Joel Kotkin, a prolific author and namer of trends in human settlement patterns (e.g. “white flight”), has written a new book. Kotkin’s latest idea–the dominance of “suburbia”–is trumpeted by the headline of the lead story in the Outlook section of Sunday’s The Washington Post: “Rule, Suburbia: The Verdict’s In. We Love It There.” The first paragraph punchline: “The Winner is, yes, sprawl” sells books but it masks reality.

Without reading another word or understanding anything about what Kotkin is actually describing, thousands who saw the headline will smile to themselves knowingly. Even those who read the opinion piece or Kotkin’s new book, to say nothing of the millions who never heard of Joel Kotkin, will continue to assume that the human settlement pattern that has agglomerated over the past 80 years is just fine. Many concerned about the impact of dysfunctional human settlement patterns will think Kotkin’s “research” means that “we did the best (or only) thing we could.” Citizens and organizations will believe and act as if it is in their best interest to continue to make the same ill-advised location decisions they have been making for decades.

What is most amazing is how little of what Kotkin has to say is related to what readers think he is talking about. Kotkin tries to describe in broad strokes and witty prose what many would agree is happening within urban areas of the United States. The problem is neither Kotkin nor his readers have a conceptual framework or vocabulary sufficiently robust to describe or understand the process much less help citizens or their organizations support a rational future course of action. Without this framework and vocabulary Kotkin warps the important historical landmarks like Ebenezer Howard’s “Garden City” movement. He also misinterprets most of what he sees in the United States and in urban areas world-wide.

Aristotle, who was trained in medicine and natural science, noted over 2,330 years ago that human settlement patterns are organic systems. Since at least the Renaissance there has been no serious dispute about this fact. Yet there is not single source of data or observation cited by Kotkin that is not completely oblivious to what the fact that human settlement patterns are organic systems means.

A large forest does not grow by the largest tree in the center of the forest getting bigger and bigger. The forest expands through the growth of organic subsystems. When nutrients (citizens and money) are fed into a regional settlement pattern it grows the same way. What has not changed over the past 80 years in the organic system we call the National Capital Subregion (or in the Greater Richmond or Hampton Roads New Urban Regions) are the municipal boundaries. What were areas at the fringe of the urban system 80 or even 30 years ago are now within the logical location of a Clear Edge. These areas are subject to enormous growth pressures in all prosperous New Urban Regions.

Due to the ossification of municipal boundaries what was once confusingly labeled “suburban” is now very clearly “urban.” The studies, sources and observations that Kotkin cites still call these places “suburban.” That is like calling NFL players toddlers because 20 or 30 years ago they were toddlers.

One needs to look up the definition of “suburban” in the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary to understand that this word of 15th and 16th century origin and to understand that silly definitives such as “suburbia” is a source of mass confusion in 2005.

The photos used in The Post opinion piece to describe what is happening in “suburbia” are of Bethesda. Bethesda and Tysons Corner are not in Carroll or Fauquier Counties. They are within Radius = 10 miles of the core of the National Capital Subregion, just were you would expect urban growth to be taking place. This is true for vast majority of examples Kotkin cites.

Within 10 miles of the centroid of the National Capital Subregion (or any other urban settlement) there are 200,000 acres. Within 40 miles of the centroid that reaches places like Carroll and Fauquier there are 3,217,000 acres. What is happening at Radius = 10 miles R=10) is used to excuse what is happening from R=30 to R=100. (See “Scatteration,” 25 September 2003 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com )

Of course technology has impact on the patterns of settlement. But technology has not modified human genes. That is why the market for built space shows that, at the unit, dooryard, cluster, neighborhood and village scales, the areas with the highest values per square foot are remarkably similar whether originally built in 1700, 1900 or 2005. (See “Wild Abandonment,” 8 September 2003 at db4.dev.baconsrebellion.com)

The gross scatteration that Kotkin and others call “sprawl” represents a small percentage of the urban land uses. They are primarily urban dwellings and they are there because of counterproductive subsidies (See Bacons Rebellion Blog posting of 7 Feb 2005 on Affordable and Accessible Housing) and the failure to equitably distribute location variable costs of goods and services.

Geological Illiteracy and dysfunctional human settlement patterns are fostered and maintained, not just by the headlines and photos but by all the authors and agencies who refuse to understand the organic nature of human settlement patterns.


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  1. Jim Bacon Avatar

    This suburbia-is-here-learn-to-live-with-it philosophy is new for Kotkin, isn’t it? I’ve just picked up his previous book, The New Geography. I’m only a quarter of the way through. But the impression I’ve gotten so far is that he has a rather dim view of what he calls the “midopolis”, the aging suburbs that surround the urban core of U.S. cities. The book was billed as a celebration of the hip, cool urban centers like Soho and Frisco where the young entrepreneurs and techies were congregating. Urbanism was the wave of the future.

    I wonder what happened to change his mind.

  2. Barnie Day Avatar
    Barnie Day

    He stopped smoking dope.

  3. E M Risse Avatar


    I suspect it is that he is driven by what sells books and generates grants for the institutions for whom he works. All his work that I am familiar with exibits the same fundamental geographic illiteracy. I will know more when I hear from some of my other-coast friends to whom I will forward this when I have time.

    The frustrating part is that by-in-large Kotkin’s observations are correct but without a conceptual framework and functional vocabulary he does more harm than good. (Sorry Barnie, it is not drug related.)


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