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November 13, 2007


Undercover Urbanist

Kotkin's happy talk is not about fixing the suburbs. It's about leaving them the way they are. The biggest problems with the suburbs are the street networks- arterials, collectors, and cul-de-sacs instead of grids.

This, along with the lack of sidewalks, is what needs to change most on the physical side. The latter is not hard to do, it just costs money, and some NIMBY groups fight sidewalks.

The former is nearly impossible to do because it mobilizes neighborhood opposition at best and requires takings at worst.

Finally, the only way the suburbs make those physical changes worth something is with a better mix of uses, which is very hard to do until a suburb ages out and begins to decline. Until then, people aren't willing to make those changes.

Most new urbanists do not suggest people hail taxis, in fact, most new urbanist projects in greenfield areas provide close to standard suburban parking ratios, with free parking everywhere.

The "better suburbs" that Kotkin is talking about are New Urbanist projects and the old towns along commuter rail lines in the northeast. We know how to do things right, we just choose not to do so, and Kotkin makes fun of New Urbanism because he makes his money getting invited to conferences to tell realtors and homebuilders how to keep the suburban development party going.


Undercover Urbanist makes excellent points and I think he/she has Kotkin's number, so to speak: Kotkin is much too comfortable with the foibles of suburbs, and it appears that he makes a living off being the contrary voice.

Regarding my exaggeration of how New Urbanist goals are perceived("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"), understand that I am referring to what I assume are the strident minority. However, they are outspoken enough that I have to re-spin the actual message of the New Urbanism to local conservatives on a regular basis.


To get a real understanding of Kotkin's cartoon contrarianism, read these essential blog posts from Bill Fulton, one of the most respected voices in California planning.


It's no secret that new urbanists are just as active retrofitting suburban malls or creating walkable new towns in exurban areas as they are rebuilding cities. In fact, new urbanists take flak for being too involved in creating islands of walkable suburban development that wind up contributing to auto-dependent patterns. But when Kotkin needs a straw man to knock around, suddenly new urbanists get accused en masse of promoting abandonment of the burbs.

Is there a chance Kotkin -- a darling of the Wall Street Journal's editorial page -- has something to do with misinforming the local conservatives you run into? I wouldn't praise him for that. Otherwise, keep up the great work on this site.


There is a VERY good chance that Kotkin provides ammo for local anti-smart growth conservatives. (One thing you can rely on - and something that helps "our side" in any debate - conservatives in general don't read what "the other side" writes. I, on the other hand, DO read Kotkin, Bruegmann, etc.)

I think Undercover Urbanist had it right when he/she suggested that Kotkin derives income and attention from reaches like the "urban heat sink" theory.

I'd still like to steal his "New Suburbanism" moniker, though, to describe steps that can be taken to improve cities like the sprawled community where I live.

Roxanne Christensen

Some common ground in this debate is being provided by a new sub-acre farming method called SPIN-Farming. SPIN integrates agriculture into the built environment in an economically viable manner. By re-casting farming as a small business in a city or suburb, SPIN-Farming galvanizes communities around an activity that delivers positive economic and environmental benefits. Making agriculture an integral part of urban and suburban economies, rather than isolating it outside of them, can perhaps begin to provide a bridge between the urban/suburban divide.


Roxanne, you have sent me off in search of further information on SPIN-Farming.

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