Connect with CP&DR

facebook twitter

Follow us on Facebook and Twitter

De-Kotkinizing the Planning Debate, Part 2

Aug 27, 2007

Last week's blog about Joel Kotkin and his article in the L.A. Times decrying the supposed "Manhattanization" of Los Angeles stirred up quite a bit of debate. Here's Part 2 of the Bill Fulton blog on Kotkin.

Background: The biggest fuss last week came on Curbed L.A., the website that loves to hate Kotkin, where both Kotkin-bashers and Kotkin-lovers had a field day. A toned-down version of the Kotkin blog – which doesn't mention him by name but suggests that L.A. is Pasadena-izing rather than Manhattan-izing – was published in the L.A. Times yesterday (8/26). Now, on to Part 2.

Joel Kotkin is one of the most widely read and widely quoted commentators on cities and urban planning in the United States today. But I have to admit that when I pick up the paper or click to a new web page, I often wonder which Kotkin I'm going to encounter.

There's the thoughtful, measured author of The City: A Global History and co-author of many provocative but nevertheless carefully researched studies about demographic and economic trends. Then there's the bomb-throwing op-ed writer and speechifier who carelessly throws around facts and ideas in the service of his latest contrarian argument.

I suppose it's the price of celebrity in America today – even for mini-celebrities of the Kotkin type – that you have to call attention to yourself with flashing billboards however you can in order to get people to take a look at your more serious ideas. But in the popular media (if you can call such venues as the Los Angeles Times and the Wall Street Journal the "popular" media these days), Kotkin creates an extremely exaggerated version of what he believes -- and gets surprisingly careless with the facts along the way.

Let's start with the serious stuff. His recent book, The City: A Global History, is actually a pretty good read. Lewis Mumford the guy is not, as he more or less admits in the text, but it's worth reading for a couple of different reasons.

The first is that it's very short – only 160 pages – and for that reason it's kind of a Cliff Notes version of the history of cities. Much of the book consists of bite-sized descriptions of various cities at various points in history, and in contrast to the typical Kotkin attitude on the op-ed pages, it's written in a pretty straightforward fashion. In fact, there's a certain uncharacteristic humility about the entire book; Kotkin readily admits that tackling the whole history of cities, especially in 160 pages, is an overwhelming task. Kotkin also deserves a lot of credit in this book for giving considerable attention – and insight – to Asian cities, which snootier American urbanists tend to overlook. (Kotkin has always been good on Asia, dating back to his business journalism days during the 1980s, when he was among the first to document the strong economic links between Asia and L.A.)

The City is also worth reading because – at the beginning and the end of the book, when he's not giving us a Cook's tour of world cities – we get the most thoughtful and most fully fleshed-out version of the Kotkin Philosophy on Cities. The essence of his argument is that cities are shaped by the need to create three different types of space – sacred space, safe space, and space for commerce. He makes the argument that the forces of religion, security, and commerce are intertwined and no city has been successful in the long run without paying attention to all three.

There's a lot more religion in Kotkin that he lets on in the typical op-ed piece (for many years he was a columnist for The Jewish Journal in Los Angeles), and the increasing secularization of Western cities clearly disturbs him. Though he's not always obvious about this in the op-eds, his sharp attacks on Richard Florida's "creative class" theory of economic development are clearly rooted in this concern over the loss of religion as a significant urban force in both the U.S. and Europe. I don't agree with his entire argument, but it's a serious one and he lays it out pretty well. (I'll deal with his views on economic development and especially his contrarian approach to Florida's work in the final blog next week.)

Similarly, when he is paired on a research project with a rigorous statistical analyst – a demographer like Bill Frey of Brookings or an economic analyst like Ross DuVol of the Milken Institute – Kotkin writes pretty responsibly based on real data. His recent Brookings paper with Frey, The Third California is a good example. It argues that the inland areas of California, especially in the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, represent a completely different part of California than coastal Southern California and the Bay Area, and must deal with problems differently.

