The New Suburbanism

Author and commentator Joel Kotkin and consulting firm, The Planning Center, team up to produce what they are calling 'A Realist's Guide to The American Future.'

"For the better part of a half century, many of America’s leading urbanists, planners and architects have railed against suburbia. Variously, the suburbs have been labeled as racist, ugly, wasteful or just plain boring. Yet despite this, Americansâ€"including many immigrants and minoritiesâ€"continue to “vote with their feet” for suburban or exurban landscapes.

These areas, essentially the metropolis outside the traditional urban core, have also increasingly snagged the lion’s share of new economic growth and jobs. Projections for expansion of the built environmentâ€"estimated to grow 50 percent by 2030â€"will be in the suburbs and exurbs, most particularly in sprawling, lower-density and autodependent cities of the South and West. The key challenge facing developers, builders, planners and public officials, will be how to accommodate this growth. This can best be done, not by rejecting the suburban idealâ€"which would violate the essential desires of most Americansâ€"but by crafting ways to make it work in a better, more efficient and humane way.

...The core of our approach is that, in general, suburbs are good places for most people, and
we need only to fi nd ways to make them better. We reject the notion of the continued
primacy of the city center held by many urbanists, and the widespread assertion that
suburban life is, on principle, unaesthetic and wasteful."

Full Story: The New Suburbanism (PDF, 1MB)



Joel Kotkin has become a

Joel Kotkin has become a wolf in sheep's clothing - a conservative futurist disguised by his credentials and affliliations with well-regarded academic institutions and think tanks. That has now ended. Now we have seen the affiliation with the far-right Reason Foundation, and the citation of Wendel Cox as a reference. Despite what the report refers to as planners' "ballyhoo" of downtowns and mass transit, the report's message is hardly revolutionary; rather, it is a shill for the status quo: single-use, low-density, and automobile-dependent.

The New Suburbanism

Admittedly I read this report very fast. Joel Kotkin as some of the other commentators have noted states the obvious, the suburbs are the current thing and the next big thing, but in the process of doing this I am left wondering why he, and The Planning Center, don't just give it up and accept New Urbanism's victory in the semantic wars. The report's solutions, emphasis on reconfiguring and expanding existing villages, planning new villages, and greenfield villages, along with its call for more intellegent compactness, its use of the word "villages" (we are fast becoming a nation of 400,000,000 people living in villages?), many of the examples (Orenco Station, Mizener Park, etc.) all bespeak an winking embrace of New Urbanism and a simultaneous attempt to create a semantic trick that creates promotional notice. I feel like I am reading a sequel to the same book that has been around for almost two decades; or the same book repackaged with a new title and cover Notwithstanding this criticism, the report does identify the situation: the continued centrifugal shaping of North American cities. In this regard there are some missed opportunities in the analysis that deserve exploration. I can think of two areas worth pursuing.

From an economic point of view the report never really addresses the policy, political and economic nexus that hugely advantage suburbs and the prospects and challenges for their continuation. Perhaps this state will naturally continue in its status quo but one wonders whether the continued unaffordability of housing, unsustainability of ever-expanding car-oreinted infrastructure systems, and continued subsidization of home mortgages, ability to depreciate commecial real estate assets quickly etc. will in fact stay fixed. If these begin to change one suspects that urban form and even popularly favored urban form will change with it. Should policy leaders not plan for as well as anticipate different possible futures rather than continue relying on the one size fits all village metaphor?

From a design point of view villages are wonderful, a lot of us want to live in them, but they barely begin to describe the range of choices and design solutions that exist in the urbanized metropolis today - and in the future. What about suburbs without edges?, what about suburban downtowns?, or no town suburbs?, what about bicycle cites and bus cities that emerge from car suburbs? The list is endless. While the report hints that variety is useful, the solutions offered are the mere tip of the iceberg. Still, hats off to the attempt to reposition the semantic debate. This is always useful.


Apparently to ChevyChase DC, "far right" must translate to "anyone who I don't specifically agree with right now".

If you bothered to even read any of their work, you'd find that they've published studies/editorials that:

* Condemn Kelo style eminent domain

* Bash President Bush's budget approach

* Questions the competency of the Iraq War

* Poked a jab at those who advocate teaching intelligent design in the classroom

* Took the Supreme Court to task for allowing the federal government to trump the right of the state of California to allow medicinal marijuana.

Also by the way, take a look at any of these articles to see them advocate for form based zoning codes, higher density, and preservation of open space.

Overarching characterizations are hardly if ever right, especially this one..

Is Suburbia really a "choice"?

Voting with your feet assumes that there is some reasonable menu of choice. Mr. Kotkin must reside in some utopic state that has a wide variety of housing options for public consumption. If I offer fried liver or tripe to a starving man, he's going to have to chose one of them. I do agree with Mr. Kotkin on the assumption that developers and officials need to figure out a more efficient way of providing options - key word being options, more than two. For the past 50 years there has only been one option to dense packed downtowns, and we all know that it is inefficient. Good luck, Joel.

