The future of our country’s landscape — how and where we will accommodate demographic, economic and environmental changes in the coming decades — is a matter of concern for all Americans, regardless of preference for urban, suburban, exurban or rural conditions. In “A Country of Cities,” a provocative series of opinion pieces published on Urban Omnibus, Vishaan Chakrabarti takes the country to task for its wasteful attitude towards land use. But his voice is one among a crowded field of urbanists and regionalists with diverse views on what the prevailing trends of where we live and what we build indicate about our future. Two other voices that currently command some attention at the national scale are those of Joel Kotkin, urban historian and author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, and Christopher Leinberger, land use strategist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institute.
Last Wednesday, July 7th, the Forum for Urban Design hosted a discussion on the future of the American metropolitan landscape with Kotkin and Leinberger. Kenneth T. Jackson, Professor of History and Social Sciences at Columbia University, moderated and Armando Carbonell, Senior Fellow at the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy, served as a respondent. The discussion centered around what kind of urban spaces should be developed for America’s growing population in the coming decades. Kotkin made the argument that the demand for suburbs remains strong as the millennial generation begins to settle. Leinberger advocated for the creation of walkable urban spaces (read more about Leinberger’s view in his post on “The Avenue,” The New Republic‘s metropolitan policy blog, and check out Greg Lindsay’s analysis of the discussion over at Fast Company.)
Kotkin began the evening with a discussion of how statistics show a changing American population—but a population that still desires a suburban lifestyle. He based this on polls that show that people want to live in suburbs close to the city. Respondents cite safety, sound, privacy and resale value as key motivators. Other data sets suggest that between 2000 and 2009 most growth occurred in suburbs– employment grew in suburbs as compared to central business districts; immigrants are increasingly moving straight to the suburbs. Quoting a 1992 advertisement for a development in Valencia, CA, Kotkin imagines an urban future where one “… can be in my classroom one minute and riding my horse the next. I don’t know whether I’m a city or country girl.” Kotkin offered little in the way of a vision for drastic spatial change for how Americans live. Instead, he emphasized the idea of “reconstituting suburbia” as multi-generational and multi-ethnic in which the same spaces are used in multiple ways by a variety of lifestyles and generations.
While Kotkin relied mostly on poll and government data to show that people still want to live in the suburbs, Leinberger drew attention to the need to move beyond the data that is available and look toward creating new data sets; for social scientists to stop using “existing light” and look for new ways of defining the urban. For Leinberger, this entails escaping the vocabulary and subsidies of the post-war decades, as well as creating new data to recognize the structural changes that have occurred as America has moved away from an industrial economy.
Leinberger views ‘city’ and ‘suburb’ as obsolete terms that do not reflect structural changes that have occurred in the past 10-15 years. He moved beyond Kotkin’s affirmation of the norm to assert the need for a new foundation: walkable urbanism. Using transportation as the driver of development, Leinberger distinguished between drivable suburbs, reliant on highways as the predominant transportation infrastructure, and walkable urbanism, in which multiple modes of transport (trains, car, sidewalks) are available to residents. Leinberger stressed the extent to which the built environment should be seen as a “reflection of the underlying economy,” and how the surplus of drivable suburbs in America is the result of government policy dating back to the 1950s—what Leinberger deems “the largest social engineering project” in our country’s history. In discussing the government policy that built the suburbs, Leinberger brought up the difficulty of constructing other forms of development as drivable suburbs are often the only legal forms. More dense and mixed-used development are often not permitted within existing zoning regulations. For Leinberger, the result is a pent-up demand for walkable urban space, for places with high walk scores and density, access to transit, “Disney-fied” mixed use place management—for New Urbanism.
The follow-up responses and Q+A yielded a more complete conversation on the role and potential of transit in shaping how Americans live. When asked about the rising cost of vehicle ownership and the environmental impact of suburbs, Kotkin maintained confidence in the ability of technology to adapt the vehicle, or come up with a replacement. For his part, Leinberger focused on the need for large scale investment by both the public and private in alternative transportation options.
A discussion of the differences among America’s cities and the difficulty in changing America’s urban form brought the visions of the two speakers together to the point where Carbonell asked: are these really two different visions? Both emphasized the need for a national planning regime, changes in zoning, the ability to give people options, and growth in smaller, sometimes recovering industrial, cities through the construction of new developments. Leinberger’s “walkable urbanism” that collapses the city/suburb binary doesn’t look that far off from Kotkin’s “reconstructed suburbia” with increased commercial use, especially through the lens of new urbanism.
The conversation drew out the crucial changes and issues affecting America’s urban areas—yet chose to address them selectively. Dialogue about transit-fueled development might have benefited from the acknowledgment of how low-income populations are the most dependent on public transport and the potential that development at transit nodes offers for mixed-income housing. Leinberger’s discussion of private and public investment addressed dated subsidies and the potentials of transit infrastructure, yet neither speaker discussed in-fill development or retrofitting existing infrastructure.
What struck me as most problematic about both Kotkin’s and Leinberger’s views is their assumption, reinforced by the lack of opposition in the Q+A, of a population that is composed almost entirely of economically mobile, highly educated whites and immigrants between the ages of 30 and 70. Topics such as affordable housing — especially mixed-income development — were absent. Much in the way “urban” was once coded as blighted minority, the suggested move away from “urban” and “suburban” towards something new, regionalism perhaps, seems to code for a vision of white neighborhoods that have shed the economic and social baggage of both the urban and suburban. While Kotkin and Leinberger diverge in the specifics of answering the question “what will we build?” they may be more alike than not in the ways they imagine future urban spaces and what they omit when imagining them.
Jane Kelly is a Project Associate at Urban Omnibus. She attends Colgate University where she concentrates in Geography and Studio Art. She was born and raised in New York City.
As with all review and opinion pieces posted on Urban Omnibus, the views expressed are those of the author only and do not reflect the position of Urban Omnibus editorial staff or the Architectural League of New York.