Tuesday, February 08, 2005

In Sprawl We Trust, Part One

As a further example of the sad state of "intellectual" punditry, I'd like to direct your startled, uncomprehending gaze to a piece on suburban sprawl by Joel Kotkin, which starts out with this smirking call to resignation:

The battle's over. For half a century, legions of planners, urbanists, environmentalists and big city editorialists have waged war against sprawl. Now it's time to call it a day and declare a victor. The winner is, yes, sprawl.
This is stern stuff indeed, so full of triumphalist, quasi-Brooksian 'tude that one is almost intimidated into thinking there's some element of meaning in it.

First, the "battle" Kotkin refers to is more than fifty years old; heated debates over suburban sprawl go back at least to the mid-twenties in this country. In England, they go back further than that. In the early years of the 20th century, British commentators routinely lamented the loss of countryside, the ugliness of sprawl, and the cultural emptiness of the suburbs; I refer Kotkin to T.W.H. Crosland's 1905 screed The Suburbans, and to E.M. Forster's "The Challenge of Our Times." I also refer him to Ebenezer Howard, whom Kotkin himself calls "the most influential advocate of suburbia." Howard was born in 1850, and died in 1928.

Am I being pedantic? Well, perhaps...but given that Kotkin sees fit to invoke Carlyle, H.G. Wells, Engels, and Howard in the course of his article, and given that he's "an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation, [and] teaches urban and suburban history at the Southern California Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles," I think I have a right to be irritated when he claims that the battle over sprawl is only fifty years old. After all, in Tono-Bungay (1909), Wells - whom Kotkin sloppily or dishonestly implies was some sort of reliably pro-suburban prophet - called suburban sprawl "the unorganised, abundant substance of some tumorous growth-process, a process which indeed bursts all the outlines of the affected carcass and protrudes such masses as ignoble comfortable Croydon, as tragic impoverished West Ham."

Next, we come to Kotkin's utterly gratuitous claim that "now it's time to call it a day and declare a victor." I don't find this declaration intelligible, let alone authoritative. One wonders what it would mean to declare sprawl the "winner," a proposition that among other things ignores what Gregg Easterbrook recently called "society's evolutionary arc."

And speaking of Easterbrook, someone ought to alert him that Kotkin is indulging in the Fallacy of Uninterrupted Trends. Sprawl has "won," it seems, because
The numbers are incontestable and the trends inexorable.
We'll get to that soon enough. But first, I want to step back for a moment. At the core of Kotkin's piece is the notion that suburbs in coming years will become "urbanized": they'll be more independent, more culturally diverse, and more self-sustaining (but without, one assumes, any of the downsides that caused people to flee urban areas in the first place). With sprawl an increasing and unstoppable fact of life, our only solution is to design new communities that are "more efficient, interesting and humane." This is necessary, of course, because the suburbs have failed thusfar
...to live up to their promise of becoming self-contained, manageable communities that can both coexist amiably with the natural environment and offer a sense of identity.
Is that all they failed to do? No wonder Kotkin's so optimistic.

Seriously, if the suburbs made a promise to coexist amiably with nature, it's news to me. One of the problems with writing like Kotkin's is precisely this relentless personification of product, as though it slouches into the world independent of human decisions; the rhetoric of late capitalist romanticism certainly doesn't suffer for lack of recourse to the Pathetic Fallacy. In reality, there have been all sorts of reasons for building suburbs over the years; few of them were entirely rational, fewer still were carefully thought out, and very few indeed ever promised "amiable coexistence" with whatever the developers wished to bulldoze or displace, unless you count naming housing tracts after the natural attractions they destroyed.

Now, back to those inexorable trends. Kotkin takes a swipe at James Howard Kunstler for believing "that higher oil prices will force more suburbanites back into dense urban cores." And they may not, at that. But what's entirely missing from Kotkin's analysis is what higher oil prices will do. If Kotkin can say that sprawl is incontestable and inexorable, Kunstler's perfectly within his rights to say the same of an energy peak. If the petroleum economy collapses, it'll affect a lot more than the cost of commuting to the city. If suburbs or cities are to survive such an event, enormous changes need to be made now...changes that go well beyond Kotkin's feel-good platitudes about a cultural renaissance in the suburbs.

Kotkin, however, says suburban dwellers will be staying put come Hell or high water, and offers as evidence the fact that sprawl has "accelerated in Europe and Japan, where energy prices are already sky-high."

That's foolish primarily because the role of the automobile in Europe or Japan is very different from its role in America. Our economy and infrastructure rely on cheap oil to a much greater extent than those of Europe or Japan. Second, there's a huge difference between higher energy costs that occur through fluctuations in supply and demand, and a peak energy scenario.

And indeed, this sort of apples-and-oranges casuistry is a huge problem with the pundit class. Kotkin has a perfect right to believe that Kunstler's wrong about the likelihood of an energy crash, or about what will happen to the suburbs in the event of one. However, he does not have the right to pretend that what Kunstler's describing is the same thing as historical periods of higher energy prices.

This seems to be a massive sticking-point for the American intelligentsia, so let me try to simplify it. Suppose I were to say that an H5N1 pandemic will kill one billion people, and that this would drastically affect the world economy. In response, you can say the pandemic won't happen, or that it won't kill a billion people. But you can't argue that the economy won't be drastically affected under my scenario, by pointing out that it wasn't drastically affected in an unusually severe flu season.

I will have more to say on Kotkin's article shortly, with yourselves as horrified yet fascinated spectators. Trained nurses will be in attendance. At the conclusion, small cartons of chocolate ice-cream will be served, to be eaten with flat wooden spoons that will put splinters in your tongue if you're not careful.

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