A Call to Move Away from Urban Density and Bring “Human Factor” Back to Cities

human-factorWhat is a city for? That’s the central question Joel Kotkin answers in his book, The Human City – Urbanism for the Rest of Us. Today’s urban planners have all but destroyed what once constituted a great place to live. The prevailing thinking is to cram people into dense cities and high rise housing with no backyard and scarcely a ray of sunshine. New urbanists and retro urbanists believe getting around on foot, a bike, or bus are the ideal. Kotkin meticulously makes the case that the vast majority of Americans do not share that vision and calls upon urban planners to return the ‘human factor’ to city planning.

Kotkin also sounds the alarm that the attempts to herd everyone into the highly dense urban core has delayed marriage and starting a family for so many that most Western nations, and even some developing nations, are facing a low birth rate crisis. He argues the modern city is so hostile to families, that nations face a failure to replace its citizens and tax base, and cities risk replacing their workforce. Those familiar with Agenda 21 know that today’s planners are well-schooled in Agenda 21’s goals for ‘human settlements,’ and they’re implementing them through regulations to control any peripheral development, the construction of single family homes, and complete streets policies that punish people out of cars and into mass transit, onto a bike or into a carpool.

Restrictions on housing unnecessarily hike housing prices in the urban core, which makes housing unaffordable to most families who then flee to the suburbs. Families also reject high density housing and want space for their children to play. In addition, families want better schools, a lower cost of living, and higher quality of life than the congestion, pollution, and stress of city living, and the suburbs provide them with all of the above. Yet, urban planners and many city officials continue to push their anti-family policies, despite the obvious rejection of them. Rather than retreat, progressives just regulate more. They use iron fist tactics that do not consider the ‘human factor’ in their urban planning.

Kotkin insists it’s not about where one ‘should’ live, but how one ‘wants’ to live. The ‘we know best’ attitude of the elites, urban planners, and consultants is in conflict with what the vast majority of people desire. The planners claim high density increases productivity, lowers the cost of living, and is more sustainable for the environment. However, the majority of jobs are outside the urban core, with only 9% in central business districts. Lower density regions enjoy a higher share of STEM jobs. Eighty percent of job growth between 2007 and 2013 was in newer suburbs and exurban areas.

Meanwhile environmentalists push for higher density living claiming low density living creates a greater carbon footprint, is unsustainable and environmentally wasteful. However, Kotkin shows the carbon footprint of urban core residents and those in the suburbs is roughly the same. It also costs more to build in higher density areas because land costs are higher. That higher cost feeds the affordability problem forcing public subsidies, which then creates scarcity and leads to higher rents.

He also argues density scares off the creative class that wants more space, and density is also seen as a tool for developers to get government subsidies. It’s also become a way for developers to seize small properties seen as being in the way of progress, creating threats to property rights.

But the overwhelming trend is dispersion, not density. The post-war shift to suburbia is 50 years in the making. Though cities are gaining in population, they’re spreading out. Land on the fringes is cheaper. Since 1950, 90% of metro growth is in the periphery – the suburbs. Nearly 75% of residents live in suburbs.

Kotkin demonstrates the real reason for forcing density is cities are losing their tax base, so they’re trying to force residents back into the core to capture more tax revenues. But the majority want space. Only a small percentage want density. Generally, young people just starting their careers live in city centers, but once they start a family, they move out of the city. Kotkin argues today’s modern cities are unsustainable without a place for families. The planner’s goal isn’t to lure people into the city with amenities that appeal to families, but to use force to shove people into transit and increase the profits and sustainability of developments.

He insists cities should not serve some ideological principle, but make life better for all of its citizens, including those who want suburban living, more space and less congestion. Kotkin contends cities must move away from their contemporary focus on the young, creative class (which doesn’t even like density) and global wealthy, and instead focus on the mundane needs of families and the middle class, what New York folklorist Barbara Kirshenblatt Gimblett calls everyday urbanism.

