking, as Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn points out, the repeated reports of an urban renaissance in older northern cities should be viewed with skepticism. In the Midwest region over the past year the share of population growth enjoyed in core counties--an area usually much larger than the city boundary--actually declined in most major Midwestern metros, including Chicago.

That solves it. Instantly, all things of all cities in blue states are inherently bad. And because that must be true, all things of all cities in red states must be good. This is Kotkin's logic.
Yet urbanists generally have not embraced the remarkable growth in the major Texas metropolitan areas. Only Austin gets some recognition, since, with its hip music scene and more liberal leanings, it's the kind of place high-end journalists might actually find tolerable. The three other big Texas cities have become the Rodney Dangerfields of urban America--largely disdained despite their prodigious growth and increasingly vibrant urban cores.

Austin is liberal. Clearly it must be an outlier, right Joel? There is no other explanation. Here he is playing the victim card once again. More pandering. This is tired and we are only half way through the article. It might as well just replace every stanza with "we're the victim, fear the other, we're the victim, fear the other" with the punctuation characteristically representative of signage in a tea bag really.
Part of the problem stems from the fact that all Texas cities are sprawling, multi-polar regions, with many thriving employment centers. This seems to offend the tender sensibilities of urbanists who crave for the downtown-centric cities of yesteryear and reject the more dispersed model that has emerged in the past few decades.

Yet despite planners' prejudices, places like Houston and Dallas are more than collections of pesky suburban infestations. They are expanding their footprints to the periphery and densifying at the same time.

Apparently, Kotkin magically appeared in Dallas and didn't fly in over the half-constructed neighborhoods ringing the DFW metroplex like the dead leaves hanging precariously from autumn trees.
Of course, like virtually all other regions, Houston and Dallas suffer excess capacity in both office buildings and urban lofts. But the real estate slowdown has not depressed Texans' passion for inner city development. Indeed, over the past decade the central core of Houston--inside the boundaries of the 610 freeway loop--has experienced arguably the widest and most sustained densification in the country.

Once again he shows his inability to distinguish the difference between contributive urbanism and simple, dense development that turns up its nose at context, at the street, at the rest of the city. This is largely a local symptom due to transportation planning and development happening in isolation. It is revealed in the helter skelter nature of its built form in Dallas and Houston.

When I think of bad density with no relation to its street, I immediately think of Lower McKinney, aka LoMac, which are defined by cul-de-sacs: the street defined by curb cuts, drop-offs, and porte cocheres, the parking garage in that residents have no reason to ever walk on a sidewalk and participate in urbanity, and the high-rise nature of the buildings themselves. Vertical cul-de-sacs in that they promote isolation rather than participating in the interconnected singular plane of urbanity.

Buildings (and in this case whole "neighborhoods"*) turn out this way because it is a bad hybrid of conventional and urban. It has the density of "urban", without the form, without the interaction with context. Urban is more than density. In fact, "urban" doesn't even require density. It accommodates density which is driven by desirability. What it requires is interaction between multiple buildings and its underlying transportation network in order to create attractive, resilient places that become desirable.

*I use quotes around neighborhood because does anybody think of LoMac as a neighborhood? No, because there is no relationship from building to building, nor from building to street. Neighborhoods are defined by the web of communication between buildings and streets. That is how things become places. These remain things, and in my estimation, despite being high value currently, will degrade long-term without extraordinary effort.
An analysis of building permit trends by Houston blogger Tory Gattis, for example, found that before the real estate crash, the Texas city was producing more high-density projects on a per-capita basis than the urbanist mecca of Portland. Significantly, as Gattis points out, the impetus for this growth has largely resulted not from planning but from infrastructure investment, job growth and entrepreneurial venturing.

Kotkin shows exactly why he is a dinosaur, a product of and defender of a dying logic. While on the surface, what he says seems to make sense. However, what is planning? Is infrastructural investment not a product of planning? Where is the differentiation between one type of planning and another? He is a supply-sider who believes that all we need is more road building and we can get back to the happy booming housing market of the 90s. Yes, Joel. Lack of road building was the pin that burst the housing bubble.

While infrastructural investment and entrepreneurship is exactly what we need, Kotkin cloaks his true intentions in what seems like a rational conclusion. He is really stating that we need new roads for entrepreneurs aka developers to keep building tract homes at the edge thus "unlocking the value" of the land. What he doesn't seem (or want) to understand is that there is no more market for that product to absorb and the potential value in land at the edge is proven to be overstated. He is showing that he is at odds with the "free market."

This process is also evident in the Dallas area, which has experienced a surge in condo construction near its urban core and some very intriguing "town center" developments, such as the Legacy project in suburban Plano. In Big D, developers generally view densification not as an alternative to suburbia but another critical option needed in a growing region.

Many of those condominium high-rises remain rather empty, because it was delivery of too much product without the demand. It sounds as though it was fueled by the same engine that built homes by the thousands in Las Vegas, in the San Fernando Valley, and condo high rises in Miami. So Joel, is this a local "Texan" phenomenon or a national one?
It's widely understood there that many people move to places like Dallas, whether in closer areas or exurbs, largely to purchase affordable single-family homes. But as the population grows, there remains a strong and growing niche for an intensifying urban core as well.

