Saturday, July 17, 2010

Move To The City

Joel Kotkin is trying to revise the recent history of increasing city populations, awareness of sprawl, and the actual negatives associated with suburbs. He published a diatribe filled with half-truths and misinformation, The myth of the back-to-the-city migration, recently in the Wall Street Journal. Kotkin feels there is a war against suburbia. Although, more so, it seems, he's out to attack any positive growth and reporting regarding cities. His attitude, is generally, 'the suburbs have won, they are the optimal living arrangement, let's not upset the natural order.'

Just as the move to the suburbs was a decades-long metamorphosis, the movement back to cities is also going to take time. Kotkin quotes Wendell Cox's (a thoroughly debunked quack and privatization proponent) numbers regarding permit counts before and after 2008 as further evidence of the myth of city growth. Permit counts have dropped. I guess he hasn't heard we're in a recession. Permit counts have dropped everywhere. We have, in general, overcapacity, particularly in real estate - overbuilding. Which leads us to Kotkin's next jewel of evidence - condos.

He repeatedly touts the overbuilt condo environment as evidence that the return the the city will be short-lived. Are there no condos in the suburbs? Also, what about the increased vacant commercial space in the suburbs? Does that mean the growth period for suburban business is over? This all is more correctly simply the story of overbuilding, common during periods of manias and bubbles.

Kotkin quips about "mislead developers" and the "subsidies lavished on many [city] projects." He always conveniently ignores the subsidization that has been almost completely responsible for suburbs. Yes, let's bash environmentally conscientious (dense) projects in cities, and projects contributing to the economic engine of most metro economies - the city. Better we keep sprawling, paving over land, and polluting the environment, all in the most inefficient and irresponsible manner possible.

We have been handcuffed by an auto-centric, suburban lifestyle over the last half-century. To claim this a "preference" is a jump in logic. People used to flock to trains in the late 19th and early 20th century. As auto companies tore up rail lines, and the Federal government subsidized highways, people started driving more. This was primarily a policy choice, not a public choice. As we reconfigure rail transportation to connect metro areas and regions, density will be reinstated near stations (transit oriented development) and in cities as it had in the past.

With gas prices inevitably rising and highway commutes becoming more time-consuming, people are rediscovering denser city living, with closer proximity to jobs and everyday activities. As evidenced by suburban edge cities having actually seen the steepest decline in real estate values.

Endless highway building and unmitigated sprawl are dinosaurs. The cries of the likes of Kotkin, Cox, et al, are the last whimpers of the out-of-touch and those unable to adapt to the new metropolitan realities. Rather than forming constructive ideas - helping to make suburban areas denser and connected within regions to other cities by rail - these suburban advocates would rather pretend this is still the 1950s. The end of these misguided voices influencing development policy will be an welcome extinction.

For Further Reading:
Blood On The Tracks
New Milwaukeeans
Responding To Critics Toolkit
Response To Wendell Cox
Suburban Cowboys
Suburban Office Construction, Vacancy Hurting
Suburbs Struggle With Industrial Blight
Vacancy Rates Climb

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