Development expert Joel Kotkin on suburban life: Mend it, don’t try to end it

Growth & Development Extra 2006

His latest book is The City: A Global History, but it is as America’s leading defender of suburbia that Joel Kotkin has made a mark. On one level, it’s hard to see why suburbia would need defending. As Kotkin regularly points out, more than 90 percent of the growth in US metropolitan areas since 1950 has taken place in the suburbs, and even as cities made their comeback, between 1990 and 2000, areas outside of cities grew faster. For hundreds of millions of Americans, the suburbs were and are where they choose to live. The only problem, for most people, is being able to afford a home in the suburb of their choice.

But suburbia has never gained respect, let alone approval, within the intelligentsia. At first—in the 1950s—the critique of suburbia was principally aesthetic. The suburbs were bland, conformist, lacking in character. At a somewhat later point—the ’60s and ’70s—they were also blamed for the demise of cities, the flight (largely white) from menacing metropolis to safe suburb explaining the decline of urban America into decay and ruin. Today, cities are no longer on the skids—in places like Boston, you’re lucky if you can afford the price of entry—yet the brief against suburbia has gotten, if anything, more urgent.

This time around, the complaint is coming from the hinterlands: Sprawl—the most aggressive, and increasingly common, form of suburban development—is chewing up land at an alarming rate, depositing ever-larger homes on ever-bigger lots; clogging roadways with cars that, in these mass transit- and pedestrian-free zones, are necessary for every trip and transaction; and destroying community character and domestic tranquility in small towns across the nation. The suburbs, it seems, must be stopped before they kill again.

Enter Joel Kotkin—New Yorker turned Californian, fellow of the New America Foundation, lecturer at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, mainstay of op-ed pages from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times—to set the record straight, or at least set the suburb-haters back on their heels. The headline of his essay last year in The American Enterprise blared GET USED TO IT: SUBURBIA’S NOT GOING AWAY, NO MATTER WHAT CRITICS SAY OR DO.“The battle against sprawl is over,” wrote Kotkin. “Sprawl won.” In Architecture magazine, Kotkin pleaded with design professionals to give up their preoccupation with cities and turn their professional attention to the places most Americans call home: “Creating a better suburban future is a noble—and potentially very profitable—calling…. And it’s a project worthy of the creative energies of architects, environmentalists, and planners—not their contempt and condemnation.”

(At the same time, Kotkin has become a vocal critic of “ephemeral” cities—Boston is one example—that he thinks run the risk of trying so hard to be cool that they fail their middle-class residents. “As long as the leaders indulge their fantasies about being ‘hip’ and neglect a firmer foundation, their cities will become little more than theme parks for the affluent—and symbols of lost opportunity for everyone else,” Kotkin warned in the Providence Journal in 2004. This has made him an antagonist of Richard Florida and his “creative class” strategy for economic development. See “Putting a Price Tag on the Arts,” page 78.)

When I spoke to him, by phone, at his home office in the San Fernando Valley, Kotkin had just put the finishing touches on The New Suburbanism: A Realist’s Guide to the American Future, a report produced for the Planning Center, a private consulting firm for which he serves as a senior adviser. The New Suburbanism is full of the familiar Kotkin message of suburbia triumphant, but it contains another theme that would warm the heart of the Bay State’s own sprawl-buster-in-chief, Office for Commonwealth Development Secretary Doug Foy: the village, with its density and mix of residential and commercial uses, as the center of suburban life, one that, anywhere it does not exist now, needs to be invented.

What follows is an edited transcript of my conversation with Joel Kotkin about cities, suburbs, his vision of America as an “archipelago of villages”—and why the New Urbanism ought to give way to a New Suburbanism.

CommonWealth: It isn’t that long ago—the late ’90s to around 2000—that all the talk was about the comeback of cities. The population drain of the ’70s and ’80s was over. Cities were hot. The people were coming back. Property values were rising. But you say that the phenomenon was overstated, if not ephemeral, and that even if cities, particularly larger cities like Boston, are not in decline as they once were, that the suburbs are still the growth centers, and we should expect them to be growth centers in the future.

