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John Petro

Cities Without Sprawl: Secrets for Economic Success

Joel Kotkin, the self-appointed defender of the middle class and stalwart defender of suburban sprawl, recently wrote an article in Forbes explaining “Austin’s Secrets for Economic Success.”

The success boils down to this: “[A] combination of a "cool" downtown culture--with excellent restaurants as well as great music--and a more sedate, affordable periphery that makes Austin a home run.”

Kotkin, himself swinging for the fences, finds other tidbits to explain why the country should stretch from one ocean to the other filled with strip malls and subdivisions.

Over the past decade the strongest growth has occurred in Austin's periphery… the sprawling 'burbs provide an affordable place for people to move to when their hardcore clubbing days are over.

Party on. Kotkin seems to believe that a successful urban center should aspire only to becoming an after-hours entertainment district. Other than that, cities should do their best to look and feel as much like suburbs as possible.

Central Austin seems rather spread out and suburban compared to traditional East Coast cities. Smaller, older homes--mainly cottages--dominate neighborhoods close to downtown. Recent attempts to go high-rise have not been notably successful, as the auction signs on the sides of some new towers suggest.

Kotkin measures economic success by looking at population and job growth. But how is the already-developed central city meant to keep pace with the largely undeveloped suburban counties if it does not become more dense? It seems like central Austin’s biggest misstep, and by extension New York, San Francisco, Boston, etc, is that it is already largely built. According to Kotkin, a metropolitan region is only successful if it has large tracts of land that can be turned into cul-de-sacs and Wal-Mart Supercenters.

What if we didn’t measure the success of a city and its metropolitan region purely in terms of growth? Demographers use growth because it indicates an area’s attractiveness. But wouldn’t higher home prices, something that Kotkin condemns, also indicate an area’s attractiveness? New York and San Francisco are expensive because people want to live there. Austin and Houston are inexpensive because there is lots of undeveloped woodland available to pave over.

I agree that there is much that New York and San Francisco can do to increase its appeal to middle class families. New housing construction must accommodate families, meaning the construction of apartments with 2 and 3 bedrooms, not just studios. Housing costs should be much closer to the cost of construction. School performance must improve.

But I do not accept the assumption that cities should be more like the suburbs. Suburban style development, and its attendant parking lots and its wide roads filled with speeding traffic, kills the very elements that make urban neighborhoods livable and attractive. And I do not accept the assumption that cities should aspire to becoming playgrounds for the white picket fence crowd. While cities need to address their shortcomings, they also need to play up their strengths: dynamic and diverse neighborhoods; proximity to cultural institutions and magnificent parks; healthier, more active lifestyles; lively streetscapes; and the concentration of good jobs and skilled workers.

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Posted at 12:45 PM, May 13, 2009 in Urban Affairs
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