Forced March To The Cities


California is in trouble: Unemployment is over 13%, the state is broke and hundreds of thousands of people, many of them middle-class families, are streaming for the exits. But to some politicians, like Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the real challenge for California "progressives" is not to fix the economy but to reengineer the way people live.

In Lowenthal's case the clarion call is to take steps to ban free parking. This way, the Long Beach Democrat reasons, Californians would have to give up their cars and either take the bus or walk to their local shops. "Free parking has significant social, economic and environmental costs," Lowenthal told the Los Angeles Times. "It increases congestion and greenhouse gas emissions."

Scarily, his proposal actually passed the State Senate.

One would hope that the mania for changing how people live and work could be dismissed as just local Californian lunacy. Yet across the country, and within the Obama Administration, there is a growing predilection to endorse policies that steer the bulk of new development into our already most-crowded urban areas.

One influential document called "Moving Cooler", cooked up by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Urban Land Institute, the Environmental Defense Fund, Natural Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Protection Agency and others, lays out a strategy that would essentially force the vast majority of new development into dense city cores.

Over the next 40 years this could result in something like 60 million to 80 million people being crammed into existing central cities. These policies work hard to make suburban life as miserable as possible by shifting infrastructure spending to dense areas. One proposal, "Moving Cooler," outdoes even Lowenthal by calling for charges of upwards of $400 for people to park in front of their own houses.

The ostensible justification for this policy lies in the dynamics of slowing climate change. Forcing people to live in dense cities, the reasoning goes, would make people give up all those free parking opportunities and and even their private vehicles, which would reduce their dreaded "carbon imprint."

Yet there are a few little problems with this "cramming" policy. Its environmental implications are far from assured. According to some recent studies in Australia, the carbon footprint of high-rise urban residents is higher than that of medium- and low-density suburban homes, due to such things as the cost of heating common areas, including parking garages, and the highly consumptive lifestyles of more affluent urbanites.

Moreover, it appears that even those who live in dense places may be loath to give up their cars. Over 90% of all jobs in American metropolitan regions are located outside the central business districts, which tend to be the only places well suited for mass transit.

Indeed, despite the massive expansion of transit systems in the past 30 years, the percentage of people taking public transportation in major metropolitan regions has dropped from roughly 8% to closer to 5%. Even in Portland, Ore.--the mecca for new wave transit consciousness--the share of people using transit to get to work is now considerably less than it was in 1980. In recent months overall transit ridership nationwide has actually dropped.

These realities suggest that densification of most cities--with the exceptions of New York, Washington and perhaps a few others--cannot be supported by transit. Furthermore, drivers in dense cities will be confronted with not less congestion, but more, which will likely also boost pollution. The most congested cities in the country tend to be the densest, such as Los Angeles, Sen. Lowenthal's bailiwick, which is in an unenviable first place.

Then there is the little issue of people's preferences. Urban boosters have been correct in saying that until recently there have been too few opportunities for middle-class residents to live in and around city cores. But over the past decade many cities have gone for broke with dense condo and rental housing and have produced far more product, often at very high cost, than the market can reasonably bear.

Initially, when the mortgage crisis broke, the density advocates built much of their case on the fact that the biggest hits took place in suburban areas, particularly on the fringe. Yet as suburban construction ended, cities continued building high-density urban housing--sometimes encouraged by city subsidies. As a result, in the last two years massive foreclosures have plagued many cities, and many condominiums have been converted to rentals. This is true in bubble towns like Las Vegas and Miami; "smart-growth" bastions like Portland and Seattle; and even relatively sane places such as Kansas City, Mo. All these places have a massive amount of high-density condos that are either vacant or converted into lower-cost rentals.

Take Portland. The city's condo prices are down 30% from their original list price. The 177-unit Encore, one of the fanciest new towers, has closed sales on 12 of its units as of March, while another goes to auction. Meanwhile in New York half-completed structures dot Brooklyn's once-thriving Williamsburg neighborhood, while the massive Stuyvesant Town apartment complex in Manhattan teeters at the edge of bankruptcy.

Finally, it is unlikely that cities would be able to accommodate the massive growth promoted by urban boosters, land speculators and policy mavens. Aaron Renn, who writes the influential Urbanophile blog, says that most American cities today struggle to maintain their current infrastructure. They also have limited options to zone land for high-density construction, due in part to grassroots opposition to existing residential neighborhoods. Overall they would be hard-pressed to accommodate much more than 10% of their region's growth, much less 50% or 60%.