Kotkin takes readers through the history of the world’s earliest cities that formed as a way for the elites to be served by a servile working class. Today, our new urban economy replaced manufacturing and industrial jobs with those in information, media and finance, catering to wealthy elites and high end consumers with the ‘hip’ factor and being culturally sophisticated. Luxury condos, expensive restaurants, boutiques, entertainment, and the pleasures of high end urban life have overtaken the focus of the world’s cities and left the majority behind. Jobs serving those wealthy elites are largely limited to service jobs like nannies, waiters, and walking dogs.

Today’s ‘sustainable’ cities that pack people into the core like sardines fail to address the inequality for families and the middle class. The biggest problem facing cities is a growing concentration of poverty. High density and restrictive transportation and housing do not provide a workable urban future because they don’t provide what people want: home ownership, rapid access to employment, good schools, and human-scaled neighborhoods.

Kotkin argues that to be truly sustainable, cities need to deemphasize the glamour factor and and provide economic opportunity for a broad range of people. He states, “ . . . ’sustainable’ needs to go beyond a program that promotes lower standards of living and higher levels of poverty that occur when we force human beings into ever smaller, and usually more expensive places. To attempt to reduce the space and privacy enjoyed by households is not ‘progressive’ but fundamentally regressive.”

In fact, suburban and country life have proven to provide much greater quality of life than dense urban spaces. Lifespans are greater for residents in the countryside than those in urban areas. Today’s mega cities have become VIP zones and those who live outside those areas don’t have reliable electricity, water, or roads. Residents in dense urban areas have diminished immune systems, higher levels of coronary disease, excessive concentration of obesity, and greater psychiatric disturbances. Cities also experience higher crime rates, suffer from higher levels of family breakdown, and lower educational achievement.

Packing people into cities doesn’t help the environment either. Kotkin documents how air pollution increases with density and that those pollution particulates kill more people than traffic accidents. Traffic congestion also increases with density and congestion threatens both drivers and pedestrians alike. Developed mass transit does not mean less traffic either. Tokyo boasts the most extensive transit system, yet it experiences the longest average commute time of 60 minutes.

Kotkin documents how many Agenda 21-style urbanists praise city slums because it leaves rural areas alone. Yet, many of today’s slums have worse living conditions than depression era New York, where you could at least get water from the tap and reliable electricity. Special interests like developers, architects, and engineers advocate density because they benefit from the urban systems they build. But Kotkin documents a shift away from Asia’s model of vertical cities to more mid-sized cities and provincial towns.

Modern cities have become post-familial with a clear link between density and childlessness. San Francisco has 80,000 more dogs than children. Despite environmentalists constant refrain that there’s a global overpopulation crisis and whose extremists advocate putting sterilants in public water supplies, Kotkin demonstrates the real crisis is low fertility and an aging population, leading to a lack of workers and economic opportunity.

So, cities are suffering from predictable economic and social ills. Kotkin refreshingly demonstrates how families and religion provide what the government cannot – strong institutions like churches, synagogues, civic organizations and cohesive neighborhoods that provide people with a sense of connection, higher sense of purpose, and multi-generational thinking beyond one’s own social network.

Kotkin sees Texas as a ‘safety valve’ for the United States with its lower cost of housing and more business-friendly, family-friendly environment. The two coasts have completely priced out young families. He contends only a policy that embraces urban expansion (not forced urban density) can relieve the current housing crisis for future generations. He advocates cities cultivate affordability, mobility, and family friendliness. Young people face weak economic opportunity, while being asked to help pay for the comfortable retirements of their parents and grandparents. He maintains planners need to respect the existing dispositions of its citizens and stop forcing policies antithetical to them.

Kotkin strongly urges a dramatic change in direction: “It is time to recognize . . . dense urban culture . . . ultimately offers little for the vast majority. A new approach to urbanism is desperately needed, one that sees people and families not as assets or digits to be moved around and shaped by their superiors but as the essential element that shapes the city and constitutes its essence.”

Terri Hall is the founder of Texans Uniting for Reform and Freedom (TURF), which defends against eminent domain abuse and promotes non-toll transportation solutions. She’s a home school mother of ten turned citizen activist. Ms. Hall is also a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.