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Joel Kotkin: Reports of suburbia's death have been greatly exaggerated

You get the impression that Joel Kotkin exists mainly to torment the whole urban design intelligentsia. He dismisses as "wishful thinking" its belief that the current economic crisis will set off big changes in the American lifestyle, specifically the retrofitting of communities to make them dramatically more efficient, compact, walkable and less auto-dependent in the years ahead.

In his new book, "The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050," Kotkin agrees with most everyone that the U.S. will experience major population growth in the coming decades. But he expects growth to occur almost entirely on the perimeter of sprawling, low-cost metro areas like Houston and Phoenix, and not so much in the superstar urban enclaves celebrated by the planning elite. Cars, not mass transit, will continue to be the conveyance of choice for nearly everyone, he says, despite concerns about energy independence and the environment.

Given a chance to eat their spinach, Americans will choose chicken-fried steak every time is what Kotkin seems to be saying. In other words, he detects no political groundswell for rearranging the incentives that would lead most of us to forsake our roomy suburban lifestyles for something more economically efficient and environmentally responsible; he sees no corner being turned toward a greener, saner, healthier metropolitan geography — and that's fine with him.

Apologist for sprawl?
Kotkin, a fellow at Chapman University in Orange County, Calif., and a columnist for Forbes magazine, has been labeled an "apologist for sprawl," but that's a little severe. Maybe he just has a sharper appreciation for the entrenched interests (oil, autos, real estate, etc.) that will fight tooth and nail against carbon taxes and other attempts to clamp down on our lifestyle excesses. Maybe he, more than Richard Florida, whom we discussed last week, understands better the enduring frontier myth that's still so appealing to Americans, the mimicking of the cowboy life, for example, with its pickups and faux ranches. Maybe he suspects, perhaps rightly, that the U.S. economy will no longer produce the income levels needed to build the high-end condos, shopping districts and transit systems hoped for by Florida and others.

Those "superstar" districts won't expand much beyond Boston, San Francisco, New York and a few other places, Kotkin says. For him, the future models are "cities of aspiration" like Phoenix, Houston and Los Angeles, where downtowns become almost irrelevant, supplanted by what he calls "the archipelago of villages," a decentralized string of communities gathered around suburban town centers with jobs and shopping connected to single-family homes by short auto trips. Cars will be smaller and cleaner, he suspects, but the other staples of the suburban landscape, including office parks, strip malls and big box retail stores will endure. With jobs continuing to migrate to the suburbs, people will live closer to their work and commuting, as we know it, will decline.

The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050

Think of the new West End district at Hwys. 394 and 100 in St. Louis Park repeating itself most of the way to St. Cloud and you begin to glimpse Kotkin's vision of the next 40 years. Suburbia will be somewhat denser and more self-sufficient. The central cities will decline in importance.

Kotkin vs. Florida
Among the other main points in Kotkin's new book:

• In contrast to its more rapidly aging rivals in Europe and Asia, the United States expects a major population boom that will add, perhaps, 100 million more people by 2050. The American complexion will change, with Hispanics, Asians and mixed-race citizens among the fasted growing groups.

• The expression of that growth will occur mainly in medium-density, auto-oriented suburbs that look nothing like the "ersatz cities" (housing above shops along transit lines) that hold so much appeal for urbanist thinkers.

• High land prices and, in many cases, neighbor opposition, will limit the ability of communities to retrofit and densify, leaving the suburban fringe to absorb 80 percent of the growth.

Kotkin takes a number of shots at Florida, best known, perhaps, for his view that a "creative economy" is key to economic growth and that a "creative class" choosing to live and work in attractive places will drive economic expansion in the future. Cities cannot thrive on hopes that new "glamour zones" will attract empty-nesters and young creative types, Kotkin says. There will never be enough creative types to rescue cities like Detroit, Cleveland and New Orleans, he says.

"The notion that the postcrash economy will decimate the suburbs and help the priciest cities contradicts not only a generation of migration patterns but also the reasons why people settle for the long term," Kotkin writes. "Most people move for relatively prosaic reasons: a good job, a decent school, proximity to relatives, a safe neighborhood. Although much will change in the coming decades, these basic priorities will likely not shift dramatically."

What lures most people are not "gourmet restaurants, street fairs and trendy nightclubs but family-friendly communities not too distant from work, ample economic opportunities and affordable housing," Kotkin continues.

Two sides to the 'social engineering' question
I suspect that Kotkin is right about most Americans' preference for suburbs, single-family homes on large lots and auto-dependence. Whether those preferences can withstand the pressures of a changing world that seems likely to push energy costs higher and incomes lower depends largely on what happens to subsidies. That's where government policy comes in.