Kotkin: Particularly in cities like Boston, which have a lot of intrinsic appeal, we’re not going back to the terrible conditions of the ’70s and ’80s. In fact, Boston’s period of decline goes back much earlier than that. My father went to medical school there and he’d tell me what Boston was like. Coming from New York, Boston in the 1930s and the early ’40s was like a dying city. There was a period of almost 40 or 50 years where there was not one single large, privately financed building built in Boston. Boston began to come back earlier than most American cities. In some ways, Boston is in the foreground of these trends. It was one of the first cities to really decline precipitously, in part because of political reasons. It was also one of the first cities to come back. I remember, as a kid growing up in New York in the ’70s, Boston was considered a nice place to go, and people were shocked that it had not deteriorated the way New York had. And I think Boston is now ahead of the game in this ephemeralization phenomenon, in which the city loses population, or holds steady or grows much slower than the area around it but changes its role. But, as the country goes from 300 million people to 400 million people in the next 40, 45 years, there’ll be room for Boston to grow modestly. The mistake was not to recognize that even when cities in the late ’90s were getting better, the suburbs were still growing faster. I think there was one year that New York City grew faster than the suburbs. That’s the one time The New York Times wanted to make the comparison. The numbers are so overwhelming even in the late ’90s, and since then, of course, it’s accelerated.

CommonWealth: So we should expect to see the pressures for growth, in both employment and housing, predominantly in the suburbs, and perhaps farther and farther away from the central city?

Kotkin: Right. In some cases it will be so far away that you will be in another city—like, you’re in Providence. The hope for some of the more troubled smaller cities in Massachusetts may very well be that they become effectively satellite communities of this greater agglomeration of Boston—that knowledge workers who can no longer afford to live in Boston, and, particularly, those who want to have kids, are going to want to move to the old industrial towns, which are still, at least by Boston standards, affordable.

CommonWealth: Now, as you say, we’ve had most of our recent growth in the suburbs and we should expect continuing pressure to grow farther into the suburbs. But what we’re also seeing increasingly is resistance to growth in the suburbs, and not just from those who would prefer to see that development steered toward the city. Rather, it’s suburbanites themselves who are complaining about traffic congestion, about strains on local revenue and natural resources, and about how the character of their town is changing. Isn’t the natural instinct just to call a halt to development?

Kotkin: Yes. And the odd thing is, the anti-sprawl sentiment is the very thing that accelerates sprawl. Look at Portland. [The Oregon city has established “urban growth boundaries.”] Portland’s urban area has actually expanded faster than most. That’s because if you restrict development, let’s say, in the inner ring, then people go to the outer ring. I’ll tell you how I came to this conclusion. It’s a funny thing. I was talking to my brother, who’s very politically liberal—much more liberal than I am. He lives in northern Westchester [County, in New York], and he doesn’t want it to grow. He said, “Obviously, what’s going to happen is people are going to go to Putnam and Orange and all the counties further north, because people [here] are going to decide we’ve had enough, so the next group of people are going to have to go somewhere else.”

What we’re headed toward is an archipelago of villages. What you may see in 40 years is a New England in which many small rural towns have doubled in population, and they are essentially no longer rural, except in appearance. I mean, you take a place like Northampton. I would imagine that when my father was going to school in Boston, Northampton was the countryside. Right? Smith was a college in the middle of the country. Now, it’s really part of this archipelago of urbanized communities that are scattered. I think that’s the form that growth will take, particularly in a place like New England. Of course, part of it is you’ve already got all these villages that have centers and all that, so you can build around that. But, can you really ask somebody who has finally gotten out of the city, gotten into the kind of suburban environment they were looking for and is plugged into some sort of business which is not dependent on local growth—for that person, what possible good does it do them to have another 50,000 people in their town?

CommonWealth: Now, the response among planners and thinkers in this area, and also in state government here, to the twin problems of sprawl and resistance to growth of any sort is so-called smart growth.

Kotkin: Right.

CommonWealth: On the level of symbolism, smart growth suggests that the negative impacts associated with growth are simply the result of dumb growth. Therefore, we can have growth without the negative consequences if we just follow smart-growth principles. But does this neat turn of phrase really square the circle? Does it sufficiently respect what people are seeking when they go to suburbia? And does it also respect what it is those who have already settled in suburbia are trying to resist?