Knowing that this fine body of work exists makes it all the more frustrating when you read a Kotkin op-ed or hear a Kotkin speech. The outlines of his ideas are still there, but only in the most cartoonish form. And for somebody who once wrote a book called The New Geography, he's surprisingly sloppy with his geographical facts. Especially in speeches, but also in more popular writing, he tends to throw around place-names like a hip-hop artist – playing off cities' stereotyped reputation for shock value, rather than grounding the references in actual fact.

In the Planetizen article where he laid out his definition of "The New Suburbanism," he distanced himself from smart growth and instead claimed his ideas were rooted in "market-oriented developments" dating from the '60s and '70s that have accomplished many of the same goals, especially diversity of both land uses and ethnicities. He specifically calls out Reston and Columbia, both in metropolitan Washington; Irvine in Orange County; and The Woodlands in Houston.

What Kotkin fails to mention is that both Reston and Columbia were the products of dreamy developers (Jim Rouse in the latter case) who got their lenders in so deep with front-end infrastructure investment that both projects went belly-up at least once. Their current market success would not have been possible without these early, economically unrealistic plans, which created both infrastructure and amenities that later became part of the marketing. And while The Woodlands is now a successful and affluent suburb in one of the most market-oriented metropolitan areas in the nation, in fact it began as a federally subsidized "new community" during the early 1970s. Of the four, only Irvine – which began with an enormous land base on which the owners had no debt – has been a market success from beginning to end. Not only did Kotkin get his facts wrong, but he also overlooked the biggest impediment to better suburban planning – the combined cost of carrying the land and building the front-end infrastructure – which has been the subject of debate in planning for close to a century.

In the same Planetizen article, he  refuted New Urbanism by noting that the fastest job growth has taken place not in central cities but in suburban areas around older cities "or in the famously sprawled out multipolar cities of the West and the Sunbelt, including Boise, Ft. Myers, Las Vegas, and Reno."

No one would dispute that Fort Myers (on the Gulf Coast of Florida) is sprawling. So to a lesser extent is Boise, which, like Portland and Sacramento, is the rare Western city sitting in an expansive agricultural valley. But Reno is boxed in by federal land and is growing more and more densely. And Las Vegas, also boxed in by federal land, is without question the most densely concentrated and mononuclear city in the entire Sunbelt. In fact, it is just about the only metro area in the nation whose overall density is going up. The Strip is the densest job center in the West and Las Vegas's transit system is one of the fastest growing in the nation. Far from sprawling, Las Vegas is the only city in America that really is – dare I say it? – Manhattanizing.

This kind of carelessness shows up in speeches as well. Speaking engagements are where pundits make their real money, and so there's a lot of pressure to be provocative. Furthermore, most speeches are still not recorded or put on the Internet, so there's a natural tendency to play fast and loose with the facts to make a provocative point. It's unlikely that anyone will call you on it.

But Kotkin is especially prone to this kind of carelessness. I once saw him say, in a speech in Los Angeles, that business owners are afraid of diversity, which is why they "move to Saskatchewan instead of doing business in Irvine." Afterward, his introducer – a mild-mannered man of Chinese extraction – said, in a stage whisper with the microphone on, "That's very interesting, Joel, I'm going to have to discuss that with my family the next time I'm back in Swift Current, where I grew up." I don't think I ever saw a cleaner touchι in front of a planning audience, especially since the Chinese-Canadian fellow had organized the conference, had asked Joel to participate, and would be writing Joel's check.

The frustrating thing here is that Kotkin knows better. He knows full well that Las Vegas is Manhattanizing, not sprawling. He knows The Woodlands was federally subsidized at the beginning. And he knows that, all other things being equal, many – if not most – businesses would rather do business in Irvine than in Saskatoon. All too often, however, such facts become inconvenient truths that Kotkin chooses to ignore. Throughout his career he has prided himself on debunking other people's myths about cities. Yet in his pop writing, he doesn't do it by invoking the truth. He does it by invoking his myths about cities instead.

Second of three blogs

Search this site
New Book by Josh Stephens!