Joel Kotkin
Joel Kotkin

Kotkin suggests in his book that downtowns are propped up by heavy subsidies, presumably for transit and other urban amenities (parks, museums, stadiums and so on). What he fails to acknowledge is that the spacious suburban lifestyle enjoys a far greater level of subsidy. The building of the Interstate highway system, its ongoing maintenance and expansion, the artificially low cost of gasoline, the auto company bailouts, the damage that sprawl inflicts on air, water and climate, the ability to deduct mortgage interest on taxes, the layers of government regulations and design codes that make infill development difficult and expensive, all of these factors amount to a massive government policy to reward development on the fringe.

"The largest social engineering program the government has ever attempted" is how Brookings scholar Christopher Leinberger described suburban expansion in a recent debate with Kotkin at the Forum for Urban Design in New York.

Leinberger, repeating a Florida theme, said that an expansive suburbia is a response to an industrial economy that no longer exists, and that a new economy, based on information, creativity and efficiency, will dictate a new kind of urban form.

My sense is that the differences between Kotkin on one side and Florida/Leinberger on the other are more subtle than they seem. The big question is a political one: How difficult will it be to even out the playing field so that developers and consumers will be able to choose fairly between the roomy suburbs and more efficient forms of community life in the decades ahead?

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Comments (9)

What an ugly picture he paints. Endless Woodburys and Eagans with curving streets and cul-de-sacs with as many as 5 or 6 carrying a different version of the same name (Yo Street, Yo Avenue, Yo Circle, Yo Way, Yo Yo Parkway, et cetera.)

Endless acres of retail interspersed with some restaurants and movie theaters, all built about the same time and all similar in style and height.

Endless acres of residential developments, all of their homes built about the same time and all similar in style and height.

Worst of all? No downtowns.

Small towns, Yes. Kotkin's vision, No thanks.

Having read only Berg's summaries of the Kotkin & Florida books, I'm not convinced their ideas are mutually exclusive. I could see a future where the cores of Minneapolis and St Paul continue to attract young creative types towards the urban core, after which some number of those youngsters eventually pair off and settle in the new burbs. A series of town centers hopscotched along 94 towards St Cloud & Eau Claire, and perhaps down highways 61 and 52 towards Rochester & La Crosse could easily mesh with the vision Florida proposes. Perhaps a high speed rail link to Chicago would nudge us in that direction.

Lastly, its easy to disparage cities like Detroit and Cleveland as being unable to recover via the Florida plan. I grew up hearing about how Pittsburgh was a dying steel town; yet, now, there it is, with a burgeioning creative class and a little renaissance in western PA.

People want "family-friendly communities not too distant from work, ample economic opportunities and affordable housing."

There are more than a few neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul that fit that description.

This is a very good post. I suspect that the reason the differences between these two positions is that it's not an either/or proposition that urban areas are more heavily subsidized than suburban or vice versa but that there are a number of subsidies in both areas.

With the policies of the last 65 years having established a large base of housing in the suburbs, it stands to reason that these houses will continue to attract a lot of people. The housing of Minneapolis and St. Paul is heavily in housing built pre-1945. A non-trivial number of houses in these cities were built before 1920. The cities in the midwest, and eastern seaboard certainly are similar in this respect.

A lot of these homes meet all the qualifications Kotkin lays out but people in the last 15-25 years have preferred to find affordable housing at distances 1-3 hours from work. Rising gas prices and changing policies toward subsidizing home ownership will change things dramatically.

Mr. Berg, can you please state whether or not you consult with the City of Minneapolis and/or with some other entity? Something like that sticks in my mind.

Sorry I am only about a third of the way through this book and find your schedule impossible to keep. Are all your readers using Amazon "Swindle"? Richard Stallman's phrase.

I already am skeptical. Kotkin ought to give Paul Ehrlich credit instead of taking a paragraph to say how he was "off the mark".

Ah, Joel Kotkin. Kotkin kind of reminds me of an old time snake-oil peddler who has switched his business to peddling suburban sprawl instead.

I mean, is there anything for which sprawling 'burbs are NOT a tonic, in Mr. Kotkin's eyes? Defying all logic, endless suburbs will even be a perfect fit with rising gas prices, thanks to a huge growth in telecommuting which he has just conveniently forecast!

Suburbia: it's a floor wax AND a dessert topping!

Basically, the Twin Cities is one "terrorist act" away from economic decline. I won't describe the scenario here and I have nothing to do with it but consider Quebec in the early 1970's. Corporations moved away from Quebec. Enuff said. I hope it doesn't happen but all the components are in place.

Susan Lesch asks if I'm still a consultant for the City of Minneapolis. The answer is no.

Kotkin's idea -- that people will have short commutes because they'll live in suburbs close to where the job growth is -- falls apart when someone changes jobs. I know or have read of many people who live in a suburb on one side of the metro area and commute to a job in a suburb on the other side.

They started out living close to work, but then work changed and it's not so easy to move every time you change jobs, or vice versa.