“The New Urban Blight Is Rich People”

Here is a popular magazine treatment of the debate between New Urbanism and Richard Florida against opponents and Joel Kotkin:

Many cities, in consequence, have become “Floridian,” with “loft districts” rising from industrial ashes in Cleveland and Raleigh, hipster enclaves in Chattanooga, a gayborhood in Philadelphia, reclaimed waterfronts in Baltimore and Minneapolis. Much of this work preceded Florida—but there was socialism before Lenin, too. Florida gave the New Urbanists the vision they wanted of themselves, as saviors of the American city emptied by suburban sprawl, champions of creativity and ingenuity who were going to make Indianapolis the Paris of the 22nd century.

But any intellectual movement must encounter a backlash, and the one to the New Urbanism is only growing, in part because it’s now mature enough for us to see its effects. On the face of it, the New Urbanism is very pretty: Court Street in Brooklyn looks splendid, as does San Francisco’s Valencia Street. The aforementioned travel section of The New York Times has a column, called “Surfacing,” that frequently resorts to profiling some forlorn, blighted neighborhood suddenly graced by taxidermy shops that double as yoga studios. I am, as a matter of fact, writing this from a Whole Foods in West Berkeley, California, a formerly industrial district that was recently “Surfaced” in the Times. The coffee I am drinking was roasted about 20 feet away from my Apple laptop. How’s that for local?

Problem is, surfacing is usually whitening: Gentrification by any other name would taste as hoppy, with the same notes of citrus peel. There is really only one strike against the New Urbanism, but it’s a strike thrown by Nolan Ryan: It turns cities into playgrounds for moneyed, childless whites while pushing out the poor, the working-class, immigrants, seniors and anyone else not plugged into “the knowledge economy.” Right around the time that Michael Bloomberg was remaking Manhattan as a hive for stateless billionaires, I saw a slogan that captured perfectly the new glimmer of the city: “New York: If you can make it here, you probably have a trust fund.”

You could accuse me of writing a faux-populist diatribe, but the numbers are on my side this time around. Jed Kolko, a Harvard-trained economist who was, until recently, the chief of analytics for Trulia, has found that from 2000 to 2014, more Americans moved out of urban centers than into them. Using data from the U.S. Census, he concluded, in a recent post on his blog: “While well-educated, higher-income young adults have become much more likely to live in dense urban neighborhoods, most demographic groups have been left out of the urban revival.” The people who continue to move to cities, he concludes, are “increasingly young, rich, childless, and white.” These are the creatives, the hipsters, the pioneers, who fled the countryside for the big city, where cultures would clash and ideas foment. But all they did is turn Bedford-Stuyvesant into Minnetonka.

So what? I posed this question to Joel Kotkin, an urbanist and demographer based in that decidedly suburban setting of Orange County, California. Author of the forthcoming The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us, Kotkin defends the suburbs, which is nearly as radical as an evolutionary biologist defending creationism. Kotkin argues that suburbs are where middle-class families want to live, and middle-class families are, as he told me in a recent phone conversation, “the bedrock of the Republic.” A city hostile to the middle class is, in Kotkin’s view, a sea hostile to fish.

What is the answer to this debate, which like many others, have become politicized (Republican visions of small towns and suburbs and Democratic visions of thriving cities)? Could both sides have some merit to their arguments – New Urbanists regarding aesthetics and community life and Kotkin et al. with American’s continued interest in suburbia? One possible solution is to introduce more New Urbanist developments and communities in suburbs. This would allow people to have their suburban life but at higher densities and with planning that might encourage more street life.

At the same time, neither New Urbanists or Kotkin really address issues of race and ethnicity in the United States. Both do so indirectly, suggesting that their models offer better options for non-whites. But, what if the larger issue was really residential segregation, which can occur in New Urbanist communities as well as in suburbs?

Additionally, I cannot imagine too many city or suburban leaders would turn down or discourage wealthy residents moving to their community.

American exurbs continue to grow

Joel Kotkin points out that despite claims to the contrary, the exurbs are growing:

We first noticed a takeoff in suburban growth in 2013, following a stall-out in the Great Recession. This year research from Brookings confirms that peripheral communities — the newly minted suburbs of the 1990s and early 2000s — are growing more rapidly than denser, inner ring areas.

Peripheral, recent suburbs accounted for roughly 43% of all U.S. residences in 2010. Between July 2013 and July 2014, core urban communities lost a net 363,000 people overall, Brookings demographer Bill Frey reports, as migration increased to suburban and exurban counties. The biggest growth was in exurban areas, or the “suburbiest” places on the periphery…

Far from being doomed, exurbia is turning into something very different from the homogeneous and boring places portrayed in media accounts. For one thing exurbs are becoming increasingly ethnically diverse. In the decade that ended in 2010 the percentage of suburbanites living in “traditional” largely white suburbs fell from 51% to 39%.  According to a 2014 University of Minnesota report, in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, 44% of residents live in racially and ethnically diverse suburbs, defined as between 20% and 60% non-white.

