People vote in the U.S. presidential primary election at a polling station located in a grocery store, in National City, California, United States. Mike Blake/Reuters

The urban contrarian talks about why the suburbs offer our best hope for stitching America back together.

Joel Kotkin swears he doesn’t hate cities—it’s just that most urbanists have a misguided perspective on them. Why focus on city centers, where populations tend to be too young, poor, and transient to invest in property or politics?

For the author, pundit, and Chapman University scholar of geography, America’s low-density suburbs—the ones growing the fastest, where people are more likely to be homeowners, where voter turnout is often higher, and “happiness” is said to be more common—are where the real action’s at. In his view, suburbs offer the greatest chance at community cohesion and engagement, and should be supported, not disparaged, by planners and policy makers.

Chief among the principles of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism, the Houston-based think tank of which Kotkin is executive director, is that “People should have a range of neighborhood choices ... rather than being socially engineered into high-density, transit-oriented developments beloved by overly prescriptive planners.”

For Kotkin, excessive top-down planning isn’t just an academic concern—it’s a scourge on the American ideal of community-based self-reliance. In “Restoring Localism,” a sprawling new report from the COU, Kotkin and co-author Wendell Cox identify with grave concern a national trend towards “hyper-centralization,” especially in federal and state policies on poverty, education, and climate change. This is happening in spite what Kotkin views as a popular preference for community-based solutions, an increasingly diverse set of urban and suburban populations, and the public’s documented decline in confidence in government.

“‘[H]yper-centralization’ assumes the superior expertise and wisdom of bureaucracies with the power to regulate,” he writes. “It is tied to the nationalization of politics, an approach that ignores local conditions and rationalizes single solutions for a highly diverse country.” Kotkin wants the country needs to “return” to what he terms “localism,” a governance structure that’s rooted in cohesive groups of people, as opposed to a centralized city, state, and (especially) federal government.

How might the nation embrace a mode of local governance that is truly by and of the people, in all their diversity and difference? Despite its title, the report doesn’t focus much on the mechanics; it spends more time describing the regulatory misdeeds of the Obama administration’s energy mandates and California Governor Jerry Brown’s excessively “coercive” climate and housing policies. Still, Kotkin’s larger point is provocative, especially in an election season dominated by painful political antipathies and identity “sorting” along lines of class, race, and geography. If we weren’t trying so hard to centralize big policy decisions, might we all get along a little better?

We spoke with Kotkin about local control, the value of homeownership, and what’s wrong with California. (For more urbanist mano-a-mano, our own Richard Florida will also be taking part in a town-hall-style debate with Kotkin in Kansas City on Friday, November 4.)

Thanks for agreeing to chat with us. You could say that the urbanism CityLab typically covers is rather at odds with yours.

It’s more of a different focus than a disagreement. I focus frankly on where 75 to 85 percent of the population lives, while Richard Florida is focused on where the other 15 percent lives. They’re different age groups, different populations, their economies are different. The whole argument with localism is that we’re becoming so diverse from place to place that the more regions can come up with their own ways of doing things, the better we’ll all be.

What exactly is localism?

First, it’s not an absolute ideal. Different eras require different things. The New Deal, recovering from World War II, the Civil Rights Movement: All of those required some strengthening of federal power.

But in the here and now, our problems are these high concentrations of wealth and power, and the growing desire of government to operate without getting into even the details of how local communities work. It seems to be that, especially, in an era where information can be distributed easily among groups of people, trying to concentrate everything in one bureaucracy is not the best way of going.

It’s funny to me when progressive says they want locally sourced food or business chains, but then you ask, well, do you want control over your local government? And they say no, we’d rather have ten Ph.Ds in Sacramento tell us how to live. I think those are contradictory. If you like local when you shop, why not in your politics?

You write in the report that “the New Urbanism movement is founded on the sound principle of small districts built around ‘the concept of community.’ But its founding principles favor solutions that would require centralized planning around a fixed set of preferred, even mandated, options.” Why does “centralized” planning, when it’s coming at the city level, necessarily contradict your theory of localism?

