Out of Control Policy Blog

Hot vs. Moral Cities

In Sunday's Orange County Register, Steven Greenhut comments on Joel Kotkin's new book, The City: A Global History:

    Perhaps [Kotkin's] most fascinating insight: Cities need a sense of moral purpose to survive and flourish. It's not enough, he argues, for them to serve merely as a center of commerce. It's that idea that helps me the most as I continue my critique of the modern planning movements.

    In a recent interview, Kotkin complained to me that New Urbanists and others who want to recreate urban living as a rebuke to suburbanization tend to miss this almost-spiritual side to city planning. The hip, vital cities modern planners are most enamored of, such as Portland, Ore., are geared almost exclusively toward "young people and the nomadic rich and trustafarians," those childless trust-fund elites who are seeking high culture but eschew child-bearing and religion.

    In Europe, he said, all the major cities are mostly devoid of children. Yet planners refuse to acknowledge that "the evolution of suburbia is part of the continuum of urban history." He calls the people who run cities the worst enemies of them, as their hamfisted regulations, the destruction of schools and the bloated bureaucracies are unfriendly toward average middle-income families.

    He derides the emphasis on hipness rather than on traditional city planning that focuses on good infrastructure, good schools, safe neighborhoods. Unfortunately, people come out of the planning schools with the same ideas, he said. So those who don't fit this narrow demographic move to the suburbs, where they are criticized by the urban elites who accuse them of selfishly promoting sprawl. In the book, Kotkin makes the case by comparing the new planning ideas to the lessons of the past. "Broader demographic trends also pose severe long-term questions for these cities," he wrote. "The decline in the urban middle-class family - a pattern seen in both the late Roman Empire and eighteenth-century Venice - deprives urban areas of a critical source for economic and social vitality."

The whole article is here. Haven't read the book yet, but the idea of tracing the history of urbanization to gain insights on modern times would seem to me to be a valuable contribution to the planning literature. It would be good for planning students to be exposed to reading like this, as it places their work in a larger context that may not be obvious to them from their vantage point.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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