Kotkin: Part of the problem is sort of the body language. I mean, [take the] New Urbanists, for instance, with whom I have some sympathies and some antipathies—I’m sure they have antipathy for me sometimes. On the one hand, a lot of their solutions are very practical. If you’re going to invest, invest in the town centers that already exist, and certainly provide options for denser housing for those populations that might want them. I would look particularly at some of the aging baby boomers as potential residents of a condominium in Northampton or Amherst. I think those things are probably acceptable and have good market bases. But the New Urbanists have several problems. One, they’ve allowed things to develop into kind of an orthodoxy, so that if you go to the suburbs of Washington, there are huge parts of it where everything has to look New Urbanist. Well, who is to say that 1910 architecture is the apogee of urban taste? We’ve done nothing since 1910 that’s worthwhile? The second thing is, militating against back yards—that’s a particular problem I have with them. You know what? If you have children, in particular, a back yard is great. And a lot of retired people are going to want a back yard. There is a Canadian demographer who has done a study that says, “What two activities grow most as people age? Gardening and birding.” Well, you can’t very well garden in a high-rise condominium.

CommonWealth: That’s true.

Kotkin: But more to the point—and I think this is a problem for Massachusetts, and why some are saying it’s becoming a granny state—if you don’t build places with back yards, people who have children will go to places where they can have them. I mean, I have two young daughters. I don’t particularly want them playing in the front unless I’m there with them. And this notion that, well, we’ll have communal places that people will go to—yeah, you know what? You’ll do some of that, but fundamentally most people want to have something that’s their own. And they will go to extraordinary lengths to get it. So I think part of the problem is, the New Urbanists disrespect the suburbanites and are often indifferent to families. What you find, interestingly enough, is that many of the New Urbanists don’t have kids. And if they do have kids, they’re very wealthy and, you know, money can buy you out of almost any urban problem. But how many New Urbanists are people with children? I can tell you from my own school of architecture, virtually the entire upper echelon of that school has no kids. So when I start talking about suburbs, they say, “Oh, they’re horrible, horrible, horrible.” Besides the fact that most of them still live in single-family houses, I say, “Well, you don’t have kids.”

CommonWealth: So tell me about what you call the New Suburbanism and how that differs not only from the old suburbanism, which seems still to have considerable attraction, but also the anti-suburban, even anti-family, tendencies you associate with New Urbanism?

‘New Urbanists disrespect the surburbanites
and are often indifferent to families.’

Kotkin: Well, the first thing is, New Suburbanism is an attempt to direct our attentions to the problems of suburbia and to the advantages of suburbia. I mean, one of the things that New Urbanists as a group will have to deal with, if you ally yourself with James Howard Kunstler [author of Geography of Nowhere], is that you’re basically telling suburbs that they deserve to die. You’re telling millions of people whose most important investment is a house in a suburb that they deserve to have their suburbs blow away and die. And New Suburbanism starts with the assumption that suburbs evolved not out of a conspiracy of oil companies and greedy developers or even fundamentally because of racism—suburbs in many cases are now becoming more diverse than cities—but out of a fundamental desire by human beings to have an environment that blended something of the country with something of the city. This is a longstanding desire. So New Suburbanism starts with the idea that suburbs are, in some ways, intrinsically good and should not be campaigned against or vilified. A person who starts by vilifying suburbia is not the right person to solve its ills.

Then, New Suburbanism asks, what has been wrong with suburbia and what has been right? The right part of suburbia has been that it has created, for an extraordinary number of people around the country—and this is also true of Australia and Canada and to a lesser extent in the UK and parts of Europe—a quality of life, a degree of privacy, and a degree of autonomy that is unprecedented. Now, I know that Europeanists, or traditional Jane Jacobs-type urban romantics, look at these things as horrors. But you know what? Densities that were developed during the Industrial Revolution were way greater than those of other urban areas beforehand. People did not want to live that way. And there is an intrinsic desire—I call it in the book “the universal aspiration,” quoting a 1960s urbanist—to have their own space, often a house, sometimes a condo or a townhouse, but something that’s their own. And we have succeeded beyond the capabilities of any civilization in history to provide that on a mass basis, to lots of people, and to those of an amazing variety of incomes and races and family forms. I mean, even gay people with kids want to move to the suburbs.

CommonWealth: So, where have the suburbs gone wrong?

