Though Joel Kotkin has been described as (among other things) "the Los Angeles pundit who loves to be hated by planners," there are some interesting points made in this piece.
He addresses the New Urbanism bugaboo (or, more accurately, "the bugaboo of the New Urbanism"; strict adherents prefer it that way, sort of like how some people insist on saying "the Batman"). Regarding suburbs, the New Urbanism seems to proclaim (condescendingly) "Suburbs bad; cities good." Indeed, certain proponents of the New Urbanism genuinely give the impression that we should all be living in cities hailing taxis, and the suburbs are worthy of nothing less than abandonment so the land can return to pasture.
But, as I’ve struggled to make clear here, the suburbs are not only here to stay, they can be wonderful places for a wide group of people. The trick is to make peace with what already exists and find ways to make incremental improvements within the present structure. Some would call this a form of Smart Growth (which we'll explore in this blog soon). Joel Kotkin is dubbing this approach the New Suburbanism.
As Kotkin explains:
"Put simply, New Suburbanism represents an effort to create better suburban communities. It is a philosophy of planning, design, and development that aims to improve all of the complex elements that make up a successful community -- governmental, physical, economic, social, and environmental -- creating a flexible template for a wide range of existing and newly designed suburbs.
One critical aspect of New Suburbanism lies in its pragmatism. One cannot always assume, for example, that building a new town center, constructing denser housing, or introducing mixed-use development would automatically improve quality of life -- though these strategies can be useful, as we illustrated in our report. In some communities, physical infrastructure systems may be more important, such as schools, parks, and water systems.
New Suburbanism is not a new design paradigm that seeks to compete with or discredit principles of New Urbanism. Instead, our perspective represents a broad-based attempt to find the best, most practical ways to develop and redevelop suburban communities.
Part of Kotkin's mission is to blunt the blanket assertion made by environmentalists attached to New Urbanism that claims denser communities are somehow ecologically benign while sprawled suburbs are choking Mother Earth to death with strip malls and convenient parking. That seems to be his point in this particular article, which will serve as an introduction to "New Suburbanism" with more to come later this week.
UPDATED with a response from former Milwaukee mayor John Norquist.
From Washingtonpost.com (though the piece also ran in today's Milwaukee Journal Sentinel):
Hot World? Blame Cities.
By Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres
Sunday, October 14, 2007
It's all the suburbs' fault. You know, everything -- traffic congestion, overweight kids, social alienation. Oh, and lest we forget, global warming and rising energy costs, too.
That latest knock against the burbs has caught on widely. With their multiplying McMansions and exploding Explorers, the burbs are the reason we're paying so much for gas and heating oil and spewing all those emissions that are heating up the atmosphere -- or so a host of urban proponents tells us. It's time to ditch the burbs and go back to the city. New York, Boston, Chicago -- these densely packed metropolises are "models of environmentalism," declares John Norquist, the former Milwaukee mayor who now heads the Congress for a New Urbanism.
But before you sell your ranch house in Loudoun County and plunk down big bucks for that cozy condo in the District, take a closer look at the claims of big cities' environmental superiority. Here's one point that's generally relegated to academic journals and scientific magazines: Highly concentrated urban areas can contribute to overall warming that extends beyond their physical boundaries.
Studies in cities around the world -- Beijing, Rome, London, Tokyo, Los Angeles and more -- have found that packed concentrations of concrete, asphalt, steel and glass can contribute to a phenomenon known as "heat islands" far more than typically low-density, tree-shaded suburban landscapes. As an October 2006 article in the New Scientist highlighted, "cities can be a couple of degrees warmer during the day and up to 6Â¿ C [11 degrees Fahrenheit] warmer at night." Recent studies out of Australia and Greece, as well as studies on U.S. cities, have also documented this difference in warming between highly concentrated central cities and their surrounding areas.
This is critical as we deal with what may well be a period of prolonged warming. Urban heat islands may not explain global warming, but they do bear profound environmental, social, economic and health consequences that reach beyond city boundaries. A study of Athens that appeared this year in the journal Climatic Change suggested that the ecological footprint of the urban heat island is 1 1/2 to two times larger than the city's political borders.
Further, urban heat islands increase the need for air conditioning, which has alarming consequences for energy consumption in our cities. Since air conditioning systems themselves generate heat, this produces a vicious cycle. Some estimate that the annual cost of the energy consumption caused by the urban heat island could exceed $1 billion.
This is not to say that big buildings can't be made more energy efficient by using new techniques, such as high-tech skin designs, special construction materials to reduce energy consumption, green roofs and passive cooling. But one big problem is that making large buildings green also makes them much more expensive, so that they're less and less affordable for middle-class and working-class families.
Low-density areas, on the other hand, lend themselves to much less expensive and more environmentally friendly ways of reducing heat. It often takes nothing more than double-paned windows to reduce the energy consumption of a two- or three-story house. Shade can bring it down even further: A nice maple can cool a two-story house, but it can't quite do the same for a 10-story apartment building.
Focusing on the suburbs has the added virtue of bringing change to where the action is. Over the past 40 years, the percentage of people opting to live in cities has held steady at 10 to 15 percent. And since 2000, more than 90 percent of all metropolitan growth -- even in a legendary new planners' paradise such as Portland, Ore. -- has taken place in the suburbs.