Given these realities, and the depth of the current recession, one might think that governments would focus more on basics like jobs and fixing the infrastructure--in suburbs as well as cities--than reengineering how people live. Yet it is increasingly clear that for many "progressives" the real agenda is not enabling people to achieve their dreams--especially in the form of a suburban single-family house. It is, instead, forcing them to live in what is viewed as more ecologically and socially preferable density.

In the next few months we may see more of the kind of hyperregulation proposed by the likes of Sen. Lowenthal. It is entirely possible that a hoary coalition of HUD, Department of Transportation and EPA bureaucrats could start trying to restrict future housing development along the lines suggested in "Moving Cooler."

Yet over time one has to wonder about the political efficacy of this approach. Right now Americans are focused primarily on simply economic growth--and perhaps a touch less on the intellectual niceties of the "smart" form. In addition they are increasingly skeptical about climate change, which serves as the primary raison d'etre behind the new regulatory schema.

Given the zealousness of the density advocates, perhaps the only thing that will slow, and even reverse, this process will be the political equivalent of a sharp slap across the face. Unless the ruling party begins to reacquaint itself with the preferences and aspirations of the vast majority of Americans, they may find themselves experiencing repeats of their recent humiliating defeat--manufactured largely in the Boston suburbs--in true-blue Massachusetts.

Americans--suburban or urban--may resist a return to unbridled and extreme Republicanism, whether on social issues or in economic policy. But forced to choose between Neanderthals, who at least might leave them alone in their daily lives, and higher-order intellects determined to reengineer their lives, they might end up supporting bipeds lower down the evolutionary chain, at least until the progressive vanguard regains a grip on common sense.

This article originally appeared at

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in Febuary, 2010.

Photo: Creativity+ Timothy K Hamilton

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reverse mortgage new york

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California's unemployment

California's unemployment rate rose from 12.3% in July. Twenty-six other states saw their unemployment rates decrease from July to August, including Mississippi and Alabama. California was one of the states with the biggest decreases in employment: It lost 33,600 jobs. Texas lost 34,200 and Michigan lost 50,300. North Carolina added 18,600.

North Dakota registered the lowest unemployment rate in the nation in August, at 3.7%. South Dakota's unemployment rate in August was 4.5%, Nebraska's was 4.6%.

There were seven states with "measurably" higher unemployment rates than the U.S. rate of 9.6% wakacje 2011. Twenty-five posted jobless rates "significantly" lower than the U.S. rate.

California's unemployment rate is 0.4 percentage points higher than it was in August 2009. It was not one of the several states, including Alabama, Tennessee and North Carolina, that saw unemployment rates fall over the year.

Kotkin's misuse of Australian Conservation Foundation study

A commentary on this article, specifically refuting Kotkin's misuse of the ACF study, is here:

ACF's Charles Berger responded to similar misuses of the study here:

The original ACF study is well worth a read! It's 17 pages of clear factual argument, and most of its conclusions are true of the US and Canada as well.

Regards, Jarrett Walker ...


From the very opening of Joel's piece:

"But to some politicians, like Sen. Alan Lowenthal, the real challenge for California "progressives" is not to fix the economy but to reengineer the way people live. In Lowenthal's case the clarion call is to take steps to ban free parking. "

Classic. Joel thinks he's entitled to "free" parking, courtesy other consumers and the taxpayer; any effort to internalize the cost of parking to parking consumers is regarded by Joel as "reengineering the way people live."

And I'd agree with him. If, and only if, I could ignore the glaring reality that parking is never free.

Someone pays for it, it's whether we acknowledge this fact or not the determines the degree to which the way we live is "engineered." If you want to move away from government "reengineering the way people live," get rid of parking and infrastructure subsidies that force car users and car non-users alike to be "engineered" into underwriting Joel's perceived entitlement...

"These policies work hard to make suburban life as miserable as possible by shifting infrastructure spending to dense areas."

The entitlement goes on and on. Of course we would continue to subsidize and externalize the infrastructure costs of suburban life at the expense of inner cities - I mean, we've been doing that for almost a century, why stop now? Because it's really, really expensive and we're out of money.

It's pretty irritating. All that seems to here be proposed - in California and otherwise - is the novel concept of having suburban infrastructure users pay for the suburban infrastructure they use. Not right away; but gradually, over time. That this ends Joel's precious suburban free ride is certainly unfortunate and probably quite painful, but it's really the only viable path to economic self-reliance and financial sustainability for our country in the long run.

The trouble with open-ended solutions


As to your first point, I can see why you think that the writers you mention all sound the same. I think a lot of has to do with the overall reality of the urban sociology/planning academic scene, which is comprised of professionals who absorb an orthodox view in the schools and then continue to believe it when they start to practice. Cox, Kotkin and O'Toole are indeed quite isolated, and because of their small number they have a difficult to find others to take on further specialized research.