Kotkin: On the private side, in many ways we’ve done a very good thing. The fault, as I see it, is that on the public side, many suburbs, like where I live in the San Fernando Valley, were developed without adequate park space and open space, which we should have been able to do. Fortunately, some of the newer suburbs, if they have the foresight, can do that. At the same time, we did not preserve existing town centers or create new ones. And that is something that’s lacking. Thirdly—and I think this is where we’re going to go in the long term, moving toward this archipelago of villages—we’ve built suburbs without providing for the cultural and economic wherewithal so that people do not have to commute. Part of the urbanist strategy in some senses is to force people to live or work in the city. I have a one-word New York answer for that trend: Fuhgeddaboutit. People will inevitably look to work closer to where they live.

We’ve done a poor job on the planning level of bringing jobs to the suburbs. Now, where they’ve done that a lot, the commutes are much shorter, Houston being a good example. In places like LA, the commutes are not getting longer, because people are opting to work closer to where they live. With the advantages of the digital economy, you can do that more and more. So, in a funny way, I think we’re heading toward post-industrial America looking like pre-industrial America, where many people work at home or work close to home. In my neighborhood, which is very diverse, lots of people work in the entertainment industry. There are accountants, real estate agents, voice coaches, prop makers, and most of them work at least partially at home. And many of them live in this neighborhood because we happen to be close to three or four of the major studios.

I think we have a chance to, in a sense, go back to the garden city ideals of Ebenezer Howard. The notion of the bedroom suburb was not what Ebenezer Howard had in mind, or H.G. Wells or Thomas Carlyle or Friedrich Engels—all people who, for their own reasons, thought suburbia was the way to go. Suburbia had its Deadwood phase [referring to the 19th-century Dakota Territory gold-rush town, currently dramatized in the HBO series Deadwood], and the Deadwood phase was mass production suburbs. It did some very good things. We need to, in some ways, have respect for what Levittown did. But now we’ve got to get to another phase, and we have technology to make this possible. We have ways of dealing with the transportation needs, I think, that are more intelligent than the ones we’re trying to impose, and we can get into that.

But fundamentally, we can make suburban communities more self-sufficient, and I think this is happening, culturally, with restaurants and other things. One of the biggest changes I notice in the country today is that you can go to a suburb and get a good meal. That was not the case 20 or 30 years ago. You know, my brother tells me, in the Hudson Valley now there are good art museums, there are good restaurants, good first-run movie theaters. When he moved there 20 years ago, they weren’t there. Same thing’s true here in the San Fernando Valley. Within 10 minutes of my house are some of the best sushi, Thai, and Middle Eastern restaurants in LA.

This is where I think the development community has an enormous opportunity, which is, if you will, the urbanization of suburbia. The rise of suburbia can be viewed by some as the death of cities. I see what’s happening as the triumph of urbanism over an ever-expanding canvas. So urban life becomes possible in Fargo, North Dakota. When I first started going to Fargo about 10 years ago, and I go pretty regularly, I brought my own coffee. It was so bad [there] I’d bring a little bag of coffee from Pete’s in Studio City. Today, there are numerous good places to get coffee. You can get a good Italian meal. You can get a good Indian meal. You can go to a play. You can see the Rolling Stones. Downtown they even have a clothing store that appeals to metrosexuals. So, in a funny way, it’s both the eclipse of the traditional form of urbanism in its dominance and the expansion of urbanism to an ever-growing variety of geographies.

CommonWealth: The suburban village concept is central to your notion of a New Suburbanism, and also central to the smart growth mantra here in Massachusetts coming out of the Office for Commonwealth Development. To what extent does that satisfy what you referred to as the “universal aspiration” for a single-family home with a back yard? How do apartments over the stores and townhouses clustered around train stations, which we’re getting the argument for here, satisfy that longing for the starter home with the yard that we have in such short supply—and at such high prices—today? Don’t we need a smart-growth equivalent of Levittown?

