Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Richard Florida And Density

Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin are at it again. Urban density is one of the polemics. Kotkin is the King of Sprawl. Florida is the Pied Piper of Gentrification. The latest from Kotkin (my focus on the density part of the argument):

To be sure, the leading “creative class” cities have much to recommend them, and some of them, such as Portland and Boston, have registered impressive rises in their per capita income in recent years. But over the past decade, most “cool cities” have not been enjoying particularly strong employment or population growth; in the last decade, the populations of cities like Charlotte, Houston, Atlanta, and Nashville grew by 20 percent or more, at least four times as rapidly as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, or Chicago. This trend toward less dense, more affordable cities is as evident in the most recent census numbers than a decade. ...

... Of course, some these ascendant cities now are sprouting their own “hip” neighborhoods. But these regions also accommodate far faster growth in rapidly expanding, family-friendly suburbs and exurbs. Equally important, none, including “creative class” hotspots Raleigh and Austin, are dense, transit-centered places of the kind urbanists suggest create economic vibrancy and attract the largest number of migrations.

In fact both Raleigh and Austin are both very low-density regions with only compact urban pockets surrounded by vast suburban communities. Take a walk in downtown Raleigh sometime; about five minutes from the densest central areas and you find yourself on tree-lined streets with nice single-family houses, essentially, older suburbs. Austin, too, is a relatively low-density place surrounded by the kind of suburban sprawl detested by Floridians; this is also the case with Charlotte, Atlanta, and other fast-growing cities.

I'm not cherry-picking the narrative to advance my own discussion of urban density. This is the battle Richard Florida is choosing to fight. His first salvo via Twitter:

My buddy Joel Kotkin gets it wrong again. 1).Creativity & skills in dense CITIES drive growth.2)And they raise wages overall for all groups.

Really, Richard Florida gets it wrong again. Florida has a bad habit of conflating residential and occupational density. I have no doubt that Kotkin is talking about residential density. As for Florida, he can't keep his story straight.

In Austin, you can have creativity and skills in a dense urban core as well as suburban sprawl. Occupational density drives growth and raises wages overall for all groups. Gentrification does not.

When Florida fires back, we will be faced with a false choice. Do we embrace Kotkin suburbanism or Creative Classism? We can have Manhattan without Park Slope. Hispanics needn't flee to Schenectady or Reading in order to advance the Innovation Economy. Somewhere in the middle is Rust Belt Chic.

1 comment:

TheLetterAHyphenTheNumberOne said...

There are very few true comparables in American cities and even fewer controls for experiments. Neither of these guys are very interested in controlling for variables.

Pointing to Oklahoma City or Charlotte as a fast growing city and New York as a slow growing one and then making a judgment call about them is beyond inane. It's like comparing a 300lb truck driver and a pro-cyclist after putting them both on a low-carb diet. Their experiences, goals and outcomes would be vastly different.

Florida sees what he wants to see. He's a self-promoter and a booster of his own ideas. Take him with a few grains of salt. Kotkin, on the other hand, is intellectually dishonest, a cherry-picker and has ideas that are immune to empiricism. He *regularly* conflates magnitude and percentage change in the same article. New York has the most [something bad] while Charlotte had the highest rate of growth of [something good]. He does this over and over and *over*. He compares total immigration to Texas to domestic outmigration from California. If he was at a cocktail party with me, he would be spinning himself in circles in a few minutes. Since he's just a guy on the internet, he can ignore rational criticism and keep saying the same thing over and over. Which he does. He can't be taken seriously.

Kotkin is awash in contradictions. He hates zoning but loves parking minimums. Is skeptical of transit investment but sees no problem with Federal investment in exurban freeways. However, the single most infuriating thing about Kotkin is that he is against permitting housing density and thinks that all the best places have cheap housing. NYC and SF are expensive because they regulate against density. *This is what Kotkin says he wants*, but then he criticizes the inevitable outcome. More people want to live in productive, high-quality environments, policies Kotkin advocates make this difficult and the law of supply and demand force people to Houston. Why is this so hard for him to wrap his head around?

What Kotkin wants is for everyone to be free to build far-flug expanses of cheap housing so that everyone can drive for an hour and half each way to work. Well, we've got it. It's all over. So what's he complaining about all the time? If he just doesn't like urban places why doesn't he just say so, leave it at that and let Houston be Houston?