I’m perfectly OK if the city of Portland decides to ban cars in the middle of the city. A city deciding as a democratic entity on issues like minimum wage, environmental laws, density requirements—whatever those people want—I have no problem with an area deciding to do that. But what I don’t want is some big Washington, D.C. government or regional bureaucracy saying that you have to be a certain way. That’s not in the spirit of self-governance. It’s less about the result of the decisions as about who gets to decide. I think that’s the real issue, and that’s why we get these crazy politics: People feel powerless, they feel like someone is telling them what to do. And that’s not useful.

You do seem to identify a corollary problem at the city level.

Yes. For instance, the city of L.A. is moving in a direction of higher density, which I think is not helpful for most people in L.A. But that’s what the political consensus is. There I think the one big problem is size: When you’re a city like L.A., council districts are like congressional districts, and you need lots of money and support to get elected, and you can’t have grassroots democracy in that kind of system. You just can’t run for city council because your neighbors think you’d be good. It becomes something where only certain players with certain backers can get anywhere.

[California State Senator] Bob Hertzberg had the idea of breaking down L.A. into seven boroughs, each with its own local legislature made up people who weren’t career politicians. If each of those were divided into nine districts, then you could have someone from Sherman Oaks going door-to-door, gathering local support, and win. Well, that’s never going to happen, because the die there is cast. That is one of the reasons that people move to suburban areas or to smaller towns: to get a greater sense of control over things, like they don’t feel like they have in L.A.

Are there cities you’d hold up as exemplary models of localism?

What I like about Houston is that there’s a clarity of choices for residents. If I go into neighborhood A, there is this specific housing covenant. But if I move to neighborhood B, there is a protection for higher density development. That’s why there are so many planned communities outside of Houston, these gigantic things like the Woodlands and Cinco Ranch, where people say, ‘I want something that is predictable.’ I also like Houston because of the cost. You can be a young person, live inside the 610, go to bars and stay out late, and when you grow up and want a family and establish yourself, you can go to the suburbs and they’re affordable. The Bay Area is a problem, because you can’t buy a house anywhere within 40 miles of San Francisco, unless you have rich parents and you rob the bank. In Houston, there are a lot of choices—different towns with different approaches, many of which aren’t necessarily tied to any sort of city government. You know, I follow opportunities for minorities to buy houses, and it’s clearly better for minorities to buy houses in Texas than a place like New York City or Boston.

You frequently emphasize the importance of giving middle-class families opportunities in the way of work and education. Who exactly are you talking about when you say “middle class”?

Middle class is a very fungible term, but i’ll give you some sense: It’s people who are probably somewhere between the 10 and 20th percentiles, up to the 40 to 60th percentiles, in income. Everything has to be adjusted for cost of living. Making $100,000 a year in San Francisco is a poverty wage, whereas in Houston you can have a really decent life. There is also a big issue of age. The group that is really leaving California right now are people ages 35 to 44. That’s the age of marriage, kids, buying houses. That’s the group I’m interested in. Again, I’m also concerned with ethnic groups and immigrants. Can they buy houses? The chances of African-American families buying houses are way lower than for whites. I believe the Madisonian idea of having a large dispersion of homes is very important to democracy, and we’re moving in other directions all over the country. Especially in California.

A home with solar panels on its roof in a residential neighborhood in San Marcos, California. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Why is the notion of widespread homeownership so critical to you?

I think it’s the basis of a republic. You can’t have a small group of people who own the vast majority of properties. If you’re a renter for life, then you’re basically paying some wealthy person’s mortgage and have no assets at the end. That’s not healthy. People need a certain degree of independence and have skin in the game. If you live in a neighborhood of homeowners, then they’re more concerned about what’s going on in your area. You’re more engaged with local politics. If you’re a renter, maybe you stay in the neighborhood, maybe not, and the relationship to the sate is very really different. That dispersion of ownership was the ballast of the democratic system. We’ve had periods where property ownership is heavily concentrated into a few hands, like the late 19th century and now, where property ownership is prohibitive in many parts of country, and we have these large concentrations of corporate wealth. That doesn’t work well with a democratic system.

You said that California is where you see the most dramatic trend away from this vision of dispersed homeownership. What’s the matter there?

