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The Human City Reviews

The Human City
Urbanism for the Rest of Us

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Around the globe, most new urban development has adhered to similar tenets: tall structures, small units, and high density. The Human Cityquestions these nearly ubiquitous practices, suggesting that they do not consider the needs and desires of the vast majority of people. In fact, exclusively dense urban development, the book suggests, might be doing more harm to future generations than good.

In this book, Joel Kotkin argues that in order to be truly sustainable, built environments must reflect the preferences of most people—and families in particular—even if that means encouraging an urbanist’s worst nightmare: lower-density, suburban development. This approach also could include residential neighborhoods within big cities as well as smaller towns.




Wall Street Journal


May 20, 2016 4:50 p.m. ET

Between 1840 and 1910, the population of Manhattan grew sevenfold, reaching a peak of 2.3 million in 1910. The average population density of its built-up areas tripled during this period. The New York Times in 1898 spoke of “densely crowded quarters” and “inmates . . . huddled together in their cramped hutches like rabbits.” How cramped? There were 620 people per acre, on average, in the walk-up tenements of the Lower East Side and 540 people per acre, on average, in the East Village. Jacob Riis, the author of “How the Other Half Lives,” placed the blame for overcrowding on the shortage of “decent” residential buildings in Manhattan: “We have a tremendous, ever swelling crowd of wage-earners which it is our business to house decently; . . . it is not housed decently; . . . it must be so housed here for the present, and for a long time to come, all schemes of suburban relief being as yet utopian, impracticable.”


By Joel Kotkin

Agate, 312 pages, $24.95

Riis, writing in 1890, turned out to be the impractical one. The teeming masses of New York—and the country’s other urban centers—would for the most part not find “decent” living conditions in a new urban utopia but, eventually, in the suburbs. A contemporary of Riis’s, Adna Ferrin Weber, writing in 1899, had it right. “The ‘rise of the suburbs’ it is,” he wrote, “which furnishes the solid basis of a hope that the evils of city life, so far as they result from overcrowding, may be in large part removed.” After 1910, the population of Manhattan began to decline, and the population of its overcrowded neighborhoods began to disperse. Between 1910 and 1980, Manhattan lost two-fifths of its population; by 2015, it had recovered only a quarter of this loss.

The positions taken by Riis and Weber still resonate with us today in contentious debates about the future of cities. The great majority of urban planners and activists now decry suburban expansion as “sprawl.” They are committed to containing it and to creating denser, more compact cities, cities that promote apartment living as well as walking, bicycling and public transport. The planners and activists want to conserve energy and limit greenhouse-gas emissions. They stand with Riis in their belief that cities should improve their quality of life and not rely on suburban relief. Yet a growing minority of pragmatic urban thinkers welcome suburban expansion and are committed to keeping residential land supply ample, affordable and accessible to metropolitan job markets. They side with Weber.

Joel Kotkin, in “The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us,” presents the most cogent, evidence-based and clear-headed exposition of the pro-suburban argument. In Mr. Kotkin’s view, there is a war against suburbia, an unjust war launched by intellectuals, environmentalists and central-city enthusiasts. In pithy, readable sections, each addressing a single issue, he debunks one attack on the suburbs after another. But he does more than that. He weaves an impressive array of original observations about cities into his arguments, enriching our understanding of what cities are about and what they can and must become, with sections reflecting on such topics as “housing inflation,” “the rise of the home-based economy,” “the organic expansion of cities” and “forces undermining the middle class in global cities.”

The essence of Mr. Kotkin’s defense of suburban expansion in the United States—with which he is most familiar and where the opposition to his views is better organized and much more formidable than elsewhere—is that suburbs now contain the great majority of residences as well as jobs. Suburban neighborhoods, he suggests, are as conducive to community living and as “green” as central-city ones. But his critique of conventional urban-planning wisdom goes further. He argues that central-city living is largely unaffordable by the middle class, let alone the poor; that central cities are becoming the abodes of the global rich, encouraging glamorous consumption rather than providing middle-class jobs; and that dense urban living in small, expensive quarters discourages child rearing, a critical concern for policy makers in many industrialized countries today. (There are 80,000 more dogs than children in San Francisco.)

