If Americans Don’t Like Walkable Cities, Why Aren’t They Cheaper?

An acquaintance once told me that Joel Kotkin is like the climate change denier of the urbanism world.

Joel Kotkin's theories about the preference for suburbia don't square with the fact that places like Logan Circle in Washington, DC, are so expensive. Image: ##http://www.flickriver.com/photos/army_arch/tags/dc/## Flick River##

He’s a professor at Chapman University in Orange County, California. And his shtick is trying to convince people that suburbs — not cities — are the future of American living. To compose his narrative, he has to play fast and loose with facts.

Kotkin, as is his custom, has written a story about how low-density suburbs are the one environment Americans truly love. But as Matt Yglesias points out on his blog at Slate, if that were the case, places like San Francisco would be a lot more affordable:

If people hate dense urban areas so much, why isn’t Manhattan one of the cheapest places in America to buy a house? Why isn’t San Francisco cheap? If people are voting with their feet for sprawl, why is land in Georgetown so much more expensive than land in Georgia?

And look to be clear it’s not impossible for this to happen. Detroit really has suffered massive population flight and a total collapse in the value of land and structures. In some Detroit neighborhoods you can buy an existing house for less than the construction costs of a new house in rural areas. But note that despite the fact that buildings depreciate in value over time, this is an unusual fact about Detroit. It is not, in general, cheaper to acquire 2,000 square feet of housing in a dense urban area than to build a 2,000 square foot house in the far exurbs.

It’s like saying nobody wants to buy a Lexus, or gorgeous Caribbean beach resorts in February suck. Luxury goods aren’t unpopular, they’re just expensive. San Francisco is expensive. Manhattan is expensive. Logan Circle, where I live, is expensive. But the difference is that policymakers actually have the ability to make it possible for many more people to live in these expensive places, they simply choose not to do so.

The worst part about Kotkin, writes Yglesias, is that he’s also on the record opposing measures to allow more housing in transit-accessible places, which could make them more affordable.

Yglesias calls Kotkin “the wrongest man on the internet.” Somehow, though, being repeatedly, totally wrong doesn’t stop Kotkin from getting treated like a credible expert by major media outlets.

Elsewhere on the Network today: New Jersey Future reports that some important smart growth legislation — cluster development — is working its way through the statehouse. Missouri Bike Federation reports that the state has dropped in the League of American Bicyclists’ ranking of bike-friendly states. And Seattle Bike Blog establishes a goal for the city: 1 million trips over the Fremont Bridge and its new electronic counter in 2013.

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