Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Fetishized Geographies

Cities, suburbs, and villages each have their boosters. I grew up in the burbs, fearing the urban and idealizing the rural. Above all, I hated my world of cookie cutter housing and oppressive social conformity. Nowhere could possibly be more banal.

I got over both my romantic attachment to countryside (sheep are the scourge of the earth) and my metrophobia (the urbane are more territorial than suburbanites). But I remain steadfast in my disdain for bedroom communities. How we value various landscapes is very telling. If you want to know something significant about a stranger, then ask her for directions.

City, suburb, or village? Those geographic archetypes are useful for understanding many of the blog debates I encounter on a daily basis. Enter suburban champion Joel Kotkin:

In the new scarcity politics, access to land also may be sharply limited. New land regulation, ostensibly for climate-change reasons – already in place in California and being discussed as well in Washington state – could force almost all new development to follow a high-density, multi-family pattern. Over time, single-family homes – the preference of a vast majority of Americans – will become once again, as they were in the past, the privilege only of the upper classes in some metropolitan regions.

"Class warfare", he cries. Richard Florida-land is the province of elites, vibrant CBDs at the expense of the more upwardly mobile sprawl. Ryan Avent's retort:

Now, this isn’t true — California’s land-use law is about making it easier to build in dense places, not preventing anyone from living in Riverside. This means, of course, that if developers aren’t interested in building in dense places, if the demand isn’t there you know, then they’ll go right on building single-family homes. But I love, love, love, the implication that this scarcity, as embodied by the denial of the opportunity to realize the American Dream in the Inland Empire, could retard economic recovery. Where does Kotkin suppose these foreclosure capitals of the country are, exactly? They’re not in Santa Monica, I’ll tell you that.

I'm not one to judge whether or not "Kotkin understands scarcity". I'm not an economist. But I do know how Kotkin is vilified. Remember, suburbia is evil or soulless. Personally, I appreciate what Kotkin is trying to say. I've begun to question the accepted wisdom that spawl is bad and density is good. Spiky World, a.k.a. urban geography of globalization, is the epitome of economic inequity.

On the other hand, I tend to agree with Avent about marketizing water. The legal geography of the Interior West does few favors for blue-collar workers. In fact, it informs lower-class exploitation. Cheap labor (usually undocumented) plus subsidized water (thanks to senior rights) equals billions for agrobusiness. In Colorado, this regime hurts suburbs that are often under junior water rights. It actually further privileges "elitist" Boulder over the sprawl communities to the east. A greater irony is that unleashing the market on water would undermine big agrobusiness and fuel suburban growth in the Front Range. Few people seem to understand that agriculture trumps residential when it comes to water use.

"Scarcity" might actually be a good thing for blue-collar Americans. We just have to get beyond the fetishized geographies.

1 comment:

Mark Winston said...
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