Center-right urban theorist Joel Kotkin has an op-ed in today’s LA Times arguing that “Suburbia’s not dead yet.” Of course it’s not, and nobody has said it is. But suburbia as we know it – characterized by car-dependent urban sprawl – surely is vanishing. Kotkin argues that our future isn’t going to involve everyone living in high-rise condos and though I would agree there, his notion that SoCal suburbia as it currently exists is not going to undergo significant change is a deep misreading of reality. Suburbs will continue to exist, but the line between urb and suburb, between dense city and low-density periphery, will be obliterated.
Kotkin’s article starts off trying to claim that the suburban status quo is just fine:
Yes, high gas prices and rising sub-prime mortgage defaults are hurting some suburban communities, particularly newly built ones on the periphery. But the suburbs remain home to a majority of Americans and a larger proportion of U.S. families — and people aren’t leaving those communities in droves to live in cities. Even with economic growth slowing, many suburbs, exurbs and smaller towns, especially those whose economies are tied to energy, are continuing to do better than most cities in terms of job creation and population growth.
Of course, with politicians like Zev Yaroslavsky blocking urban density in LA it’s not exactly easy to find affordable places to live in the city centers. Most Southern Californians still live in suburbs because they can’t afford anything else. Kotkin takes a market failure, a class stratification, and reads it as some kind of free choice.
And the notion that the suburbs are doing better than the cities is simply wrong. Last month the New York Times demonstrated that home values are falling faster in the suburbs than in the city centers. Office parks are experiencing high vacancy rates, especially in ’00s suburbs like Elk Grove.
But being wrong doesn’t stop Kotkin. More below…
Contrary to pundits’ forecasts, during this decade of high energy prices, the country’s urban populations, for only the first time in recent history, actually fell, according to a census analysis by economist Jordan Rappaport at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.
This stat has several flaws. First, from 2000 to 2006 the suburban model still seemed viable in many metro areas. $3 gas was the tipping point – when gas prices hit that mark for a sustained period in 2006, the housing bubble burst. When this decade is finished in December 2009, the stats from the last half will look rather different from the first half.
Kotkin’s entire argument rests on numbers like these, and he digs his hole deeper:
Nevertheless, since 2003, when gas prices began their climb, suburban population growth has continued to outstrip that of the central cities, with about 90% of all metropolitan growth occurring in suburban communities, according to the 2000 to 2006 census. And the most recent statistics from the annual American Community Survey, which is conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau, show no sign of a significant shift of the population to urban counties, at least through 2007.
Again, this periodization almost totally misses the rapid collapse of the newest suburbs. Yes, a lot of growth occurred there from 2000 to 2006 – and by mid-2008 much of it has been given back. Here again his argument is shot down by recent events.
The flat condominium markets in most large urban markets are another sign that people are not streaming into cities from the suburbs and buying. Many condo projects in such cities as Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami and San Diego have either been canceled or converted into rentals, with many units remaining vacant. As a Southern California condo developer told me recently, lower house prices are not going to make people more disposed to buying apartments.
The flat condo markets are a direct casualty of the housing bubble bursting and particularly of the credit crunch. Condos saw spectacular price appreciation in those cities, overshooting what was normal and reasonable. Of course, people shouldn’t have to buy apartments – in a post-peak credit era, long-term rents or other arrangements can substitute for the high costs of ownership. In any case, the market for urban density is there and will continue to exist as long as prices are affordable and wage levels are supported.
But the biggest reason the suburb-to-city narrative is not following the script of the urban boosters and theorists has to do with employment. Living close to your workplace makes sense, not only because it cuts commuting costs and reduces greenhouse-gas emissions — by saving time, it also gives people more time for family and leisure activities.
The problem for many cities is that they lack the jobs for people to move close to. Since the 1970s, the suburbs have been the home for most high-tech jobs and now the majority of office space. By 2000, only 22% of people worked within three miles of a city center in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas.And from 2001 to 2006, job growth in suburbia expanded at six times the rate of that in urban cores, according to an analysis of Bureau of Labor Statistics by the Praxis Strategy Group, a consulting firm with which I work.
This is a real issue. Living in Monterey, where most of the jobs I want are in the Bay Area, a 1-2 hour commute each way, it bites especially hard. It is true in Southern California as well.
But Kotkin assumes that this pattern will continue to exist. It won’t, because the cheap oil that enabled it is gone. Again he relies on 2000-06 as the era that supposedly proves his point, despite the unraveling of that era.