In essence, Mr. Kotkin argues, being anti-suburb is being anti-family. With this book he wants to shift the emphasis back to people, the derided suburban masses that he refers to as “the rest of us,” people who have become almost invisible to anti-sprawl adherents, especially those who raise an alarm about the destruction of natural habitats by expanding cities. In a way, Mr. Kotkin echoes Bruce Chatwin’s comment on Darwin: “He lapsed into the common failure of naturalists: to marvel at the intricate perfection of other creatures, and recoil from the squalor of man.”

Mr. Kotkin, in his unabashed defense of the essential role that suburbs play in cities the world over, is clearly on the offensive. He does not pretend to present himself as an even-handed expert; he presents his arguments and leaves the opposition to argue its own case. All the same, and much to my delight, the book does not read as a diatribe or an anti-urban manifesto. Mr. Kotkin comes across as a relaxed, confident and experienced litigator standing in front of a jury of readers and making his case; and “The Human City” does provide a vision for a legitimate and pragmatic urbanism that could and should become mainstream.

Indeed, at the end the book Mr. Kotkin seeks a constructive compromise with the anti-sprawl armies. His answer to “How should we live?” is: amid an “urban pluralism” that “encompasses the city center as well as close-in suburbs, new fringe developments, and exurbs.” I find this quite sensible and level-headed but worry that the middle ground—the place we used to come to and to sit and reason together and agree on the common good—seems to be more and more difficult to get to these days.

My own concern with Mr. Kotkin’s position is the way in which he tries to fuse the case for pragmatic urbanism in industrialized countries with his summary discussion of suburbanization in less developed countries, where—with the exception of East Asia—increasing fertility rates is not an important concern, and where rapid urban population growth is indeed a very serious one. As contentious as debates over suburban expansion may be in industrialized countries, the problems are much more pressing for countries whose urban populations are still increasing rapidly, poorer countries with weaker regulatory regimes and fewer public resources that are less able to adequately prepare for this challenge. Between 2015 and 2050, the increase of the urban population in less developed countries is expected to be 18 times the increase in industrialized countries. Unfortunately, Mr. Kotkin does not defend urban expansion and suburbanization in, say, Sub-Saharan Africa or South and Southeast Asia, with the same zeal he applied to his defense of American suburbanization, preferring instead to recommend that rural and small town folks stay put instead of migrating to large cities already busting at their seams. I am afraid this is unlikely to happen in any and all countries where people are free to move. As the World War I song by Lewis and Young chimes: “How ya gonna keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen Paree?” Barring draconian measures, there is nothing we can do to prevent people from moving to cities. In China, to take one example, there are now more than 250 million people in cities without residence permits, or hokous.

Urban planners in less developed countries who are critical of suburban expansion and who insist on containing rapidly growing cities or, worse yet, preventing their population from growing, are simply not doing their job, the job of planning for the orderly expansion of these cities. And the time is now. Our window of opportunity will close by the end of this century, when the urbanization project—the global movement of people to cities that started in earnest in the early 19th century—will be largely complete. On average, the land area of cities in less developed countries can be expected to triple by 2050. In cities in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where a third of the projected increase in the global urban population will be accommodated, only a tenth of potential expansion areas are formally laid out before they are occupied.

We need to have these conversations, and we need to have them now. Like the farsighted planners of New York City, we need to imagine and shape the urban areas of the world to organize their form even before anyone moves in. We need urban planners to stop hoping against hope that cities can be contained and to do their job now, to make a real difference in the lives of many millions, those invisible suburban millions that Joel Kotkin wants us to see.

—Mr. Angel is a professor of city planning at the Marron Institute and leads the NYU Urban Expansion program. He is the author of “Planet of Cities.”


Washington Examiner

By Michael Barone

Nearly a century ago, in 1920, the Census Bureau caused a ruckus when it announced that for the first time a majority of Americans lived in cities — even though its definition of a city included every hamlet with a population of 2,500 and above.

Today a majority of Americans live in what are by any reasonable definition very large cities, metropolitan areas with populations above 1 million. But the urban planning profession remains fixated on just one small portion of these metropolises, the central city downtowns, though none outside New York contains more than 10 percent of metropolitan area jobs.

That's one of the lessons of Joel Kotkin's new book The Human City, which takes a wider and longer view. Kotkin shows how cities developed as religious, imperial, commercial and industrial centers. And he shows how what planners disparage as suburbs and sprawl emerged a century ago as natural parts of the city — and are now the home and workplace of the large majority of American city dwellers.

