Internationally recognized urbanist and demographer Joel Kotkin challenges conventional urban-planning ideologies in his new book, The Human City: Urbanism for the Rest of Us. Kotkin has been described as “America’s uber-geographer” by David Brooks of the New York Times, and in his eighth book he examines the good, the bad, and the ugly of high-density environments and the possible alternatives.
Trends show that modern megacities and “pack-and-stack” living do not consider the needs of the general population. Trends also show that these living methods may be detrimental to future generations. Kotkin calls for dispersed neighborhoods centered on human values, and more diverse options for every stage of life. The Human City reminds us that in order to be sustainable, we must help shape our future and not become the products of demographic and economic forces.
To celebrate the book’s publication, we are sharing a Q&A with the author.
This book is somewhat controversial, as it challenges the dominant view held by most city planners and urban developers. Was there a specific moment in your career when you realized that the almost exclusive focus on high-density development might not be the best option for the global population?
Much of this realization came from spending time in places like Mumbai, Mexico City, Hanoi, and other cities in developing countries. I also learned a great deal about the downsides of over-urbanization in East Asia. In East Asia, conditions are better than they are in developing countries, but there are other negative factors, such as low rate of family formation and childbearing. Here in North America and in Europe, high-density urbanism has some of the same effects, but the option of moving to less dense (and usually less expensive) cities and suburbs remains a viable option as people enter their 30s. The key is to give people, and families, choices.
History provides us with some pretty colorful anti-suburban sentiments. You write that the International Congress of Modern Architecture once called the burbs “a kind of scum churning against the walls of the city.” Why is there still so much antipathy for the suburbs when the data suggest more people prefer to live there than in the city core?
This trend is really about the concentration of media in big cities. Media, as well as finance and fashion, are intrinsically urban-oriented. The writers, pundits, and academics who write about cities tend to live in great cities like New York, Boston, Chicago, and London—or wish they did. The suburbanites and residents of small towns are largely outside of the discussion, as if they really didn’t exist except as a bunch of losers.
I also wonder how someone can study cities without looking at the vast majority of people, who now live in suburbs or suburban-like neighborhoods. In my old neighborhood in LA—an older part of the San Fernando Valley—very few neighbors shared the enthusiasm for densification expressed by the media, political leadership, architects, developers, and planners.
Much of the book draws on your deep historical knowledge of cities—from industrial-era London to your grandfather’s Brooklyn to modern-day Singapore. If you could live in any city at any point in history, where and when would it be?
My favorite city to visit was Hong Kong under the British—entrepreneurial and culturally diverse, but under the firm grip of common law. Historically, my favorite place to visit and even live would have been Amsterdam in the 17th century, which had many of the same characteristics as late-20th century Hong Kong. I also was very lucky to have lived in the New York area at the height of its powers in the early 1960s, and to have lived in Los Angeles in the 1980s, when it was a great place with surprising urban pockets and lots of livable neighborhoods.
The economic, environmental, and social consequences of unfettered, exclusively dense development seem dire, to say the least. Is it too late to curb the trend? Is there anything ordinary citizens can do to advocate for more human cities?
The key battlegrounds are cultural and political for people who live in suburbs, as well as those who live in mid-density urban areas (including many parts of San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, London, New York, Tokyo, and Singapore). The book is an attempt to challenge the assumptions of the planning, academic, and urban development establishment. People do not have to fear change per se, but they should have some say in how things change. I know few New Yorkers, outside developers and planners, who would like to see another one or two million people there. This is true in Singapore as well.
The cultural and political deficit is greatest among suburbanites, particularly those further on the periphery, who tend to be occupied with family and work and don’t tend to get engaged in big urban-planning issues. Even suburban business owners and home-builders—particularly in places like California—are too intimidated by the planners and their allies to even make a case for themselves. They have allowed a vacuum to be created where a debate should be taking place.
What are you working on next?
My next big project will be as the co-editor of a new book—Infinite Suburbia—that is being put together by MIT. The book will include over 40 essays from various commentators.
At the same time, I am working on major studies on housing, demographics, and the changing urban form for both Chapman University’s Center for Demographics and Policy, as well as for the Center for Opportunity Urbanism.