Monday, October 19

New Localism without traditional towns

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.


Eric Orozco said...

I have no idea what Kotkin might be referring to by Jane Jacobs' supposed preference for "close neighborhood feel". Townhomes? It makes me suspect that he has no clue what Jacobs' "romantic urbanism" is about and is simply projecting his New Urbanist detractors upon her.

A) Jacobs does not have any beef with the Rockwellian benefits of small town America. For her those communities had their up side, but her point was simply that those self-contained communities are not the neighborhoods of the city. Functioning city neighborhoods are fundamentally different not because they are denser (Jacobs had a beef with high rises after all) but because they honor the street and open up to the rest of the city...Simply, good city neighborhoods connect well to the rest of the city. If your neighborhood is physically isolated from other parts of the city, that was a big problem with Jacobs, whether it was made up of townhomes or not.

B) If by "close neighborhood feel" Kotkin implies socially tight-knit, that is a tremendous misreading of Jacobs...Jacobs understood that one social benefit of the city is that your neighbors are not necessarily your close acquaintances. The benefit of the city is represented in the diversity and specialization of social circles and publics,...which one encounters in a much, much wider community. The "hop and skip" relationships that form randomly and more frequently in the city actually optimized the economy of the city in a way the self-contained units cannot.

Jacobs was not a "localist" as defined above and would contend with Kotkin's version of localist politics as simply ineffective and ultimately detrimental to community life. She thought political power can only be effectively organized at the district-wide scale (30K-100K people depending on the city!). Jacobs simple equation for effectiveness was that you could fend your interests with impact against the will of centralized powers and the Moseses of the world. Community governance, while handling local matters well, to Jacobs, was overrated and not enough.

In many ways, Jacobs valued the personal independence of life and commerce that a city bestowed on its citizens. As I now think of her, she was a "Jeffersonian Urbanist". She brought to the Hamiltonian city the politics and values of Jefferson.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate that not everyone likes suburbs.

But when Robert Putnam was writing Bowling Alone, one of the things that surprised him was that people in the suburbs actually had much higher levels of social capital overall than people in more urban areas.

One issue was diversity. Urban areas are more diverse. But diversity in practice often tends to impede the development of social capital. At diverse schools, the parents who have poor English skills often don't feel comfortable speaking up or volunteering in the local school. It tougher to organize communities to take on common problems when the people in the neighborhood speak different languages. On many of the measures of social capital, urban areas don't do as well as suburban areas.

Lastly, there are structural issues, in urban areas more people rent than own and renters move more often than homeowners. So overall people in urban areas just don't know each other as well and are more isolated from each other.

Now don't misconstrue Putnam's point. Not all urban areas have low levels of social capital and not all suburban areas have high levels of social capital. Social capital is correlated with educational attainment, so if you lived in a neighborhood in an urban area with lots of highly educated people you might find high levels of social capital in that specific neighborhood. Moreover, some of the inner suburbs have demographics akin to some of the most bleak areas in cities and have similiar problems with low levels of social capital.

But overall suburban areas still have more social capital than urban areas.

The social capital in suburban areas is created by people getting together for soccer practice, volunteering in the local schools, helping out at the local Church or going to Bible study. Putting on the neighborhood Christmas cookie exchange and the 4th of July block party or just having different kids in the neighborhood play with each other and the parents talking to each other as they call each other to send there kids home for dinner.

In urban areas while people are walking amongst each other, they often aren't interacting with each other. You have the people who don't acknowledge strangers because they don't want to get spare changed. You have people who avoid small talk because they lack adequate language skills.

Daniel Nairn said...

Anonymous, thanks for commenting.

I actually don't disagree with what you are saying. There are many factors that are correlated with high social capital that happen to be more present in American suburbs than in American urban areas. I'd add affluence (which frees up time and resources for social interaction) and a relatively low-crime environment.

However, I would like to control for these factors and look specifically at the development patterns and transportation infrastructure in suburban areas. I think I can do this, because there is no intrinsic relationship between, say, affluence and low-density settlement patterns. They are independent variables.

In other words, if the suburbs we have now (all demographic, economic, etc. conditions remain the same) were to become more walkable, compact and diverse in uses would social capital be positively impacted?

I think yes, and that's the point that Kotkin is not addressing.