And how about the seniors, a group that pundits consistently claim to be heading back to the city? In reality, according to an analysis of Census data, as seniors age they’re increasingly unlikely to move, but if they do, they tend to move out of urban cores as they reach their 60s, and to less congested, often more affordable areas out in the periphery. Seniors are seven times more likely to buy a suburban house than move to a more urban location. A National Association of Realtors survey found that the vast majority of buyers over 65 looked in suburban areas, followed by rural locales.

This article throws out a lot of reasons why they might want to do this: wanting to own a single-family home, wanting more space (both in the home and in the community), feeling part of a smaller community, sending their kids to good schools, having communities with low crime, and accessing plenty of available jobs. Put another way, the exurbs have downsides but enough Americans consistently seem to want to live on the metropolitan fringe.

At the end, Kotkin suggests that planners and others need to own up to this reality: cities cannot provide these desirable traits. I wonder if that is the case; is the answer that it is either dense inner cities or sprawling exurbs? I think many cities and closer suburbs would want to be able to claim the positives cited above. And there are likely many pockets where this is possible even if not all residents of major cities have these advantages. But, instead of trying to suggest that all people should get used to dense city life or exurban life, why not look for more ways to enhance opportunities throughout an entire region? Perhaps it is a problem of government layers as every community looks out for their own interests first. Or perhaps this is still impossible in a country where race and social class matter tremendously for the kinds of places where people live. Rather than suggest Americans want to live in a certain kind of setting, we need solutions to issues in a variety of communities throughout metropolitan regions (and beyond).

American culture wars to move next to fighting over the suburbs?

Joel Kotkin is back with the claim that the next American culture war will be over the suburbs:

The next culture war will not be about issues like gay marriage or abortion, but about something more fundamental: how Americans choose to live. In the crosshairs now will not be just recalcitrant Christians or crazed billionaire racists, but the vast majority of Americans who either live in suburban-style housing or aspire to do so in the future. Roughly four in five home buyers prefer a single-family home, but much of the political class increasingly wants them to live differently…

Yet it has been decided, mostly by self-described progressives, that suburban living is too unecological, not mention too uncool, and even too white for their future America. Density is their new holy grail, for both the world and the U.S. Across the country efforts are now being mounted—through HUD, the EPA, and scores of local agencies—to impede suburban home-building, or to raise its cost. Notably in coastal California, but other places, too, suburban housing is increasingly relegated to the affluent.

The obstacles being erected include incentives for density, urban growth boundaries, attempts to alter the race and class makeup of communities, and mounting environmental efforts to reduce sprawl. The EPA wants to designate even small, seasonal puddles as “wetlands,” creating a barrier to developers of middle-class housing, particularly in fast-growing communities in the Southwest. Denizens of free-market-oriented Texas could soon be experiencing what those in California, Oregon and other progressive bastions have long endured: environmental laws that make suburban development all but impossible, or impossibly expensive. Suburban family favorites like cul-de-sacs are being banned under pressure from planners…

Progressive theory today holds that the 2014 midterm results were a blast from the suburban past, and that the  key groups that will shape the metropolitan future—millennials and minorities—will embrace ever-denser, more urbanized environments. Yet in the last decennial accounting, inner cores gained 206,000 people, while communities 10 miles and more from the core gained approximately 15 million people.

This is one long piece but provides a lot of insight into what Kotkin and others have argued for years: liberals, for a variety of reasons, want to limit the spread and eventually reduce the American suburbs in favor of more pluralistic and diverse urban centers. I would be interested to know which issue Kotkin is most afraid of:

1. Maybe this is really just about politics and winning elections. The split between exurban Republican areas and Democratic urban centers has grown with the suburbs hanging in the balance. Perhaps conservatives fear moving people to cities will turn them more liberal and hand all future elections to Democrats. Of course, lots of liberals had fears after World War II that new suburbanites were going to immediately turn Republican.

2. This may be about the growing teeth of the environmental movement operating through legislation but also agencies and others that are difficult to counter. Suburban areas may just take up more resources but Kotkin and others don’t see this as a big issue compared to the freedom people should have to choose the suburbs. Should there be any limits to using the environment on a societal level?

3. Perhaps this is about maintaining a distinctively American way of life compared to Europeans. Some fear that international organizations and the United Nations are pushing denser, green policies that most Americans don’t really want. The suburbs represent the American quest for the frontier as well as having a plot of land where other people, particularly the government, can’t come after you. This ignores that there still are single-family homes in Europe – though on average smaller homes on smaller lots.

