Joel Kotkin Wants to Turn Your City Into a Suburb

I kid, though if you read his recent missive, I might not be so off target:

What is a city for?

It’s a crucial question, but one rarely asked by the pundits and developers who dominate the debate over the future of the American city.

Their current conventional wisdom embraces density, sky-high scrapers, vastly expanded mass transit and ever-smaller apartments. It reflects a desire to create an ideal locale for hipsters and older, sophisticated urban dwellers. It’s city as adult Disneyland or “entertainment machine,” chock-a-block with chic restaurants, shops and festivals.

Overlooked, or even disdained, is what most middle-class residents of the metropolis actually want: home ownership, rapid access to employment throughout the metropolitan area, good schools and “human scale” neighborhoods.

Essentially, the city he calls for sounds a lot like an inner suburb with lots of mass transit. While Ben Adler has a good takedown of Kotkin’s article, there are two other problems worth raising. First, it’s really annoying when people conflate ‘metro area’ with city. The suburbs of Boston or D.C., while strongly tied to the actual city, are not the city. Dupont Circle is not like McLean, VA, nor is Waltham, MA like Back Bay. But in Kotkin’s piece–and in fairness, Richard Florida, the ‘anti-Kotkin’, does this all the time as well–there is the constant conflation between the actual city, or ‘city-like’ areas (in terms of density, mass transit etc., Cambridge, MA isn’t really different from Boston) and the larger metro area, which includes suburbs. Cities should be dense–and Kotkin’s hyperbole aside–that doesn’t require skyscrapers. Cities have an infrastructure that is suited to high density living (and as Adler notes, there seem to be quite a few people who want to live like this). Cities should be hubs of culture, art, and the fine arts. At the same time, there’s no reason to turn the burbs into Back Bay or Dupont Circle (though they’re both nice).

But the other thing has to do with the ‘popularity’ of what Kotkin describes, which sounds a lot like suburbia. Here’s the thing: most people really don’t like suburbia. Depending on their cultural and political inclinations, they either want to live in a small town/rural area or in… a city! Across the entire spectrum, suburbs do very poorly.

What’s weird in this conflation is that these metro areas do consist of different areas: despite the cool urban planning kidz referring to the D.C. metro area as the ‘DMV’ (which is the place you get your driver’s license), D.C. is not suburban Virginia or Maryland. They have different governments, different school systems, and so on.

Seems we’re arguing about different things.

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1 Response to Joel Kotkin Wants to Turn Your City Into a Suburb

  1. MaryL says:

    Hard to believe Nobody wants to live in a suburb given the donut ring shape of most urban areas. We love the suburbs. Our friends love it. Our dogs love it. Don’t need mass transit though there’s a bus stop 700 feet from here. I spend less than 25 minutes to get to my job counting wait time to get in the gate. I can make it to my seat at the symphony in 17 minutes or to the lake in the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Nope, we jus fine.

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