Kotkin always cites affordable homes as a defining characteristic of city's "on the right path." Detroit has affordable single-family homes. Why aren't people moving there? In Kotkin's rhetoric where context is externalized, swatted off as a pesky gnat, this should be all that matters correct? In the real world, prices are high in areas of high demand. Demand is representative of choice. Once again, everything he bases his arguments is undermined yet again.
Dallas and other Texas cities substitute the narrow notion of "or"--that is cities can grow only if the suburbs are sufficiently strangled--with a more inclusive notion of "and." A bigger, wealthier, more important region will have room for all sorts of grand projects that will provide more density and urban amenities.

Wrong Joel. I don't castigate the suburbs because of any reason that I "want to strangle them," but rather point out the temporal nature of them due to overshoot and their lack of inherent resilience due to their isolation.

While many people think cities are super complex things, they really aren't if you know how to look at them. All cities are emergent fractal patterns of human arrangement. They are the emergent form of economies defined by various cumulative integers defined by magnetic forces: things people want to be near and things they wish to be away from, thereupon overlaid onto a local geography.

The attractors and repellents are somewhat subjective. Where an interstate is important in linking regional economies, a highway within a city and its finely interconnected neighborhoods is considered a repellent force. People don't want to live near or walk along a freeway. The subjectivity lies within their individual willingness to do so.

The tragedy is that we undermine natural city forces by basing our inner-city transportation on roads people don't want to be on or near, but our businesses HAVE to be near for the visibility. This creates a tension between "place" planners and transportation planners and the outcome is an inefficient city that institutionalizes disinvestment. Kotkin's dream world sews the seeds of its own destruction.

This approach can be seen in remarkable plans for developing "an urban forest" along the Trinity River, which runs through much of Dallas. The extent of the project--which includes reforestation, white water rafting and restorations of large natural areas--would provide the Dallas region with 10,000 acres of parkland right in the heart of the region. In comparison, New York City's Central Park, arguably the country's most iconic urban reserve, covers some 800 acres.

Perhaps we are now seeing the point of Kotkin's appearance. Every word until this paragraph was meaningless. While Dallas citizens have shown that they want the Trinity River park, the reaction to the process ever since has been incredibly negative and almost visceral. One, I think, is justified.

They reacted strongly once they realized they have been sold a bill of goods in order to construct another freeway in an effectively broke city, broke state DOT, and are unable to properly maintain or appropriately and intelligently deal with the stress on the current super highway system of overpasses and interchanges. Did I mention that Dallas is in the top five of highway miles per capita?

Call me a cynic here, but I'm guessing Kotkin has been brought in by the Chamber of Commerce to argue for the new tollway. In their limited worldview, new highway construction means new jobs. I say limited, because reality and new studies are revealing highways to be drains rather than engines despite their limited initial spending (which is top down and centralized, by the way. Exactly what any fiscal conservative should be against.) which is why he is a hypocrite and all of his work will ultimately prove meaningless. If the purpose of life is to be eternal and live forever through the work we leave behind, Kotkin is doing a pretty lousy job.

I've come across many a Chambers of Commerce across the country, many of which are badly misguided. They have no understanding about how cities and economic development really work. In fact, they often end up simply as status quo defenders, inhibiting agents against progress. In the end they work to corrupt natural market forces.

If it is completed within 10 years, as now planned, the Trinity River project will not only spawn a great recreational asset, but could revitalize many parts of the city that have languished over the past few decades. It could become a signature landmark in the urban development of 21st-century America.

Wrong. North Oak Cliff is revitalizing in spite of the Trinity. It is happening whether any dirt is moved or not within the levees. It is a grass roots movement led by a community of creatives and organized, educated locals. Furthermore, this is supported by a federal goverment that actually gets it and has proven so in rejecting both Dallas and Fort Worth's initial streetcar tourist traps for one that is founded upon revitalization. Unfortunately for Kotkin, these truisms prove rather inconvenient for his argument.

As we look at the coming decades, this Texan vision may help define a new urban future for a nation that will grow by roughly 100 million people by 2050. To get a glimpse of that future, urbanists and planners need to get beyond their nostalgic quest to recreate the highly centralized 19th-century city. Instead they should hop a plane down to Dallas or Houston, where the outlines of the 21st-century American city are already being created and exuberantly imagined.

Texan vision? He acts as this is some coordinated effort. Wouldn't that be top down planning if it were a singular vision? Rather, what is happening is the citizens of all of the Texan cities are building community and qualitatively improving their cities to build a better quality of life. That is a human need. Not a Texan one. It just happens to be happening here in spite of all the new highways that Kotkin wants us to build.
Joel Kotkin is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is also an adjunct fellow at the Legatum Institute in London and serves as executive editor of He writes the weekly New Geographer column for Forbes. His latest book, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, is out now from Penguin Press.

Catty comment: Ever notice how these guys never get jobs at respected Universities? I'm sure they (reflexively)play the victim card once again and those smartypants institutions wrongly marginalize his brilliance.

So what is he actually arguing against? Blue states in general? The President??? Like all of Kotkin's writings and speeches, this article says nothing and it is a discredit to the DMN and Dallas Chamber of Commerce for treating him like someone that matters.

As far as cities go, Dallas is still in its adolescence, historically and consciously. We like to be patted on the head and told we are doing a good job. Hopefully, we all can mature past Kotkin's masturbatory gestures. It takes honesty and real intellectual curiosity. Or perhaps it is only the DMN, the Chamber of Commerce, and traffic planners that need to grow up. The rest of us seem to be doing just fine.