It also seems that the libertarian critique against centralized planning has as its major impediment (or strength, depending on your point of view) the lack of a visually-based solution. It's not about how this design is better than that design. It's more along the lines of how focusing on one ideal solution is often worse than being open to a variety of solutions. Such open-endedness does not instantly lend to highly detailed plans and forms, and it therefore doesn't cater to many architects' and planners' deep desire to shape the built environment to their own visions as much as possible.

As to your other point, I agree that as long as a building/street/neighorhood/any space was the result of a design, your behavior and choices within will be limited and predetermined. The difference between suburbs and cities is about which comes first-cities grow to a certain size and density and then at some point some of its inhabitants decide to move beyond and form a suburb. Cities seem to emerge partly out of convenience, partly out of happenstance, and rarely as a product of a singular design concept. Suburbs are much more the result of deliberate choice or personal preference, and the fact that they are purely car-based is seen by those who move there as a feature, not a flaw. As a child growing up, this car depency was a restriction on your freedom, which many parents think their children aren't entitled to anyway in order to for them to be safe (and is probably one of the reasons suburbs attract families anyway). It should be recognized that there are those who choose to live in a much denser setting, but they are outnumbered many times over by people seeking a less denser one. When lots of people are instantly forced into denser urban situations, the results are often disappointing-either you end up with people having to pay a lot more for housing with less money left over for other things, or they grudgingly put up with their rabbit cage of an apartment in one of those gorgeous European-style 'suburbs.'

Some nuance is definitely needed.

I see where you're trying to go, but Wes is introducing a series of facts so often overlooked by Kotkin and Friends that, I think, might be overlooked in your responses here as well. I'm not sure, I could just be misunderstanding your argument. So let's examine this further:

"The difference between suburbs and cities is about which comes first-cities grow to a certain size and density and then at some point some of its inhabitants decide to move beyond and form a suburb. "

Who says this is the case? Some cities exhibit more suburban growth than others, a certain truth, and I'm sure many of those with economic means in cities throughout history have chosen to "suburbanize." But what is myth - and largely only a post-war myth - is that suburbanization is some necessary, or even natural, evolutionary result of city growth. It is not.

It was dreamed up by urban planners in the late 1800s as a potential solution to the smog-filled and haphazardly urbanized cities of the Industrial Revolution. In later years, we became so used to the urban form they envisioned and prescribed, we began to assume it was the way things must have always been. We have "naturalized" it. It's actually an anomaly in the history of human civilization, made both possible and necessary by cheap energy sources and the smog they created, respectively.

Suburbs, even more than Kotkin's archenemy New Urbanism, were centrally-planned, government-subsidized, federally-mandated, and ultimately only made marketable by the regulatory burdens of government bureaucrats. It is simply not economically effective for uses to be dispersed over large swathes of land unless you have government bureaucrats trying to tell everyone what uses can go where. This process - government bureaucrats designating what uses can go where - is called "zoning."

But even zoning alone is not enough to manifest an urban form as suburbia. You have to make cars seem cheap also - back car purchases with government dollars, provide subsidies to energy and car producers, provide a massive network of free-to-use highways, develop the emergency services to support them, and charge car users at point-of-use for none of it. I'm not saying this urban form is necessarily "bad" or the wrong idea, like some contend. But if anyone honestly thinks it's the creation of individual choices in a free market and not the result of centrally-planned government regulation, we really need to step back and examine its history.

"Suburbs are much more the result of deliberate choice or personal preference, and the fact that they are purely car-based is seen by those who move there as a feature, not a flaw. "

I'll leave this alone for a second to go back in time again and move forward from there. It's not about personal preference; it's about how historical realities have created a present environment in which a particular option seems like the most logical or economical choice to most people. Furthermore, this situation should hardly be considered "natural" or "rational" simply because this previous social engineering has taken place.

When suburbs were being built, they faced tremendous opposition from people in the inner cities who argued that government policies of urban renewal, single-use zoning, and Radiant City housing projects were completely destroying their way of life. Libertarians were vehemently in aversion to government zoning schemes and "master planning." Today's choices, in other words, are less free-standing decisions and more the affirmation of the society we already live in: we didn't choose anything really (it's mostly inherited), so we convince ourselves that if our built environment had actually been up to us, we would choose exactly the one we have.