New Suburbanism

Mr Kotkin and the people of The Planning Center must be warmly congratulated for this fine effort.

Its core message - as the writer reads it - is that people need to stop fighting suburbanisation - and work together more constructively, to get better outcomes in social, environmental and economic terms.

In particular, those charged with the responsibity for land use regulatory administration, can only fulfil this role if they learn to work with markets and not against them. They should not degrade this important role by allowing themselves to be used by special interests, hell bent on turning it in to a game of political protection and privilege.

Misusing politics as a vehicle, imposes huge and unnecessay costs on people and their communities - as in just one case - housing affordability. The recently released Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey 2005 ( ) clearly illustrates the massive performance differences of the 88 major urban areas of the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In short - households should not have to pay any more than 3 times their annual income to house themselves. Those urban above "3" need to examine urgently, why they are above this important affordability threshold.

If one has any criticism of this important report, it is in how it seemed to skirt over this key issue and I would urge the authors to consider this issue more carefully.

All in all - a fine effort. Well done.

Planners follow the money, but who gets left behind?

The 'Realist's Guide' is a nice blend of new urbanist critique and the apple pie we know and love as Planners. I must admit, I live in the suburbs. However my ride to work on the express bus provides an elevated view. And from the karma-charged moral high ground, I wonder:

If all the planners follow the money to provide these wonderful living and working environments in the 'burbs, who's going to stay behind? Who's going to help to revitalize, and sustain our Cities, and the millions of residents who can't afford to do the rational thing and move to their quarter-acre paradise?

Probably Public Administration majors, I suppose.

Robert Torzynski, AICP
Rochester, NY

measuring community

"Indeed, research suggests that suburbanites, particularly homeowners, are in fact more involved than their urban counterparts in their communities, as measured by voting, church attendance and neighborhood associations."

no research cited? big surprise.
this is an overly simplistic way to measure involvement in community, as any serious person, especially a planner, should know.

A disingenuous piece by Kotkin

"Assertions on the rebirth of the inner core, however well intentioned and compelling, are also greatly overstated. In reality, traditional cities are either shrinking or growing far more slowly than their suburbs almost everywhere. Such cities retain an important role and have much to teach the expanding periphery, but overall the future clearly belongs to the suburbs and exurbs."

Mr. Kotkin uses a slew of statistics in nicely coloured chart form to make his point that suburbs are growing faster than inner cities. He then uses this data to support his claim that "the future belongs to suburbia." What an absurd bit of non-reasoning; he gives no reasons for his hypothesis that suburban development will continue anabated into the future, making the simplistic assumption that recent trends will continue just because they will. How un-scientific. He also claims somewhere that rising energy costs will likely have little effect on these trends. Yeah, right. And I suppose rising enegry costs won't have any effect on SUV sales or big box retailing either? Wake up, Joel, there's an enrgy crisi loomking! He even admits there is a trend towards inner cities again, as below:

"Even in the late 1990s, a period in which some core cities enjoyed their first population gains in decades, for every three households that moved into central cities, five departed for the suburbs."

...but he still claims that this is insignificant in determining future projections. Could it be possible that future trends might start slowly then increase? He obviously prefers his own biased assumptions, which he spends the first half of this piece trying to support with data from the past, which is nearly irrelevant in making such a case. I'm flabbergasted.

Also, Mr. Kotkin seems to take "increased risk of crime" in the inner city as a given, without providing any sources. As far as I'm aware, statistics do not support this. There is, I believe, only a perception of safety in the suburbs, which the facts do not back up, although I'm open to correction on this matter. I don't know any immediate stats, but my point is that Kotkin doesn't seem to know any either.

Also, Kotkin seems to think that he can have his cake and eat it too in terms of suburban design. Large lot development simply will not work if it is combined with public open spaces and protected areas. There has to be some give and take in this regard, otherwise the density will be so low as to undermine all the potentially good ideas in this piece, all of which I might add are borrowed directly from the new urbanist handbook. It is remarkable how he can deride new urbanism's proponents to harshly while relying on them so heavily. The language used in this piece is unneccessarily confrontational and patronizing towards new urbanism.

Finally (and I'm sorry to go on so long) the "suburban" success stories he discusses all incorporate so many elements not associated with what we all know of as suburbia as to be a whole different beast. All of the elements he proposes are the same kind of suggestions that almost any new urbanist would suggest for refitting suburbs: more community oriented, healthier, more walkable, including mass transit, with identifiable centres. These things put together are a completely different story than the kind of suburban development that I am familiar with, and which I believe is nearly ubiquitous.

I believe Kotkin is trying to appeal to a certain suburban demographic who have gotten their backs up after hearing so much criticism of their lifestyle. He is vilifying the urban core while slipping in a trojan horse of new urbanist ideas while his audience is still frothing in their indignation towards the common urban enemy. He is clever in this attempt, but very disingenuous.

Again, sorry to hog the board. I welcome any criticism of my comments.

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