Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Sprawl And Density

Do you want more sprawl or greater density? If you are in the former camp, then Joel Kotkin is your champion. As for the latter, all hail Richard Florida. My recent run of posts critiquing the density cult means I want more sprawl. The blow-back from my screed about Vancouverism:

Embedded in the argument is also the assumption that not allowing densification would protect the vulnerable.   It’s all so much more complicated, dammit.

Suburban sprawl has its own income disparity issues. You have extremely rich and poor neighborhoods, sometimes side-by-side. As in the city, many people are stuck in poverty. Nowhere embedded in my argument is the assumption that sprawl would protect the vulnerable.

The problem, as I see it, is the normative embrace of certain land use patterns. Sprawl is bad. Density is good. You are either with Kotkin or Florida. Choose a side, now.

The move to suburbs was, still is for many in the lower income brackets, an aspirational relocation. The house with a yard was, still is, a symbol of success. On the other hand, the city was a shithole. You would do anything you could to get out. The result was sprawl and a host of issues to be managed.

If you think sprawl is the primary problem planners face today, then you need to read Peter Taylor's new book, "Extraordinary Cities." I dived in last night. One paragraph I want to share:

The six intellectual discoveries I detail below are all positive in nature: cities are found to be relevant and useful for the discoverers' wants or needs. But cities are not always seen in a positive light. In the late 1960s and 1970s the word most likely to be associated with cities was 'crisis', both political and economic. From the protests and riots of the 1960s to the difficult fiscal states of cities in the late 1970s, cities were where society's ills were most visible. Thus it is hardly surprising they were viewed negatively; cities equal problems. Go forward a couple of decades and it is all change; cities are seen as solutions. Thus the discoveries described below are recent and current celebrations of cities.

Emphasis added. In the late 1960s and 1970s, cities were shitholes. Today, the urban core is the new suburb. Brownfields are the new greenfields. Moving downtown is aspriational, a symbol of success. The result is greater densities and a host of issues to be managed. Gentrification, not sprawl, is the primary problem planners face today.

The paradigmatic shift that Taylor describes is obvious to any student of international political economy (IPE). When trying to understand a problem, seek out the macroeconomic forces shaping the urban geography. Taylor leans on Immanuel Wallerstein for his theoretical lens. I lean on Peter Taylor and Colin Flint. I wish more planners had a better understanding of IPE and globalization.

Both Kotkin and Florida are raising issues with densification. They are describing the same problem. The rent is too damn high and pricing people out of the city. Cities are wonderful, if you can afford it. That's the great challenge of our time, not sprawl.


Pete Saunders said...

Could not agree more. Sprawl development still occurs and is still aspirational for many, as you suggest. But sprawl development has become a lagging development indicator, rather than the leading indicator it was up until the '90s. Urban development has been trending upward and has become a leading development indicator, but it still hasn't surpassed (in the aggregate) the levels of sprawl development. Sprawl is fueled by conventional thought, urban development is not. When urban development actually does surpass sprawl, thinking will shift with it.

TheLetterAHyphenTheNumberOne said...

I'm on record as a Kotkin hater--he's incurious and not intellectually honest. But both he and Florida spend most of their time discussing the effect of urban form on economy. Maybe they are both partially right or wrong.

What this mini-debate overlooks is that Kotkin is a cheerleader for objectively rotten environments. The economic impacts on form is important--maybe the most important thing about cities. But even if Kotkin is on the right side of this argument, all it would mean is that we would need to find a way to make Florida's preferred form more viable. Positive agglomeration effects probably aren't worth it if endless ring-roads and strip malls are the price.

Anonymous said...

With the horrible ongoing global economic shambles of the developed nations, I guess the question is:
Which will get hit hardest?
a) cities
b) suburbs
c) rural
d) some of the above
e) all of the above to varying degrees

I suspect "e". In the process of positioning myself in a small compact walkable city/town (population 20K-80K) that fits my temperament.
Do my thing. See how it plays out.

I've lived in a big city during the above-mentioned "shithole" decades and seen looting and burning break out when people densely packed get pushed a little too far.

I'm seeing those stresses returning. Don't want to be there again.

Patrick Prescott said...

I think it's very unfortunate that the two poles of this conversation are Florida's "Creative Class" and Kotkin's "Preserve low density sprawl because that's what people like."