Or, maybe this is a combination of all three: “If the suburbs go, then what America was or stands for dies!” Something like that. Imagine “Don’t Tread On Me” making its last or most important stand on the green lawns of post-World War II split levels.

I have a hard time seeing this as the next big culture war topic that reaches a resolution in a short amount of time (say within a decade), primarily because so many Americans do live in the suburbs and the suburbs have such a long standing in American culture. But, perhaps a movement could start soon that would see fruition in the future.

Shopping malls adapting with new purposes and targeted groups

Joel Kotkin argues shopping malls aren’t dead – they’re changing their purpose and targeting wealthier and ethnic consumers.

To be sure, there are hundreds of outmoded malls, long-in-the-tooth complexes most commonly found in working-class suburbs and inner-ring city neighborhoods. Some will never come back. By some estimates, something close to 10 to 15 percent of the country’s estimated 1,000 malls will go out of business over the next decade; many of them are located in areas where budgets have been very tight, with locals tending to shop at “power centers” built around low-end discounters such as Target or Walmart.

But the notion that Americans don’t like malls anymore is misleading. The roughly 400 malls that service more-affluent communities—like those typically anchored by a Bloomingdale’s or Nordstrom—recovered most quickly from the recession, and now appear to be doing quite well.

To suggest malls are dead based on failure in failed places would be like suggesting that the manifest shortcomings of Baltimore or Buffalo means urban centers are not doing well. Like cities, not all malls are alike.

Looking across the entire landscape, it’s clear the mall is transforming itself to meet the needs of a changing society but is hardly in its death throes. Last year, vacancy rates in malls flattened for the first time since the recession. The gains from e-commerce—6.5 percent of sales last year, up from 3.5 percent in 2010—has had an effect, but bricks and mortar still constitutes upwards of 90 percent of sales. There’s still little new construction, roughly one-seventh what it was in 2006, but that’s roughly twice that in 2010.

In other words, shopping malls today can’t afford to try to target everyone at once. Rather, the retail market has both exploded with opportunities and fragmented, meaning that malls and other retailers have to target particular groups. This is going to be easier in areas that have money or lack other retailers or have growing populations.

Of course, Kotkin isn’t particularly worried that shopping malls are taking over the Main Street function for suburbs and other communities. There are issues with this: this is privatized space that often requires a car to get to and its primary activity is consumerism. Indeed, if people focused on activities other than shopping (which remains a very popular activity), our version of  capitalism might ground to a halt:

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Still, many communities will be happy if shopping malls continue as they are economic boons through sales taxes and jobs.

Did we already pass “peak urban millennial”?

Joel Kotkin discusses the demographic data that shows the bulk of millenials are near their 30s – and possible lives in the suburbs.

Some of this simply reflects the aging of millennials. As Jed Kolko at the real estate website Trulia has pointed out, the proclivity for urban living peaks in the mid-to-late 20s and drops notably later. Over 25 percent of people in their midtwenties, he found, live in urban neighborhoods; but by the time they move into their midthirties, it drops to no more than18 percent.

The impact of the aging process – the maturation, however delayed, upon millennials – will soon become acutely obvious to all but the most emotional retro-urbanist. In 2018, according to Census Bureau estimates, the number of millennials entering their 30s will be larger than those in their 20s, and the trend will only get stronger, with the numbers tilting ever more in favor of the thirtysomethings. Kolko suggests that we may already have passed “peak urban millennial.”

And then Kotkin goes on to try to bust other stereotypes about millennials. Both he and the other side – such as those who tend to argue that smart growth will inevitable win out behind the tastes of younger Americans – can cite some data and make some predictions. Perhaps Kotkin has the easier selection: he suggests millennials will follow the geographic inertia of their ancestors (even if they do have some other social differences) while his opponents are looking for a big break from the past.

But, it is interesting to note that we may only be a few years away from settling this debate if the bulk of millennials are then in their thirties. Unless emerging adulthood keeps getting extended for this group, they will be expected to have made their “adult” decisions soon. Will they choose cities and denser suburbs or will they continue to prefer more space relatively far from dense population concentrations?

Which drives McMansions: supply or demand?

Thomas Frank argued last week that America has a system that enables McMansions but another commentator suggests McMansions reflect the desires of Americans:

Still, it fascinates — are not horror films and comedies blockbusters too? — and, lest we snark too much, in this case on McMansions, let us remember these objects reflect consumers’ demand — our collective taste — not the other way around.