Kotkin: The successful suburban villages thrive in large part because they’re surrounded by communities of single-family homes. I mean, if you go to Fullerton, [Calif.], or Naperville, [Ill.], or Downers Grove, [Ill.,] where you have thriving suburban villages, around them are fairly affluent but definitely long-term middle-class families who provide the customer base for the stores, who go to the restaurants, and in some cases are linked to the people who live in the townhouses—people who’ve sold their home or the grandma who is moving closer to the grandkids, or the kid who wants to be closer to the parents. The suburban village is both an adjunct to the single-family home, in the sense of being a preferred amenity or simply an alternative to the old-fashioned mall—in some cases the malls are being turned into suburban villages themselves—and [also] an option for the diversity of suburbia. As suburbia becomes ever more the center of the economic life of the country, you start getting different kinds of people moving in there. A friend of mine is a big developer in Houston, and he says their biggest growth in housing has been apartments for single people. If somebody’s working in the energy corridor of Houston or in the Thousand Oaks area of California, where Amgen is, there’s going to be a certain number of people who are single or don’t have kids or are there temporarily or are in transition, or the dad who’s divorced but the kids still live in the house and he figures that maybe in a complex there’ll be other single people there, and maybe there’s a couple of things to walk to. I think these things are not contradictory. I would see these things as complementary. If you take a place like Valencia or the Woodlands [planned communities outside Los Angeles and Houston, respectively], where you’ve developed the shopping and businesses near where people live, this is a tremendous opportunity for people to live a much more reasonable way. Whether you’re commuting by train or by car, this notion of spending an hour, an hour and a half, to go from one computer screen to another makes absolutely no sense at all. I’ve worked at home for 25 years. I think I’d hang myself if I had to go to an office.

CommonWealth: I think if there is one big distinction between your New Suburbanism and the smart-growth agenda in Massachusetts it is in the state push for transit-oriented development. We have a large and ever-expanding public transportation system here, and the state is naturally looking to get the most out of that as growth goes forward. But you argue that new development has to be accommodating of the auto-oriented lifestyle that is already entrenched in suburbia. Should we be building and expanding roads here and not just building rail lines, all of which terminate in downtown Boston?

Kotkin: I would be pragmatic about it. Now, where you have existing transit systems, and Boston still is a relatively dense city, you certainly want to make it work well. But I don’t think transit ridership over time has been growing. When oil prices go back down to $2.50 or people trade in their SUVs for something more reasonable—this is what happened in the ’70s—fundamentally, the automobile is going to [remain] the primary means of transportation. What you really want to do is figure out who is the transit-dependent population and how do we serve them better? What I think works in many cases is dedicated bus lines. They’re much cheaper than rail lines. You can build them to a much longer [distance]. And they can be relatively fast, with synchronized traffic lights. Why would you spend five times as much money on light rail except to enrich contractors? I like the approach they’re taking in Houston, which is very flexible. They have put some light rail in their dense corridor between downtown and the Houston Medical Center. But in expansions, they’re starting out with the [bus rapid transit] line, and on the toll roads, part of the deal is that buses go for free. So you can have very, very fast transportation and very flexible transportation, which can respond to what the market demands are. We all know that in many of the light rail systems in this country—go anywhere, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas—most of the time those trains are empty. And they’re incredibly expensive. In some cases, you could buy each [transit rider] a car for less. I think bus lines are probably the best solution—again, dedicated bus lines, which have many of the nice [features] of rail transit. They have their own right of way, they have nice places to sit, they keep schedules. The problem with the urban bus system, as you know, is that it’s awful. It’s slow. It’s unpredictable.

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I think in some cases we might think about things like toll roads, with congestion pricing. Bob Galvin, who’s financing one of the studies I’m working on for the Reason Foundation [a libertarian think tank], made a very good point. He said, “People think that cities will grow by choking the roads, but it’s the cities that die in the end.” If it takes an hour to get from a suburb to Boston, you start going to Boston less and less and you start looking for ways to work closer to home. This archipelago of villages will be expanded not just for good reasons, like family and environment, but it’ll be expanded because the urbanists have decided to declare war on the road system, and oddly enough, it will accelerate the very trends they’re trying to stop.

There’s almost a lack of pragmatism. The planning schools are so addicted to a religion—we ought to call it the Church of the Jane Jacobs Latter-day Idealists or something. Look, when I was younger, I read Jane Jacobs. I thought some of her critique of the redevelopment of New York City was fantastically good. But the Jane Jacobs world doesn’t exist anymore. The neighborhoods that she saw as these woven-in, multigenerational neighborhoods where you could leave your kids with the person next door—those neighborhoods don’t exist. They’re being replaced by a large percentage of people with second and third homes and people who are there for two years. I was just talking to a real estate investment trust guy, and he was talking about buildings in San Francisco that he says are empty two-thirds of the time. They’re filled with people for whom, you know, it’s a pied-à-terre. The problem of nostalgia, this desire to go back to a lost world—I mean, there are some good things to preserve, but trying to employ early 20th-century technology in a 21st-century economy has a lot of problems.