Monday, July 12, 2010

America 2050: Urban or Suburban?

Greg Lindsay of Fast Company covered a debate between Chris Leinberger (urbanist) and Joel Kotkin (suburban partisan) held by the Forum on Urban Design in Manhattan. They threw some statistics at each other, but ultimately Kotkin was reduced to his tired old crutches:
  • that suburbia was actually driven by the invisible hand of the market, willfully ignorant of the invisible arm government played in pushing over-suburbia along; and
  • and that delivering functional and aesthetic urbanism to a wishful pent-up market is somehow social engineering or manipulation.
What he fails to recognize is that planning today no longer represents the large-scaled version of 20th century, he so rails against. Of course, we won't allow the truth of a changing world affect his personal biases.

If suburbia was actually market-oriented, why is it the same everywhere? To answer my own rhetorical question, it is because it is not market-oriented, but built out of the same underlying genetic code of suburbia. The same parking formulae, the same single-use zoning, the same traffic impact analyses, etc. All of which constructed based on suburban models, thus producing more suburbia. Being disconnected from reality is why it has failed us.

People are different. We have different needs, wants, and preferences, and a market-responsive city would reflect those various emotional desires and the degrees to which segments of the population value them.

I do agree with him in one aspect however, that the future of urbanism is in cities like Dallas, but not for the reason he thinks. He believes that the future somehow lies within the current iteration of Plano:
Kotkin believes the next hundred million Americans will largely eschew “superstar” cities such as New York, Boston, San Francisco and the west side of Los Angeles because of housing costs. They'll opt instead to live in "cities of aspiration," such as Dallas, Houston, Charlotte and Atlanta. His America in 2050 looks a lot like the Dallas suburb of Plano, Texas, which has the highest household median income and the highest percentage of residents with college degrees of any American city with more than 250,000 inhabitants.
He is wrong, not with the Where, but the What and the Why. The future of American Cities lies within the Metroplex because of the disconnect between a very high potential and that very same existing format Kotkin believes is the future.

Dallas represents the future as we reconstruct a city that can keep the talent it exports and even begin importing some. It is the future because of the gap between ambition and reality. Only listening to Kotkin and his ilk is what keeps us from getting there.

His claim here illustrates his own bias. He sees the world through his frame and projects that as reality on all others. He wants market manipulation and social engineering. Whether it makes him money for consultancy or out of mere (and logically deficient) contrarianism, I don't know.

He likes suburbia so we must all live in it. We're just trying to offer choice, allow users to define their own lives, and make cities work to their utmost potential in delivering all of our emotional needs and wants, efficiently, effectively, and elegantly.

And that undermines Kotkin's precious worldview.