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Joel Kotkin: “Suburbs are the nurseries of nations”

June 23, 2010
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If you haven’t read the Review article in The Straits Times yesterday (Page A17), you should! Senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai managed to interview him prior to his presentation next week at the World Cities Summit (which I will be going for yay!) about his latest book The Next Hundred Million: America In 2050 and the motives behind it.

Mr Kotkin spoke about why Americans seem so hopeful about the future and there are 3 main reasons for this.

  1. Immigration: Immigration allows people from Asia, Africa and Latin America to resettle and integrate into the community. Immigrant families often uphold strong family values, thereby reasserting family values amongst the American communities, which often take place within suburbs.
  2. Space: 60% of Americans live in suburbs where they have little backyards and privacy and this environment encourages couples to have children.
  3. Religion: Religious people almost by nature have more kids. Religion also teaches you to try and look beyond yourself and contribute to others.

In addition, Mr Kotkin asserts that “suburbs are the nurseries of nations” and considers the future of cities in suburbia. (On a side note, I love the Pet Shop Boys’ Suburbia and it some what accurately outlines the vices associated with suburban life that people often overlook!) I am interested in challenging this view that Mr Kotkin has with regard to suburbs, given that suburbs are generally unsustainable communities (in terms of resource use and automobile dependence) and they also contribute to urban sprawl.

Suburban Sprawl

(from Wiki)

Urban sprawl, also known as suburban sprawl, is a multifaceted concept, which includes the spreading outwards of a city and its suburbs to its outskirts to low-density, auto-dependent development on rural land, with associated design features that encourage car dependency. As a result, some critics argue that sprawl has certain disadvantages, including:

  • Long transport distances to work
  • High car dependence
  • Inadequate facilities e.g.: health, cultural. etc.
  • Higher per-person infrastructure costs.

However, critics of urban planners charge that sprawl also has certain advantages

  • Lower cost of living including more affordable housing and more single family residences
  • Suburban areas are less likely to use corporate subsidies to finance development
  • Combating sprawl is ineffective at reducing commutes and pollution

Discussions and debates about sprawl are often obfuscated by the ambiguity associated with the phrase. For example, some commentators measure sprawl only with the average number of residential units per acre in a given area. But others associate it with decentralization (spread of population without a well-defined center), discontinuity (leapfrog development, as defined below), segregation of uses, etc.

Economic science should be used to determine whether some of the characteristics of urban sprawl result in higher or lower efficiency in human behavior. Urban economists have entered the debate relatively recently. They tend to examine urban sprawl as the aggregate extent of urban land use or as the average urban land use density. It has been shown that urban sprawl can increase the aggregate urban land use and lower the average land use density while at the same time lowering average commuting travel times and increasing discretionary mobility.

The term urban sprawl generally has negative connotations due to the health, environmental and cultural issues associated with the phrase.Residents of sprawling neighborhoods tend to emit more pollution per person and suffer more traffic fatalities. Sprawl is controversial, with supporters claiming that consumers prefer lower density neighborhoods and that sprawl does not necessarily increase traffic.

Here are some more articles on urban sprawl:

James H Kunstler dissects suburbia
Joel Hirschhorn on Time to Recognize the Politics of Suburban Sprawl

Also check out this video:

I suppose these articles provide a better picture about the motivations behind and implications of urban and suburban sprawl. Thus, I really do wonder why Mr Joel Kotkin has advocated that “suburbs are the nurseries of nations”. Suburbs are generally quite unsustainable, but perhaps a necessary part of urban life since cities are often full to the brim with peoples, buildings and everything in between such that land and property prices drive people out. This eventually leads to suburbanisation and its associated ills.


Finally, the article ends off on quite an optimistic note, with Mr Kotkin saying that Singapore today fulfills the same function as historical Venice, which was a safe port in an unruly world. He says Venice was a place with the ability to allow for spontaneous things to happen and draw on different cultures, in its case Roman, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim.

For more information about Mr Joel Kotkin, visit his website here.

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