Joe Urban | Sam Newberg, Urbanist

Joel Kotkin Takes on Urbanists

Dateline: 12:04 pm July 7, 2010 Filed under:

In a recent article in the Wall Street Journal (posted here on the New Geography website), Joel Kotkin takes on the myth of the move back to the city. He raises some very good issues, but I believe there is a hole in his argument.

First of all, we should not be confusing the demand for condos in downtown Miami, Los Angeles and Las Vegas (very speculative and investor-driven during the housing bubble) with actual demand and desire for urban living in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods served by transit.

Mr. Kotkin cited a 2004 survey by Smart Growth America as proof that the demand for urban living is overstated. According to the survey, 13% of Americans want to live in urban environments, while 33% what to live in suburbs and 18% like exurbs (presumably the remaining 36% want rural or small town life – a topic for another day). Taking this information, I decided to analyze my own Twin Cities. Of the 184,000 housing permits issued in the 13-county Twin Cities area in the past 10 years, 9% were in the two core cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul – those places with downtowns and surrounding neighborhoods that have “urban” characteristics. But, the Smart Growth America survey indicated 13% prefer an urban environment, so based on these figures, Minneapolis and St. Paul have unmet demand for 7,000 new housing units in the past decade.

Of the Twin Cities total housing in the past 10 years, 67% of the units were built in suburbs (the remaining seven county metro area outside Minneapolis and St. Paul). The exurbs (the six outlying suburbs beyond the seven-county core) represented 24% of the total. If we are to believe the Smart Growth America survey, we overbuilt the suburbs by 63,000 units (a factor of 2 to 1) and the exurbs by more than 10,000 units.

How could this happen? After all, the housing market, left to its own devices, should build what the customer wants, right? Needless to say, although we seem to have built double the amount of homes demanded in the suburbs, there are not 60,000 vacant new homes out there. Far from it. To me, it says there is a disconnect with what people want and what cities, developers and metro areas are able to provide. As with everything in life, compromises are made, and it seems thousands of potential urban dwellers have “settled” for the suburbs or exurbs because that is where homes are generally easier and cheaper to build.

The Twin Cities are not alone. Central cities like Atlanta and Chicago have been increasing their share of new residential building permits as a percentage of their respective regions as a whole over the past decade, according to a 2009 EPA study entitled Residential Construction Trends in America’s Metropolitan Regions. As well, presentation by Robert Charles Lesser & Co. entitled The Growing Market for Smart Growth indicates that an overwhelming percentage of Generation Y renters who are moving seek urban, walkable communities.

Needless to say, this is not inteded to dispute Joel Kotkin directly. In fact, I recommend his new book, “The Next Hundred Million.” It is full of good information and insights in to how we live and will evolve in the United States, and it is also well-written and readable, something too often lacking with books by urbanists.

Rather, I see this disconnect between housing preferences and what happens on the ground as a call to action. Cities need to be more flexible in allowing urban housing (we need better Little Infill), and suburbs need to create more mixed-use nodes that are connected for people on foot and transit. Metro areas need to find better ways to connect transportation improvements to housing develoment.

Furthermore, we cannot dwell only on numbers. Just because 33% of people want to live in suburbs does not preclude suburban development from having sidewalks or convenient transit connections. We can do it better.

So let’s not get caught in absolutes like suburban versus urban, and please don’t pretend condos in downtown L.A. and Miami are representative of all good urban development. This call to action is full of nuance and requires thoughtful discussion. The only absolute is we need to do a better job of urban development overall. Dare I say we can all agree on that?

No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a comment

Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>