Review – Joel Kotkin’s The Human City: Urbanism For The Rest of Us
This review first ran in the Sept. 12 edition of The Hamilton Spectator.
By Joel Kotkin
“Sprawl is caused by affluence and population growth, and which of these exactly, do we propose to inhibit?”
George Easterbrook, contributing editor of The Atlantic and Washington Monthly, posed the question that’s worth debating here in Hamilton.
Joel Kotkin would make the argument that we need densification downtown plus dispersion on our suburban edges if we want continued economic growth in Steeltown. He’d also tell us that reports of suburbia’s death have been greatly exaggerated.
As churches, vacant lots and parking lots get turned into condos downtown, we’re banking on high-earning and free-spending young professionals moving in. Many will eventually want to start a family. That’ll be tough to do in a one-bedroom, 800 square-foot glass box 20-storeys above James St. North.
So one of three things will happen.
Young professionals will move out of their condos and into affordable single family homes with backyards, front porches and driveways in middle-class, family-friendly and congestion-free suburban neighbourhoods.
A shortage of homes for growing families will young professionals out of Hamilton and into smaller, surrounding communities where they can buy more house for less money.
Or they’ll postpone or cancel plans to have kids because it’s unaffordable and there’s nowhere to go to raise a family.
While the second option is bad, the third choice is even worse.
“Cities with few children and families will prove fundamentally unsustainable, deprived of a base from which they can draw new workers and consumers, as well as critical sources of both parental motivation and youthful innovation,” says Kotkin.
San Francisco’s a cautionary tale. There are now 80,000 more dogs than kids and the urban core has the highest percentage of households without children of any major U.S. city.
“Successful urban areas will be those that provide not only the vibrant districts that attract the young but also those, usually less dense, places that can help preserve the family’s place.”
For many families, those less dense places will be out in the ‘burbs.
“In reality, for most residents of cities, life is not about engaging the urban ‘entertainment machine’ or enjoying the most spectacular views from a high-rise tower,” says Kotkin. “To them, the goal is to achieve residence in a small home in a modest neighbourhood, whether in a suburb or in the city, where children can be raised and also where, of increasing importance, seniors can grow old amid familiar places and faces.”
That goal gets harder to reach as restrictions get put on suburban development. Urban policy should be about choices and not government edicts, says Kotkin. “The notion that development be ‘steered’ into ever-denser pockets violates the wishes of the vast majority. These attitudes reflect a remarkable degree of disrespect and even contempt toward the choices people make. If people move to the periphery, it is not because they are deluded or persuaded by advertising but because they perceive that is where their quality of life is higher…The attempt to reduce the space and privacy enjoyed by households is not progressive but fundamentally regressive.”
Kotkin sees cities as more than the dense and crowded places envisioned by planners, downtown developers and urbanists.
“To some advocates, these are the only places that matter because they express ‘superior’ urban virtues pertaining to environmental or cultural values. Their notion of improving cities is less about luring people there with amenities that appeal to families and more about shoving development into dense transit nodes, increasing the ‘sustainability’ and profitability of their developments…Planners, politicians and pundits often wax poetic about these massive new building projects and soaring residences made up of hundreds of tiny stacked units, but there’s just one problem with this brave new condensed world: most people, including many inner-city residents, aren’t crazy about it.’
Kotkin’s unlikely to be invited to deliver the summit keynote speech to a banquet hall full of Hamilton urbanists. Yet he makes a convincing case for why doubling down on densification while restricting dispersion in suburbia is a bad idea if we want our city to be the best place to raise a child.
“No field of study – technical or in the humanities – thrives when only one side or perspective is allowed free reign and granted a dispensation from criticism. The question of the future of cities is too important to be hemmed in by dogma and should instead invite vigorous debate and discussion.”
Jay Robb serves as director of communications for Mohawk College, lives in Hamilton and reviews business books for the Hamilton Spectator.