The transportation and land use infrastructure that supports suburbia today would not have been possible without the force of eminent domain in many central city communities, that literally cleared thousands of homes at the hands of government bureaucrats to make way for centrally-planned highways financed by the taxpayer. Whether or not all this central planning served the greater good is certainly a matter for debate. But let's not pretend it didn't happen.

"It should be recognized that there are those who choose to live in a much denser setting, but they are outnumbered many times over by people seeking a less denser one."

This is hard to say. The market is certainly tilting away from car use, if for no other reason than it's becoming just too expensive. But that being said, I think it's less people are "seeking" a less dense built environment and more that a less dense built environment is what's most easily available to them by "many times over."

"When lots of people are instantly forced into denser urban situations, the results are often disappointing-either you end up with people having to pay a lot more for housing with less money left over for other things, or they grudgingly put up with their rabbit cage of an apartment in one of those gorgeous European-style 'suburbs.'"

No one, except maybe in Joel's ridiculous preconceived idea of what's going on, is "instantly forcing" anyone into any kind of living situation.

What may be happening, at worst, is that we're refusing to continue a system of free rides for suburban infrastructure, and thus are "forcing" those who choose to live in suburbia to pay the increasingly exorbitant costs of their own extensive urban infrastructure. Infrastructure they're not actually entitled to get for free, even though they have for a very, very long time.

Again, suburbia is much more expensive unless the government excludes mixed use from the market by zoning, subsidizes cheap energy, finances extensive roads, highways, and emergency services coverage, and underwrites "ideal" or "safe" home mortgages to an incredible degree. But there's a difference between deciding not to continue creating artificially low prices and "forcing people into density."

If anything, people are "forced into density" by economic reality. The only way to get around this is if, through liberal planning regimes like those of the New Deal era, politicians force taxpayers to subsidize some other economic arrangement according to their prescriptions (ie. suburbia). Joel - and others - are accustomed to suburbia, so decisions toward greater self-reliance has created a great deal of fear and anxiety that the free ride might run out. This informs the debate in a big way.

I will acknowledge that if you've received something for free for a really long time, you might begin to think it's actually free. This is an important concern because it speaks to the underlying perspective that informs this debate. Try as we might, the duration of the subsidy does not actually determine if it's free or not; yet it might still make people feel as though, unless the person paying their way continues to pay their way, they're being cheated.

California Unemployment Rate Over 13%?

The unemployment rate for California is 12.5% when you use the seasonally adjusted series. I know the unadjusted series is at 13.2%, but I'm not sure why you would use that number. It's a small difference, but I think it leads to some confusion when not fully specified.

California Unemployment Rate

Sad to hear about your "behavior modification"

Have you given any thought to moving from the suburbs and breaking those bonds that hold you?

California has another zany plan in the works, and it is called SB 375. AKA "the anti-sprawl" law. Boiled down to its nutty core, what this exercise in Sacramento lunacy tells us is that if people are somehow compelled to give up the good life for an existence within the densely packed warrens of "transportation oriented development," they will magically give up their automobiles and ride the bus. All because their new wickiup happens to be near a Metro station.

Of course, it is no coincidence that this new world saving enterprise calls for the building of thousands of new condominiums statewide. Paradoxically in the name of stopping global warming. Anyone with even a modicum of skepticism should be able to realize that this has a whole lot more to do with the needs of the development and realty lobbies than saving the world through the construction of condos. That is how they do business in Sacramento, you know.

Of course I have given that

Of course I have given that thought.

Anecdotes aside, the suburbia environment is just as dictated as the urban environment. So mandating minimum parking requirements, minimum lot sizes, wide street widths from engineer's outdated standards, insane zoning regulations, and roads that don't connect so walking and biking in inconvenient, etc. is some bastion of free choice?

Sounds like engineering towards the automobile to me, in quite literal terms, too.

I guess because people live in that mess, they wouldn't enjoy walkable amenities, or something?

First off, I read Cox and

First off, I read Cox and O'Toole quite frequently, and I have to say you guys all use the same statistics, links, and talking points. Are you guys colluding together or is this just a strange coincidence? I'm not saying that's wrong, but it's seriously irritating and eerie how one topic gets beat to death one week and then the next week you all talk about the same thing.

I am unfamiliar with what you mean by "engineering" of how people live? You act as if the suburbs are some sort of non-engineered lifestyle. I've lived in suburbia my entire life; there is not one aspect of it that is not "behavior modification". The policies and regulations dictate one must drive and use an automobile. I've tried to avoid using my car before. Don't try it, it's not possible.

Until there's sane policies that actually reflect the cost of development, transportation, and infrastructure; we will not see living arrangements (and transportation modes) that reflect reality.