It’s increasingly centralized. It’s increasingly state mandates that dominate what cities can and cannot do. [Governor Jerry] Brown is basically saying no more greenfield development. But if you talk to developers, they say they want to build 20 units to an acre in Rancho Cucamonga but the state says it needs to be 50 to an acre. Otherwise the projects won’t get approvals, you’ll get sued by the state, you might not get transportation funding. Well, the developers can’t sell that! No one is going to move out to the Inland Empire and spend $400-to-$500,000 for a box.

Growth of state control has become pretty extreme in California, and I think we’re going to see more of that in the country in general, where you have housing decisions that should be made at local level being made by the state and the federal level too. You have general erosion of local control.

A lot of California’s state-level planning policies have been a means to reduce driving and vehicle emissions. Isn’t climate policy one of those areas where you really need a coherent, centralized vision to get results?

I think there is a vision that Jerry has had from early on, and has become deeply entrenched, which is that density is good, and if we could have a state made up of mostly renters in little spaces, that’s better. I think that’s not a very good strategy long term. A lot of the decisions being made today are not that concerned with middle-class families. California is so far gone that there is almost no discussion about that strategy left. We have these kinds of orthodoxies that have become so entrenched in planning, media, academia, and government that we don’t even think about whether there is another way of doing things that doesn’t undermine the future of the next generation.

But wouldn’t failing to develop policies that limit travel-inducing, emissions-generating sprawl “undermine the future of the next generation” in a far broader, deadlier way?

If you’re saying because of climate, we have to live this way this way and this way no matter what, then you have a certain kind of society and you’re going to have certain results—the problem is that we can really no longer make the argument that people don’t want to live in suburbs. Most prefer it.

So are there other ways of getting to that goal of reduced emissions without essentially turning America into a country of people living in little spaces with no children because we refuse to take up space? We can look at more efficient cars. Autonomous cars also opens up all sorts of opportunities to reduce space for cars. And what about the growing number of people working from home? People can have a larger house but work at home. With jobs becoming more dispersed, maybe they can commute 10 minutes rather than an hour. And maybe we should invest on making solar more effective, or converting coal use to natural gas.

I think the environmental movement would do much better if they talked about how to deal with these issues without undermining the way people live. It’s going to be ugly when you decide how to make people live—you’re going to have cities where only really rich people can have houses and backyards. That’s not my vision of a democratic society.

Which brings us back to localism. Isn’t there a risk that by grouping off into smaller sub-communities, we’re kind of exacerbating the “Big Sort” we’ve seen happening on the political landscape? The kind of geopolitical class-sorting that helped give rise to Donald Trump, and Brexit, and anti-outsider fervor in the U.S. and beyond?

Well, if you say in Europe, that people in Brussels have a right to tell you what to do with your life, you’re going to get a response. To me, Trump is different. He’s somewhere between a danger and a crackpot. He has a kind of authoritarian approach that’s almost the opposite of localism. I don’t think he’d understand what the term would mean. Hilary is probably going to be a centralizer, but at least she gets the argument.

How do you get around the fact that communities often form their identities on the basis of exclusion?

Is racism a part of localism? That’s not the case at all. The communities I live in are very diverse. People who are Hispanic and Asian and so on want the same things from their communities that Anglos do. One of the advantages of localism as I see it is that it would force people to talk to each other as neighbors as opposed to members of a particular ethnic group. Local politics have less invective than at the national level.

If nothing else I’m trying to start some sort of debate or rational conversation about things that have become orthodoxies. Why don’t we consider something else and have a discussion? I think the planning community is all reading from the same hymnal, and that’s not such a good idea. And we get this thing where planners want A and people want B and there is no attempt to figure how how to address both. That’s where I hope we’d start.

Then what? What might a localist system of governance actually look like?

The next paper, which we hope to start in January, asks: How exactly can we do this? What would a government policy look like that was respectful of local concerns and address these larger concerns? Can we empower local areas within bigger regions?

The progressive tradition was always very much about how do you diminish concentrations of power. So it’s not a liberal or conservative thing at all, or even an urban or suburban thing: It’s about governance, and who decides. And how you maintain a system where people are not disenfranchised and have some control over the world they live in.

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