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The Best Reader Comments: The True Meaning of Joel Kotkin's 'Localism'

Donald Trump's election strikes many of the same chords that our recent interview did.

Donald Trump’s surprise presidential victory last week has many hydra-headed explanations, with no shortage of pundits with perfect hindsight to proffer them. Joel Kotkin, the author and Chapman University geographer, thinks he has part of the answer: A strong distaste for the federal power exercised by President Obama activated an element of Trump supporters that many underestimated. ”If you put all your faith in an administrative executive dictatorship,” Kotkin writes in an email, “sometimes things break a different way than you expect.”

In our recent CityLab interview (and live debate with Richard Florida, recapped above), Kotkin called for a “return” to a mode of governance he calls “localism,” in which political decisions are largely made by and for community members and their direct representatives. Kotkin maintains that Obama “governed from above,” making decisions on planning, housing, environment and education that were once reserved for decentralized local governments. (This is, to be sure, an arguable point.) Such “hypercentralized” federal governance tends to adhere to the urban planning ideals promoted by “new urbanism,” with its emphasis on denser housing, mass transit, and walkable streets—all of which stand to limit Americans’ personal freedoms, he thinks.

The particulars of this philosophy are still under construction, but the vision is framed by Kotkin’s belief that suburban homeowners are more likely to feel invested and committed to their community’s success than urbanites. Kotkin sees “localism” as a bipartisan stance, noting that he also objects to move by conservative legislatures that reduce the power of more liberal cities. “Localism means experimentation and embracing diverse policy options,” he writes.

I followed up with Kotkin on our first conversation, because so much of what we discussed resonates with the themes of this post-election season—the deepening urban, suburban, and rural divides, the extent of government intrusions on Americans’ private lives, and the questions around what voters really are calling for. Two weeks ago, “localism” might have been understood a weapon for conservative rural and suburban Americans to wield against a left-leaning Federal juggernaut. Now, Kotkin hopes his philosophy might also be embraced by liberals—yes, including those in pro-density cities—to push back against a president-elect with an authoritarian bent. “I would hope now that progressives will rally to decentralization, and fight attempts by the new administration to centralize power,” he writes via email. “In a country that is so divided by ideology, lifestyle, economy and religion (or lack of), it seems that localism provides the best way to accommodate differences.”

The interview also drew a healthy response from our readers, a number of whom were pleased to see Kotkin’s views on CityLab at all. Said commenter Stephen Nestel:

Kotkin understands that culture, diversity, and democracy exists in the suburbs too and he smashes the myth and fallacies of the New Urbanists. He actually reads the data and knows that the American dream of a single-family home in the suburbs is alive and well with the millennial generation.

Wendall M. agreed, declaring it “refreshing” to see Kotkin’s words represented on CityLab, given that much of what he advocates runs counter to the opinions more frequently covered by our site. “That said,” this commenter added,

I can’t get over Kotkin’s position on emissions and climate policy. McMansions aren’t the way to go because of telecommuting.

Alicia followed up on that point. The environmental consequences of suburbia are too profound to be resolved just by improving fuel efficiency, as Kotkin argued:

Although some technologies like electric vehicles have the potential to reduce GHG emissions per capita/per household, you’re still left with lots of environmental issues that are inseparable from the suburban model of development, including habitat degradation and strains on the water supply (especially in the ultra-unsustainable developments in the west and southwest). There’s no way to make this pattern of development environmentally friendly at all.

Several readers bristled at Kotkin’s praise for suburbs, as opposed to other towns that attempt to “socially engineer” citizens into “high-density, transit-oriented development,” as the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, a think-tank that Kotkin directs, states in its mission. Hailexiao wrote:

If only we hadn’t been socially engineered into low-density, car-oriented developments for half a century, then I’d agree.

1976boy agreed and went further:

Kotkin deliberately omits the fact that people already do not have choices. They are and have been, for decades, locked into a single-family paradigm that in most places specifically prohibits any kind of density, forcing housing prices upward and limiting the options for people who are not your standard issue, child-rearing family.

Our town? Whose town? (Jim Young/Reuters)

Commenter enplaned took issue with Kotkin’s core belief that people necessarily prefer life in the ‘burbs:

The fact that [California] cities are so expensive is a function of demand. Whatever he says about people preferring suburbs, in California the fact is that people want to live in LA and SF and SD and that is what’s driving up the price of housing… Same is true of Manhattan and DC and Boston. You want to fit more people in those very crowded place—you have to increase density. No choice.

1976boy enlarged that point, arguing that part of what prevents urban development in some places are policies modeled after suburban zoning limitations:

Most cities have indeed moved away from the landlord/rental model and made unit ownership possible through condo development and conversion, but the legal hurdles placed in the way by suburbanist restrictions have limited the supply to such small numbers that the cost of even a minimal density urban community is artificially elevated.

Other readers found some of Kotkin’s ideas to be fundamentally at odds with one another, or based on otherwise shaky foundations. Said Michael Lewyn:

Kotkin suggests that state governments are regulating development to death. This is just false. In fact, zoning everywhere is dominated by local governments, which (except in undeveloped exurbs and rural areas) tend to be NIMBY-dominated. So his entire argument is based on a lie, and you let him get away with it. Shame on you, CityLab!

Reader Jared R remarked that he could get on board with “throwing out the zoning code,” but that such a policy might be also “anti-market”—which is to say, not very consistent with Kotkin’s more conservative arguments. Jake Wegmann expanded on what he, too, identified as an ideological conflict:

Conservatives want to maximize economic freedom, and they also want decision-making to be as local as possible. With zoning, those two desires are in conflict: the individual lot owner’s desire to knock down a SF house and replace it with a 4-plex is in conflict with the local government’s democratically enacted zoning ordinance. Really, it’s two conservative principles at war with themselves, but local democracy wins out over economic freedom at the scale of the individual parcel.

ChicagoCyclist questioned how meaningful the term “local” is in an era where it no longer makes sense to talk about urban economies and services in terms of city limits, townships, school districts, or other such “local” boundaries:

In metro areas, people shop, go to work, go to schools, recreate etc. across all these meaningless, jurisdictional boundaries. However, all of the decision-making powers reside in those multitudinous, meaningless (for the way people live) jurisdictional boundaries…. “Real” boundaries are watersheds, metro regions (i.e., settled or urbanized areas), neighborhoods (hard to define but still “real”), and global (i.e., the whole earth). We should match government “structure” to those “real” scales if we want to effectively solve problems.

Kotkin insisted that “localism” was not about exclusion. But commenter Misanthropik read the term as a euphemism for something much darker, especially given the arguments that Trump’s call to “Make America Great Again” was in part an appeal to white voters’ nostalgia for a country with fewer people of color:

Here in the South, ‘localism’ is code for racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and segregation.

To join this debate, go here.

And for more talk on urban geography, the election, and top-down versus ground-up planning, see these related stories:

About the Author

  • Laura Bliss
    Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab. She writes about the environment, infrastructure, and cartography, among other topics.