Kotkin Takes Aim at Urbanists

Naming Richard Florida, Carol Coletta and ULI as pro-urban forces, Joel Kotkin accuses them of having "wishful thinking" in regards to the back-to-the-city movement. Kotkin says people want single-family homes, not condos.

Kotkin says that polling data shows that the majority of people would prefer to live in the suburbs over the city:

"Behind the condo bust is a simple error: people's stated preferences. Virtually every survey of opinion, including a 2004 poll co-sponsored by Smart Growth America, a group dedicated to promoting urban density, found that roughly 13% of Americans prefer to live in an urban environment while 33% prefer suburbs, and another 18% like exurbs. These patterns have been fairly consistent over the last several decades."

Full Story: The Myth of the Back-to-the-City Migration



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The WSJ requires a subscription to read the article, but it's available for free on the author's website:

Why is it so difficult for

Why is it so difficult for this guy (and his ilk) to understand that not everybody wants the same thing he does?

Yes, some people want to live in single-family houses, the majority of which are in SUBURBS. Modern society tells us that we're subhuman if we don't own a house, so a large group of our society subconsciously believes that they're worthless if they don't own a house, even if it means going broke to do it. Our entire lives we've all been taught to believe that we haven't accomplished anything until we own a stick-built house. And now we're surprised that people believe they want to live in houses? There's a lot of psychology at play here, not the free-market ideals Kotkin supposedly advocates.

However, some people want to live in cities, and in a lot of cases, would be perfectly happy with a condo. Are the over one and half million full-time Manhattanites really being held in their condos against their free will?

And still others want to live in the woods, or on forested mountains, or at the beach. Or on a farm.

Different people want different things, and as long as our governments tilt laws to favor one kind of development over another the free market won't be able to provide the kinds of places that real people want to live. Additionally, we presently have enough suburban and exurban housing stock to support home purchases for the next twenty years. If everybody really wants one, why do we need to force developers to keep building more, even now that we've had a crisis due in part to overconstruction?

Oh, that's right... because you need to have a new house ready and waiting in the next county over when your low suburban tax rates catch up with you, since eventually you and your neighbors have to pay the cost of maintaining all that urban infrastructure that had to be built to facilitate your suburban lifestyle. But that's only a problem for the people that can't afford to pay the toll to board the life raft when the ship starts sinking. I'm sure Mr. Kotkin won't have too much trouble affording the move out of town when his infrastructure bill comes due.

Ah, the American Dream: live cheaply and wastefully until you can't anymore, then move somewhere else where you can. Rinse and repeat.


Everybody wants something different. I grew up in the suburbs and would love a more rural place (5 - 10 acres); my wife grew up in Philly and hates the urban environment, although she loves mass transit. There is a move, however, as the author points out, that seems to say "we should all live in the urban environment". Outside of NYC, Chicago and such, most downtowns are not places that are dense. On the other hand, most suburbs where I reside (Florida) are dense(ish) - 7 or 8 units per the acre. Can I walk to a store? No, it is about a mile from my house and when it is 95 degrees, I would rather drive. On the otherhand, within 5 miles of my house I have three supermarkets, three Walmarts, two Targets, a Ross, TJ Maxx, Steinmart, about 15 chain restaurants and probably 30 smaller ones, plus a mall. Only work is a half hour commute. Suburban life is not what it was 30 years ago....

Homework vs. Hyperbole

Paul Lewis is co-author of “The Complexity of Public Attitudes toward Compact Development: Survey Evidence from Five States” with Mark Balassare. In my brief e-mail exchange about the article, Lewis said, “it’s true, the “d” word (density) scares off respondents, whereas they are much more willing to embrace mixed-use and a small home, short commute combination, as well as, infill development (which was only asked in the 2002 California survey)." The article was published in JAPA (April 2010) and includes analysis of respondents from four other states interviewed in 2007. These were Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada.

The survey asked respondents to make tradeoffs between compact places and sprawling places. In these tradeoffs, the respondents tended to be more receptive to the idea of living in a mixed-use place over one described as having high density. The survey sought to discover consumer preferences involving four dimensions of “compactness” mixed use, commuting, and choice of residence, including infill development. Developers know that one does not occur without the other, but the perception of what density is varies greatly. In New York City, the average is close to 30,000 people per square mile and nearly all of its neighborhoods retain an extensive list of mixed uses in walkable convenience for both goods and services sector. The range runs from almost 90,000 people per square mile in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to the 5,000 per square mile in Hollis, Queens.

Promoting an end game in urbanization that does not confront our responsibility to make the "d" word work promotes bad planning and poor judgement. Would not Kotkin recommend taking a step back from America’s enslavement to market forces in housing? He should. This brief step would reveal the damage it will do to us all. This is a time to lead not follow, and it is people like Lewis and Balassare doing it.

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