Tuesday, February 08, 2005

In Sprawl We Trust, Part Two

Thusfar, we've learned a few things about Joel Kotkin. We know he's allied with far-right think-tanks. We know he recycles his articles shamelessly. And we know he tones down his anti-environmental rhetoric for mainstream publications, replacing it with a smidgen of aesthetic ambivalence here, and an acre-foot of cornucopian boilerplate there.

But we don't know exactly what he's talking about when he talks about "sprawl." He claims that sprawl is approximately fifty years old, which would suggest that he's talking about the postwar advent of auto-dependent strip malls, shopping centers, and low-density, off-freeway tract housing. But as far as I can tell, he's not. His articles are about suburbs in general, and the sort of life that's lived in them, and aesthetic debates about them that go back to the early years of the twentieth century. There's no sign that Kotkin sees any clear distinction between suburbia and sprawl. However, the preeminent characteristics of sprawl, properly so called, are auto dependence and environmental intensivity. These are issues that Kotkin's WaPo piece really doesn't address, though they're at the heart of any serious critique of sprawl, especially in regards to peak energy issues.

Instead, Kotkin concerns himself primarily with the popular aesthetic image of suburbia: is it a cultural wasteland, or isn't it? How do urban "elites" feel about it, and are their opinions fair? Interesting questions, no doubt, but utterly immaterial to the question of whether suburbs - especially ones being built today - are sustainable in the long term. In many cases, the future of the suburbs depends on the continued availability of cheap oil; any justification for increasing development has to address this concern, and as I pointed out in part one of this piece, Kotkin's way of addressing it is woefully lame.

Does Kotkin have any valid points? Sure. He's correct that increasing traffic congestion requires more services to be available in the suburbs...not just big-box superstores, but locally owned and operated businesses that have the potential to revitalize moribund downtown areas. I have no quarrel with this at all.

But again, Kotkin is sloppy in defining his terms. He brings up Naperville, Illinois as a shining example of a newly revitalized suburb. But Naperville was a town before it was a suburb, and the layout of the town reflects its origins as a true community. This has nothing to do with sprawl as seen along freeways in California's Central Valley; many of those housing developments have no urban center whatsoever, and are increasingly appearing on the fringes of earlier, now-deteriorating suburbs that weren't designed to function as communities in any meaningful sense.

Again, Kotkin makes no clear distinction between suburbs, interurban sprawl, and what used to be called "satellite cities." Naperville is a real place, with a rich history that goes back almost two hundred years; it can't be compared to a cluster of tract housing that's been hurriedly built along an interstate. The problems caused by the latter developments are serious, and would ideally be addressed before massive new developments - of any type - are undertaken.

Kotkin's vision of a brave new suburban future - in which developments function as autonomous but interlinked "villages" that will "coexist amiably" with the environment - may be appealing, but only if it's not examined too closely. At its core is the belief that energy and land are essentially limitless resources, an irrational position which is typical of the zealots at the American Enterpise Institute. Redesigning existing suburbs to make them more autonomous, livable and efficient is a fine idea, but in many areas of the country, even Kotkin's brand of "enlightened" growth may prove to be unsustainable within our lifetimes.


Rmj said...

A drive-by posting, to be sure, because this topic brings up scattered thoughts, not all connected to what you said (well, not directly enough).

Does Kotkin give any consideration to the effects of sprawl as a national problem, not just a local one? Houston is a classic example, in many ways. No zoning, and no real regulation on growth, produces the most decentralized and lowest density per acre population around. In a city of, what, 5 million? (I don't know, but we're one of the biggest in the country. Told you it was a drive-by!)

The result? 18 wheelers ply all the streets, trying to supply all those "mom & pop" stores, as well as all the mega-retailers. And, of course, the solution to traffic so far is to pave everything within a thirty-mile radius or so: more cars = less traffic, right? Except, of course, we've known for over 30 years that the opposite is true.

But sprawl encourages more trans-shipping of good into areas willing to pay for same. How much pollution is caused by shipping fruit from South America to North America for the winter? Or just shipping it from California to Texas, and then out to every little "community center" (or whatever Kotkin calls them) that has a grocery store? And then to get the people to them because, in every suburb I've lived in (and Houston is ALL "suburb") pedestrians take their life into their hands.

There's more here than the local problem of scarfing up farmland (densely "urban" portions of Houston near my home were farmland within the memories of people of my parent's generation) and laying down yet another layer of impermeable cover (the other Houston "scandal" that isn't, as new neighborhoods flood the "old," and Houston in general says: "TDB.")

Right. Gotta run. Out of rhetorical bullets anyway.

Phila said...


You're right, and this is something I tangentially touched on when I said that you can't compare our infrastructure with that of Europe and Japan. America has unique supply-chain issues, typified by the oft-quoted statistic that foodstuffs travel an average of (I think) 1500 miles before being consumed. Which is why so many sustainability advocates argue for buying locally whenever possible.

Kotkin, by and large, seems to be concerned with more simplistic, Brooksian "culture war" issues; he has a tendency to isolate regions or types of growth from the context of logistical issues like distance from production and distribution centers. If you're a telecommuter, you don't need to drive or take the train to work, so an energy crash doesn't affect that aspect of your employment. But someone still has to bring food and other staples into your town...in some communities, a real energy crisis may make that unfeasibly expensive or difficult. Kotkin, as far as I can tell, doesn't address that possibility at all.

His complaints about Kunstler are odd, in that they seemingly have certain points of agreement about what constitutes a livable town (that's assuming Kotkin's sincere). But he ignores that by pretending that Kunstler's goal is to push suburbanites back into big cities, which is a drastic oversimplification (and besides, Kunstler himself lives in - what - Saratoga? Somewhere upstate, anyway).

Kotkin comes across to me as a dumbed-down version of J.B. Jackson, who often enjoined people to make the best of sprawl, and to appreciate its "vigor" or what have you, while trying to make it more habitable and efficient. The similarities end there, because Jackson was a thoughtful and intelligent writer who, despite his paeans to automobile culture, understood what cars were doing to the landscape, and recognized that they could eventually turn America into a sort of gigantic, decaying slum. But like Kotkin, he pretty much accepted the availability of cheap energy as a given, which is not a sane position nowadays.