In Bowling Alone, Putnam sees the dispersal of development over the last several decades as a cause for the loss of social capital. Here's a quote:

"The car, and the commute, however are demonstrably bad for community life. In round numbers the evidence suggests each additional ten minutes in daily commuting time cuts involvement in community affairs by 10%"

He calls metropolitan sprawl a "significant contributor to civic disengagement"

Daniel Nairn said...

Eric, you bring up a really great point. I reskimmed the chapter of Death and Life that you referred to. According to Jacobs, we need a whole spectrum of relationships, from immediate family to that elderly gentleman I pass everyday while he's sitting on the porch but have never spoken to. Jacob's vibrant urban neighborhood allowed this whole meal. In an environment where every connection must be deliberately sought out, close relationships will probably be just as strong but we miss out on the background relationships which provide an extra layer of richness to life, as well as other benefits such as safety.

Eric Orozco said...

I just read the Kotkin article and I think he would personally benefit from reading Jane Jacobs (rather than spuriously deriding her). Jacobs would agree with many of his points...but he suffers from solipsistic inconsistency. As you rightly noted, Daniel. Moreover, the "romanticism" he has for delimited localism--at the expense of true community, which is a layered cake of many diverse interrelationships--is all on his end. Funny how close he lands at the ideal figure for community size as the modernist planners Jacobs derided (his 6,200 to their 7,000 - enough to support an elementary school in their sciences of instant idyll).

The city's dispersed network of communities brings benefits for a simple is bigger and taps into a greater wealth of resources. You don't need Jacobs to figure that one out. But you do need a public that is more participatory in its outlook to take true advantage of city life. Citizens need to be engaged civically and socially. We are not Toqueville's America anymore for more reasons than commute times.

Kotkin is right to point to social media as an antidote. He would gain more if he just observed closer and thought more carefully about the transitions we're undergoing with this medium, which he seems to think of in terms of "home-based work". AS IF things like home-based work are all it will take recapture civic life! Sheez...

Daniel Nairn said...

I agree, Eric. I picked commute patterns just as a handy proxy for the complex web of relationships that occur over any area. I think this metric is how the Census Bureau defines MSAs but I'm not sure.

As I see it, there's no hard and fast scale for ideal local governance. It really should just be aligned with whatever spatial network has naturally emerged in the particular area. 6,200 would be fine if that really did contain all of the live, work, play, worship interrelated activities of the community. I just don't agree that this actually applies in many places in contemporary U.S. (Certainly it doesn't if big box stores are the commercial component. They need a large customer base).

Artificially imposing "small town" governance on what is actually a large community only results in balkanization.

This does lead to a tricky question:

The spatial boundaries of community are always shifting but governance structures need a certain degree of spatial stability to be effective and understandable. Or do they?

Eric Orozco said...

Tricky indeed and not my area of expertise, so don't know if I'm the right one to answer your question, Daniel. But I'd recommend Gerald Frug as a good person to go to on this topic.

Speaking off the cuff...I think all turfs have their headaches, inconsistencies, irrelevancies...and, moreoever, where they border and overlap and get hazy or fraught with meaning that is where interesting liminal, lawless activities necessary for the wealth and interest of communities seems to take place. (I should know, I lived in the Old City of Jerusalem for a time.) But in general, I'm a tempered localist. More important to me is for political power to be scaled for effectiveness. So maybe spatial boundaries need to keep pulling or expanding to govern a local area with the greater good of the whole in mind. I'd advocate for the Jeffersonian tendency to side in the favor of local give the local the ability to tax and govern its turf. But I'd favor the metropolitan over the suburb and urban divide, and I'd favor the city authority over the state, since state power has taken much too much away from cities.

But maybe part of the virtue of cities is that the metropolitan region can be coordinated with an enormous rat's nest of jurisdictions. Here in Charlotte, our metropolitan region consists of 16 counties, sprawled across two states, and I'm not sure if this is altogether a bad thing. It means all these jurisdictions compete and keep each other scrappy, squabbly, and hungry.

Actually, the most important thing to create a community is often a common threat. Sad but true. Celebration, Florida became more of a community, I read somewhere once, after the early residents had to band together to countermand some of the Disney corporate interests. They had to establish their own community paper to get the real news out. (Let me look up the article and get back to you).