That's not how planners like to think about cities. Their focus is typically visual, and on the exterior of buildings and cityscape, easily reproduced in glossy coffee table books, rather than on the interiors where people spend most of their hours. They take their cues from 20th century architects like Le Corbusier, who wanted to knock down all of Paris's historic structures and replace them with a few skyscrapers rising from parkland.

There is an obvious authoritarian thrust here. It is visible in Kotkin's home state of California, where zoning restrictions and NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) protests prevent new construction in coastal metropolises. Gov. Jerry Brown is pushing policies that would concentrate new housing in high-rise clusters around mass transit stations, with ready access to bike paths and walking trails but not to streets and roads for private cars. It's a good thing to offer people such a choice. It's a bad thing to deny them any others.

The result is that housing costs in coastal metropolises have skyrocketed far above the level affordable for median income singles, much less married couples with children. These cities are increasingly the home of the connected rich and the disconnected poor. They have the nation's highest levels of economic inequality and the highest percentage of singles. The central city of San Francisco has 80,000 more dogs than children.

As Kotkin points out, the rationales for confining development in this way don't stand up to scrutiny. It's argued that suburbs, whose residents drive dozens of miles each day, are more wasteful of energy than high-rise central cities. Data don't bear that out. It takes lots of energy to build and maintain the high-rises, more than enough to compensate for less driving.

Central cities are also portrayed as more ethnically diverse. Not necessarily: As Kotkin notes, blacks have been moving to suburbs and most Asian and Latino immigrants head there directly. Meanwhile, the hippest neighborhoods of San Francisco and Portland, Brooklyn and Boston are increasingly monochromatically white.

And it turns out that packing people from various ethnic backgrounds into tight-packed central city neighborhoods doesn't promote harmonious interaction. On the contrary, as Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam found to his horror, it reduces social trust and social connectedness. People hunker down and avoid contact with others.

You get more social connectedness and higher levels of trust in the supposedly dreary and dull suburbs. One reason is that people with children tend to head toward the suburbs, and childrearing encourages participation in school- and church-related voluntary associations.

Another is that suburbs, unlike central cities or university campuses, actually have populations with diverse opinions. On any suburban cul-de-sac you can find people who vote both Republican and Democratic. Good luck trying that in Manhattan or Harvard.

To his subject Kotkin brings a useful worldwide perspective. He appreciates the strengths and shortcomings of Singapore, understands that most Europeans, like most Americans, live in suburbs and notes that population growth rates have been falling in megacities like Mexico City, São Paulo, Tokyo and Beijing, as well as in New York and Los Angeles. Some cities evidently get too big for people.

Which is Kotkin's point: Cities exist for people, not the other way around. He champions "urban pluralism," cities that have room for singles who think they're the wave of the future and, especially, for parents who are actually creating and raising the citizens of the future.


Hamilton Spectator

By Jay Robb

"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 and dispersion on our suburban edges if we want continued economic growth in Steeltown.

Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University in California, executive director of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism and author of "The Human City."

Many of the young professionals moving into downtown condos will eventually want to have kids. That's tough to do in a one-bedroom, 800-square-foot glass box sitting 20 storeys above James Street North.

So one of three things will happen.

They'll move out of their condos and into affordable homes in middle-class, family-friendly and congestion-free neighbourhoods.

A shortage of single-family homes will force young families out of Hamilton and into smaller communities, where they can buy more house for less money.

Or they'll postpone or even drop plans to have kids.

While the second option is bad, the third 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 is 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 folks, 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 highrise 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, and urbanists cheer on the death of suburbia.

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 talk 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.

"No field of study — technical or in the humanities — thrives when only one side or perspective is allowed free reign (sic) 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.

Joel on

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"Greenurbia is the suburbs of the future. The suburbs of the 1950s were bedroom communities for people who commuted into the city. Today, there’s much more employment in the suburbs, and the big change is the number of people working full-time or part-time at home. Having people commute from one computer screen to another doesn’t make sense."

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Praise for The Next Hundred Million

Kotkin has a striking ability to envision how global forces will shape daily family life, and his conclusions can be thought-provoking as well as counterintuitive. It's amazing there isn't more public discussion about the enormous changes ahead, and reassuring to have this talented thinker on the case. — Jennifer Ludden, NPR national desk correspondent

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