So we shouldn't be trying to wipe out suburbs. Even with changes in government policy, it would be hard to slow their growth. Europe has strict zoning and highly subsidized mass transit -- policies that are supposed to promote denser development -- but even so, their cities are suburbanizing much like American ones. "Sprawl cities," notes Shlomo Angel, an urban planning expert at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University, also are becoming ever more common throughout much of Asia and the developing world.
Here's an Earth-to-greens message: Instead of demonizing the suburbs, why not build better, greener ones and green the ones we already have?
One approach might be to embrace what one writer, Wally Siembab, has dubbed "smart sprawl." Encouraging this sort of development will require a series of steps: reducing commuters' gas consumption with more fuel-efficient cars, dispersing work to centers close to where workers live and promoting continued growth in home-based work. We'll also have to protect open spaces by monitoring development and establishing land conservation based on public and private funding, the latter coming from developers who wish to work in suburbs.
Building what we call "an archipelago of villages" seems far more reasonable than returning to industrial-age cities and mass transit systems. For the most part, the automobile has left an indelible imprint on our cities, and in our ever-more-dispersed economy, it has become a necessity.
This is not to say that transit of some kind -- perhaps more cost-efficient and flexible dedicated busways, or local shuttles -- can't play a role in serving those who can't or would rather not drive. But short of a crippling fuel shortage or some other catastrophic event, it's highly unlikely that we'll ever see the widespread success of heavily promoted strategies such as dense, transit-oriented developments or the wholesale abandonment of the suburbs.
We can accommodate our need for space and still leave ample room for a flourishing natural environment, as well as for agriculture. By preserving open space and growing in an environmentally friendly manner, we can provide a break from the monotony of concrete and glass and create ideal landscapes for wildlife preservation.
Such notions -- developed before the term "green" existed -- go back to a host of visionaries such as Ebenezer Howard, James Rouse, Frederick Law Olmsted, Frank Lloyd Wright and Victor Gruen. And they have already been put into practice. Starting in the 1960s in his development of Valencia, north of Los Angeles, Gruen envisioned a "suburbia redeemed" that mixed elements of the urban and the rural.
Valencia's elaborate network of 28 miles of car-free paseos -- paths designed for pedestrians and bicyclists -- helped make the natural environment accessible to residents. Gruen also recognized the commercial appeal of such an environment. A 1992 ad for the development featured a smiling girl saying: "I can be in my classroom one minute and riding my horse the next. I don't know whether I'm a city or country girl."
Similarly, The Woodlands, a sprawling development 27 miles from downtown Houston, is a model for a greener suburbia in a region not much celebrated for its environmental values. The Woodlands name, said its former president, Roger Galatas, was seen not as "just real estate hype" but as part of a plan to allow development without destroying forest lands and natural drainage.
In the Washington area, Reston and Columbia, the latter the brainchild of legendary Maryland developer James Rouse, have become far more than mere bedroom communities; they have become places, or villages, in themselves.
All these places evoke a more environmentally friendly suburbanism, which also can be promoted in areas that did not benefit from the foresight of a Gruen or a Rouse. Town centers, revived older shopping districts, even re-engineered malls can all be part of a greener, more energy-efficient future in a large number of communities. And this process is already well underway.
Dragooning Americans into a dense urban lifestyle that's attractive to only a relatively small minority isn't the best way to address concerns about energy and resource depletion or global warming. Instead, we need to take gradual, sensible, realistic steps to improve the increasingly dispersed places where most of us choose to live and work.
Joel Kotkin is a fellow at Chapman University and author of "The City:
A Global History." Ali Modarres is associate director of the Pat Brown Institute of Public Affairs at California State University at Los Angeles.
Among many responses to the Kotkin article at Smart Growth America is this one from the president of the Congress for the New Urbanism, John Norquist:
In their op-ed article “Hot World? Blame Cities,” Joel Kotkin and Ali Modares quote me as the kind of person calling for a wholesale withdrawal from suburbia in response to global warming. As a former mayor, I admit I value cities and appreciate their energy performance. But many suburbs enjoy strong environmental performance as well, if they are walkable, allow mixed-uses, and particularly if they are served by transit. We in the new urbanist movement work intensely to make suburbs more livable, valuable and sustainable. The authors take down a straw man of their own creation.
They also advance the notion that cities are to blame for major climate problems. Kotkin and Modares admit they don’t have any evidence that says the urban heat island effect is a source of global warming. The “urban heat island” effect is local and is addressed through measures such as green roofs, more parks and less parking lots.
A scientific consensus says rising carbon emissions are raising the earth’s temperatures. Personal cars and trucks account for 20 percent of U.S. energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and these totals are rising as people spread out and drive more miles. The average resident of a walkable, mixed-use section of a suburb like Bethesda drives about 33 percent less than the average person in a half-as-dense, auto-dependent exurb like Woodbridge, according to the study just released by the Urban Land Institute and Smart Growth America entitled Growing Cooler. In Manhattan, the amount of driving is much lower still.
With the U.S. needing to replace 70 million housing units over the next 30 years and top demographer Arthur C. Nelson of Virginia Tech University predicting a fast-rising market for smaller dwellings in compact neighborhoods, there’s a great opportunity to embrace a convenient and effective global warming remedy - in suburbs as well as cities.
John Norquist, president of the Congress for the New Urbanism and former mayor of Milwaukee