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.

McMansions part of the “dark side” of the Midwest

A review of the work of author Gillian Flynn suggests McMansions help fill in the scene for the darker side of Midwest life:

But the novel – like the 41-year-old Flynn herself – is a deeply felt product of the midwest. The real place, not the idly dismissed fantasy image held in the minds of those too lazy to venture out into what really goes on in the American heartland. The book is set in an ailing Missouri river town on the banks of the Mississippi – the same giant waterway that inspired Mark Twain. But the town is dying, its mall crushed by an ailing economy and its McMansions crumbling at the seams. Beneath the surface glitter of the marriage of Nick and Amy Dunne, dark things lurk: secrets, hidden plans and desperation.

To anyone who knows the midwest for real, this is no surprise. This is the same region that gave us Truman Capote’s exploration of random, empty Kansas murderers in his masterful In Cold Blood. This is a place founded on the old grass prairies, whose Native American inhabitants were butchered and displaced, and whose soil was ripped up. The midwest is the Indian Creek massacre and the “dust bowl” as much as Little House on the Prairie.

Who knew the Midwest was so dark? Actually, this sort of portrayal sounds very similar to a common genre of work about suburbs that arose after World War II. Both the Midwest and suburbs might be viewed as the “heartland” or where “average” Americans go to live. (At the same time, the Midwest can’t claim the same sort of population proportions as the suburbs – now over 50% of Americans live in suburbs.) But, authors, filmmakers, artists, and musicians have frequently “exposed” the seemy underside of these places. There is no doubt that there are bad things lurking below the surface in all places so perhaps the issue here is the facade that cultural producers think too often gets portrayed as “the truth” about the Midwest and suburbs.

Overall, certain places tend to get a more noir treatment compared to others. For example, the Los Angeles School of urban scholars has argued that Los Angeles also is presented in this way – it may look like a glamorous, sunny place but there is a lot of crime and cruelty below the surface. (See the revered movie Chinatown or the TV show Dragnet.) From the perspective of the LA School, this noir treatment tells the truth as it exposes the capitalistic underpinnings that make Los Angeles both glittering and a hotbed of inequality. Should we take a similar perspective about the Midwest – it really is a place with problems that need to be revealed to the world?

Quick Review: City of Quartz

For a Midwesterner like myself, Los Angeles can seem like a strange and mysterious place: it certainly is a different kind of city compared to the older cities of the Midwest and Northeast. The book City of Quartz by sociologist Mike Davis adds to the mystery while also explaining why Los Angeles is the way it is. Some quick thoughts on this book:

1. The scope of this book is tremendous and includes discussions about history, politics, conservative revolts from suburbanites,  policing, and culture. The scope is staggering and fascinating.

2. Davis would seem to fall into the Los Angeles School of urban sociology. While action and development can usually be explained by politics and money, his emphasis is also on the disjointed nature of the metropolis. With the downtown core continually struggling to assert its authority, the tale of LA includes many other actors, including the Westside and suburbanites, trying to promote their own goals.

3. Davis continually plays with the idea of LA as suburban paradise and exposes the dystopian reality behind this facade. While it may have sunshine, orange groves, and movie stars, the city has a daunting list of troubles including race relations, pollution, sprawl, water shortages, and crime. Most of the stories in here are heavily tinged with this dystopian vision.

Overall, this is the sort of urban sociology text that I find incredibly engaging. It is lacking in a few areas such as potential solutions for LA, comparisons to other cities (is LA completely anomalous or was it simply the first of its kind?), and not being up-to-date (published in 1990). But for someone looking to understand Los Angeles and all of its strangely fascinating complexity, this is an excellent read.