I can't help but respond to Joel Kotkin's idea of New Localism from a Newsweek piece and his blog post today. He presents statistics showing that Americans are moving less than they had been in the past and suggests this could be an a sign of enhanced local identity and stronger social capital. I can honestly say that I want to agree with Kotkin's overall premise for increased rootedness in place, but he weaves so many inconsistencies into this story it leaves me wondering how he intends to fit it all together.
The reader is drawn into this Norman Rockwellesque world of small town charm, only it is transplanted directly into the modern metropolitan context of low-density, high-mobility lifestyles. It's not clear to me how suburban localities can simply make community identity happen without addressing the scale of transportation and economic realities, or the shape of the built environment itself. He dismisses the whole idea of walkable neighborhoods ...
"Nor will our car-oriented suburbs replicate the close neighborhood feel so celebrated by romantic urbanists like the late Jane Jacobs."... yet he wants drivers to feel a strong sense of community with each other as they gaze through the windshield while waiting for a green light on their way to the office park. And they're supposed to shoot the breeze with the cashier at the local big box store, which is still dominant in Kotkin's story. I'm getting some cognitive dissonance here.
His real point is to advocate for a Tocquevillian sense of local governance, except airlifted into this thoroughly modern metropolitan context:
"The majority of Americans still live in a patchwork of smaller towns and cities, including many suburban towns within large metropolitan regions. There are well over 65,000 general-purpose governments, and with so many "small towns," the average local jurisdiction population in the United States is 6,200."What he doesn't reveal is that very few of these suburban "small towns" are actually small towns in any sense of the word. They are lines on a map that differentiate one housing subdivision and strip shopping center from another with no cohesive identity. Just a quick glance at the commuting patterns reveal that most residents either only sleep or only work in this particular jurisdiction. What Tocqueville appreciated about New England towns was that the governance was closely aligned with a self-contained and functioning community. This is worlds apart from the fragmented patchwork of local special interests spread across the typical metro area.
Kotkin wants the traditional feel of a small town where neighbors all know each other, which also happens to be what the majority of Americans have consistently identified as their home locational preference. Only he remains committed to the economies of scale, radically individualized land development, and high levels of personal mobility inherent to the 20th century suburban lifestyle. How that leads toward New Localism, I'm not sure.