Wednesday, January 18, 2006

In Sprawl We Trust, Part Three

About a year ago, I wrote a series of long posts critiquing an article by the pro-suburbia pundit Joel Kotkin (here's Part I, here's the intermission, and here's Part II).

Kotkin's got a new piece on suburbia this week. Most of his arguments (and fallacies) will be familiar to anyone who's read him before; many are addressed at length in my earlier posts. For those who want a brief rundown, his basic view is that real Americans want to live in the suburbs, because living in the suburbs is a good thing, no matter what chardonnay-swilling urban elitists might think about it.

His tone has gotten quite a bit more strident, though:

Suburbia, the preferred way of life across the advanced capitalist world, is under an unprecedented attack.
Unprecedented? What a difference a year makes. Here's Kotkin last February:
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.
Glad tidings indeed. And yet, Kotkin's new piece is titled "The War Against Suburbia," and warns of an ongoing yet "unprecedented" attack on sprawl. It's almost as though he's making this stuff up as he goes along.

One of Kotkin's besetting sins is that he doesn't care to distinguish between different types of sprawl. As far as I can tell, acres of tract housing built along a freeway corridor, and new housing built around an existing community center, both qualify as "sprawl" (or as "suburbs"; to Kotkin, the terms are interchangeable). Thus, in a previous article, he described Naperville, Illinois as an example of a "revitalized" suburb, even though its capacity for revitalization had a great deal to do with the fact that it's a 200-year-old community built around a city center, rather than an isolate subdivision with no services and no common areas.

Another problem is that to Kotkin, resources are infinite for all intents and purposes. Depleted or contaminated groundwater, loss of agricultural land, peak energy...none of these things counts for much in Kotkin's world. (In regards to a peak-oil scenario, he simply argues that in some countries, sprawl has continued despite increased energy costs, which is like arguing that one can survive getting run over by a tank because one survived getting run over by a tricycle.)

Having declared the migration from city to suburb to be not merely inexorable, but morally and politically correct, Kotkin has little patience for people who propose to do things backwards:
[A] risible story...ran in last Sunday's New York Times, titled "Goodbye, Suburbia." The piece tracked the hegira back to the city by sophisticated urbanites who left their McMansions to return to Tribeca (rhymes with "Mecca"). Suburbia, one returnee sniffed, is "just a giant echoing space."
Even apart from the not-so-subtle Muslim-baiting, this is a remarkably irrational piece of invective. If, say, 10,000 people leave the city for the suburbs, surely no one can be surprised if a certain percentage of them move back to the city over time. There are any number of legitimate reasons for such a move - from divorce to long commutes - and despite Kotkin's own snobbish assumptions, a sense of monotony is one of them. Other than the fact that this story challenges Kotkin's vision of the natural order, it's not clear what makes it "risible."

Also, Kotkin's central dogma is that the vast majority of Americans want "privacy, personal space and ownership." Surely a large home sitting on acres of semi-rural land meets those needs, if anything does. One can't help feeling that the building Kotkin dismissively calls a "McMansion" in this passage would be praised as a "single-family home" under slightly different circumstances.

The problem with Kotkin is similar to the problems I've noticed with "debunkers" of organic farming. Like them, he avoids or glosses over the central question of resource use and sustainability, and tries to fill the resulting logical hole with ill-tempered faux-populist rhetoric. Thus, he ends his latest manifesto with a demand that politicians should recognize "how their constituents actually want to live," and respect their "common dreams." But this is nonsense. Politicians have to balance demands from competing constituencies; a great deal of opposition to growth comes not from Kotkin's stock cast of tweedy, academic villains, but from settled suburbanites who stand to lose some of their elbow room, or some of the natural attractions that drew them to the area.

And ultimately, how people want to live is beside the point; what matters is how they can live, given an area's resources, infrastructure, and existing population.


Anonymous said...

Wow, there's actually a neocon who specializes in fetishising suburbia. I would have thought that was satire if I'd not seen it. I wonder if Kotkin's grandparents were labor organizers in Brooklyn.

What's going on here? Neocons seem to be Pharisees cynically designing a new religion that hides behind the label Judeo-Christian, but actually worships the American expression of material wealth. The Christian component of it, which I see all around me in Houston, is that evil mind-worm of the Southern plantation as the ideal expression of Jeffersonian democracy. We have a big developer here called Plantation Homes, you know. I'm amazed to see a northerner develop the same sense of tribal threat when his Cheneyesque Way of Life is criticized. Truly we live in Neo-Victorian times.

juniper pearl said...

kotkin is killing me softly with his oblivious, tone-deaf song. some people want to live in suburbs, sure, and some people want to live in cities, and they all have their own reasons. but it's a fact that having a three-bedroom house set like an island in a sea of fertilized lawn is less environmentally responsible than living in an apartment or condo in an already developed area, and to suggest that simply stating that, or making decisions based on it, is some sort of attack . . .

*sigh* whatever, man. you squint at whichever tiny corner of the picture you like best, and i'll stand over here on my tiptoes and try to see the rest of it, and we'll all go on with our lives.