Should thriving Sunbelt cities like Houston seek a denser core?

Joel Kotkin points out the growth in a number of Sunbelt cities and then raises a debate within urban circles today: should these thriving Sunbelt cities try to replicate the cores of older American cities?

Finally, they will not become highly dense, apartment cities — as developers and planners insist they “should.” Instead the aspirational regions are likely to remain dominated by a suburbanized form characterized by car dependency, dispersion of job centers, and single-family homes. In 2011, for example, twice as many single-family homes sold in Raleigh as condos and townhouses combined. The ratio of new suburban to new urban housing, according to the American Community Survey, is 10 to 1 in Las Vegas and Orlando, 5 to 1 in Dallas, 4 to 1 in Houston and 3 to 1 in Phoenix.

Pressed by local developers and planners, some aspirational cities spend heavily on urban transit, including light rail. To my mind, these efforts are largely quixotic, with transit accounting for five percent or less of all commuters in most systems. The Charlotte Area Transit System represents less a viable means of commuting for most residents than what could be called Manhattan infrastructure envy. Even urban-planning model Portland, now with five radial light rail lines and a population now growing largely at its fringes, carries a smaller portion of commuters on transit than before opening its first line in 1986.

But such pretentions, however ill-suited, have always been commonplace for ambitious and ascending cities, and are hardly a reason to discount their prospects. Urbanistas need to wake up, start recognizing what the future is really looking like and search for ways to make it work better. Under almost any imaginable scenario, we are unlikely to see the creation of regions with anything like the dynamic inner cores of successful legacy cities such as New York, Boston, Chicago or San Francisco. For better or worse, demographic and economic trends suggest our urban destiny lies increasingly with the likes of Houston, Charlotte, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Raleigh and even Phoenix.

The critical reason for this is likely to be missed by those who worship at the altar of density and contemporary planning dogma. These cities grow primarily because they do what cities were designed to do in the first place: help their residents achieve their aspirations—and that’s why they keep getting bigger and more consequential, in spite of the planners who keep ignoring or deploring their ascendance.

It is clear what side Kotkin is on – we might call this “free market urbanism.” Kotkin suggests cities are all about freeing up individuals. This is not the common urbanist view that typically suggests cities are about community life (what can be accomplished through cities is greater than what individuals can do as individual parts) or about vibrant and diversestreet life (think Jane Jacobs).

But, Kotkin is not the only one who suggests there are some major differences between older American cities and newer Sunbelt cities. For example, the Los Angeles school of urban thought held up decentralized LA as the way cities were going. But, their analysis was more Marxist than free market and involved a thorough critique of capitalism and its effects on major cities.

In the end, it remains to be seen what happens to these newer Sunbelt cities as they could go all sorts of directions. If they continue on their current path, they will continue to be decentralized and sprawling. But, social or economic changes might encourage more density, new land use policies, and new visions about what the city should be.

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