And just as soon as I try and boast of some superlative insight or immunity to things and stuff myself, I will have thrown a stone at a glass house — even if it is a two-story Palladian window, even if it’s draped in Pepto-mauve and installed over an entry door — and I bet a crumpled buck you will have too. I say we observe, look for the humor reflected therein (it’s there) and continue to try and learn from our own selves.

Classic question: do Americans buy McMansions because the system supplies them and makes them possible or do they exist because the demand is there from American residents?

This question is not a new one in the field of studying suburbs. On one hand, some argue that suburbs (and McMansions by proxy) exist because this is what Americans want. Joel Kotkin argues that Americans vote with their feet and when given the opportunity, will tend to choose more space and freedom in the suburbs (and the Sunbelt). Jon Teaford says in his book The American Suburb: The Basics that Americans tend to desire more local control and space to be individuals, traits that work well in suburbs. In contrast, some would argue the other side. Suburbs had to be sold to Americans; compare this to European desires to be closer to the central city. Suburbs were constructed by developers who wanted to make money and had to drum up demand. Frank’s argument echoes those of James Howard Kunstler who suggests the suburbs are a subsidized project – often through government action and money – that hollowed out our cities.

As a sociologist, I would argue both sides of the equation are present though we tend to emphasize the demand side in American discourse without realizing how the supply side is shaped. Sure, some Americans may want McMansions but where do these desires come from? Why would they choose to spend their money on a certain kind of large home rather than buying a smaller place in a more urban area or spending more on other luxury goods? Take the example of highways: Americans did take to the automobile quickly but major systems of roads and highways also arose in part because of lobbying efforts from motorist and industry groups, governments decided to spend relatively more money on roads than mass transit, and certain restrictions made it difficult for streetcars and other mass transit to compete (see Kenneth Jackson in Crabgrass Frontiers for more details). Consumer desires don’t simply come out of nowhere; they are shaped by social forces.

Fastest-growing American counties are suburban

Joel Kotkin highlights the fastest growing counties large counties in the United States:

Yet an analysis by demographer Wendell Cox of the counties with populations over 100,000 that have gained the most new residents since 2010 tells us something very different: Suburbs and exurbs are making a comeback, something that even the density-obsessed New York Times has been forced to admit. Of the 10 fastest-growing large counties all but two — Orleans Parish, home to the recovering city of New Orleans, and the Texas oil town of Midland— are located in the suburban or exurban fringe of major metropolitan areas.

Fastest Growiing US Counties: 2010-2012
Counties over 100,000 Population
Rank County Equivalent Jurisdiction    Growth
1 Williamson, TX 7.94%
2 Loudon, VA 7.87%
3 Hays, TX 7.56%
4 Orleans, LA 7.39%
5 Fort Bend, TX 7.16%
6 Midland, TX 7.14%
7 Forsyth, GA 7.07%
8 Montgomery, TN 7.04%
9 Prince William, VA 7.04%
10 Osceola, FL 6.97%

What these findings demonstrate is that more people aren’t moving “back to the city” but further out. In the last decade in the 51 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, inner cores, within two miles of downtown, gained some 206,000 people,  while locations 20 miles out gained over 8.5 million. Although the recession slowed exurban growth, since 2011, notes Jed Kolko at Trulia, suburbs have continued to grow far faster than inner ring areas as well as downtown. Americans, he concludes, “still love their suburbs.”

Rather than an inevitable long-range shift, the post-crash slowdown of suburban growth seems to have been largely a response to economic factors. The retro-urbanist dream of eliminating, or at least undermining, suburban alternatives depends very much on maintaining recessionary conditions that discourage relocation, depress housing starts, as well as lowering marriage and birthrates.

Where incomes are growing along with rapid job growth , suburban and exurban growth tends to be strong.  The metro regions that contain our fastest-growing counties — Austin, Houston, Nashville and Northern Virginia — all epitomize this phenomenon. For example, nearly 80% of all housing growth in greater Houston takes place in the areas west of Beltway 8 (the outer beltway). A similar pattern can be seen in the D.C. area, where the number of units permitted in Loudon has more than doubled since 2007. In 2012 permit issuances were the highest since 2005, and the vast majority were for either detached or attached single-family houses.

Kotkin’s conclusion is that the economic crisis slowed suburban growth for a few years, not a growing American move to cities and denser suburban areas. Some of this can’t be known until more time goes by; if Kotkin is right, recent years will be a blip and the kinds of places that were the fastest growing counties from 2010 to 2012 will continue to be fast-growing places.

There might be another approach that would allow both Kotkin and proponents of cities to both be able to claim some victory: outer suburbs might continue to grow as might attractive big cities (think Richard Florida’s creative class moving to the city) while inner suburbs who often have big-city problems, older housing stocks, and tax bases that have a hard time supporting suburban services languish.