Suburban office parks are a classic example of massive waste. As long as oil was cheap that waste was hidden or not relevant. But expensive oil means the waste of sprawling office parks with too many parking spaces far from nodes of housing, shopping and transit now presents immediate and unavoidable costs. Urban office vacancy rates are rising, but not nearly as fast as suburban vacancy rates. Jobs will start relocating to more dense areas even of the SoCal megalopolis. Kotkin is nuts to assume that the pre-2007 patterns will continue for much longer.
A desire to live closer to their jobs doesn’t mean that people have to move to the inner core, particularly if that’s not where the jobs are. Of the 20 leading job centers in Southern California by ZIP Code, none are downtown. The central core does remain an important job center, but it accounts for barely 3% of regional employment. Among those who work downtown, some may shift from cars to public transit, although many will simply buy a more fuel-efficient car and stay put in the suburbs.
For residents who live in suburban areas with large concentrations of employment — Burbank, Ontario and West L.A. — commutes to work can be shorter than those experienced by their inner-city counterparts, according to Ali Modarres, a professor of geography at Cal State Los Angeles. Commutes in these communities, on average, are less than 25 minutes, while in high-density areas, such as Pico-Union, they average 35 minutes.
Kotkin initially argues that SoCal urban density is to judged solely by downtown LA, a model that doesn’t fit SoCal realities – as he then acknowledges in his next paragraph. Forgive my skepticism.
Burbank and West LA are not suburban in the way Ontario is – and as the Ontario tent city demonstrated, Ontario isn’t exactly a great example to use to prove suburban robustness. Burbank, West LA, Pico-Union, Santa Monica, Sherman Oaks, Long Beach, and Santa Ana are perfect examples of how dense nodes are the key to SoCal’s future.
The suburb-to-the-city narrative faces other obstacles. By the early part of the next decade, the large millennial generation born since the early 1980s will begin to form families, and they will, as have previous generations, probably seek open space and good schools for their children — and that means they will settle in the suburbs. And there is no census evidence suggesting that immigrants have reversed their decade-old pattern of moving to the suburbs.
This is perhaps the most ridiculous and unsupported part of Kotkin’s op-ed. He’s basically arguing that Californians like the suburban lifestyle and that we Millennials are going to choose it, as if only the suburbs will provide open space and good schools. Most Millennials in California aren’t able to afford to buy a home at all, and likely never will at current rates. Those who have started families have begun gravitating toward city centers or dense nodes, where housing can be found that is near transportation and that doesn’t require a lot of driving.
Kotkin assumes that we can still afford sprawl, when it is clear we cannot. Millennials have experienced a generation of inequality so it’s not clear how exactly they’re going to afford to live in sprawling suburbs, if any continue to exist. The millennial future is a dense future.
Continuing high energy prices will likely change the nation’s geography, but not in ways some urban theorists are predicting. Rather than cramming more people and families into cities, they may instead foster a more dispersed, diverse archipelago of self-sufficient communities. From here, that looks like a far more pleasant scenario not only for suburban and exurbanites but for urban dwellers who don’t want to live under dense conditions reminiscent of 19th century industrial cities or the teeming metropolises of the contemporary Third World.
This is pretty much a fantasy unmoored from reality. California suburbs are difficult to make self-sufficient, as SoCal long ago paved over its highly productive farmland and overshot its water capacity decades back.
However, the basic concept that suburbs won’t vanish is correct. What will happen is that they will grow less dense as they are adapted for the 21st century. Rather than trying in vain to defend the 20th century, as Kotkin attempts, the answer instead is to retrofit suburbia. Encourage the construction of light rail, solar and wind power, bicycle facilities, and urban gardening. In some of the pre-1980 suburbs this is not going to be as difficult as it might initially seem.
The classic city centers of SF, Oakland, and LA have a vibrant future. But so do “suburbs” like Santa Ana. In fact, it’s my belief that Santa Ana has one of the brightest futures of any city in SoCal. It sits at the center of Orange County, close to job centers and at the node of the transit network that does exist in the county. An Orange County mass transit system would use Santa Ana as its centerpiece, and the existing concentration of government and financial buildings can be a magnet bringing more jobs to the area.
But all of that requires significant public investment and government action – which Kotkin opposes. He instead things suburbs will somehow naturally evolve into a happy land of sustainable societies. Without government action, the more likely outcome really is the kind of class stratification we see in a place like Brazil – and are already beginning to see here in California.