Joel Kotkin

On PCA’s Cities Summit, spruikers and detective work,  amid great content

22 September 2011 – Joel Kotkin was billed as the controversial keynote speaker at the Property Council of Australia’s Cities Summit 2011 on last Monday (12 September) in Sydney. He was.

He should have been billed as a Demographia clone.

The Fifth Estate did not know Kotkin and arrived a little late for the intro where his politics may or may not have been introduced.

So there we were, laptop fired up, ready to hear the latest groundbreaking insight into the plight of cities world wide and how to survive the growing shortages of food and water, security issues, rapidly diminishing resources, and how to convince governments to invest in serious public transport. As you would expect from such an event.

Joel Kotkin: anti density

But no.

Suspicion started early.

Kotkin was in full flight as we entered, tearing down the predictions of Paul Ehrlich on the coming population bomb. Paul Erhlich? The guy who made headline news in the 60s? Thought he was debunked decades ago.

Population growth has slowed, not exploded, even in some developing countries, said Kotkin, and the lowest birth rates were in dense cities. Was Kotkin suggesting cities were the cause? We know that the more educated people become, the fewer children they have, and the more educated people become, the more they move to big cities – for work, networking and so on.

Then came the personal anecdotes.

Last time he was in Australia, said Kotkin, he fell in love with the suburbs of Sydney. If there was any place that could tempt him to move from the US, it would be these.  Not now. Density, you see.

“Shoving more people into existing suburbs is very dangerous and you end up destroying the reason that people moved there,” he said.

Next came the contradictions –  and stuff about churches. Retirees don’t want to leave their children, their  friends and their local church, Kotkin said. (Huh? Did he check what country the plane was landing in? Churches got at least two more mentions.) So where do retired people live if they don’t want to rattle around in their big family houses in their leafy suburbs?

Great content in panel sessions

There were homilies about family being the best thing since sliced bread, and about giving the consumer choice,”building what the consumer wants” [not what the society can afford]. And no mention that the choice for home buyers in the greenfield sites is …well, a house and land package, or…a house and land package.

Then came the real giveaway: that people in the US (college educated) are choosing to live in cheaper housing in low density suburbs in smaller cities like Austin and Nashville. Apparently this means we should build more suburbs like these. But again, maybe the trend signals something else: low demand. And there’s no mention of how much these college graduates are earning. If everyone wanted to live in Austin and Nashville because they’re so good, the prices would jump. Generally high prices under a market price mechanism signals low demand, at least from people with money.

We could stand it no longer. We keyed into Google the words  “Kotkin” and “Demographia”. Demographia is the US based urban planning outfit that spruiks more suburbs, less density, and whose team leader Wendell Cox fights fiercely against public transport (we kid you not), urges more spending on highways and has been a  regular guest of the right wing Institute of Public Affairs which loves to bring out climate sceptics such  as Lord Monckton.

On the Google page was a list as long as your arm. Here is one sample of articles authored by Kotkin (sensitive readers might want to avert their eyes):

Jihad?… wow… nothing like a balanced intellectual discussion.

In the article Kotkin likens California to Iran, and says its “ideological extremism” leads to “misallocating resources to support repression at home and terrorism abroad.”

Peter Verwer

Here is another with the innocuous title:

It contains a slap against Australia’s planning system, a favourite target for Demographia,and zeroes in again on the argument to deregulate zoning, peddled by The IPA and NSW Urban Taskforce

One factor driving this migration, the Demographia study reveals, is differing levels of regulation of land use between regions. In many markets advocacy for “smart growth,” with tight restrictions on development on the urban fringe, has tended to drive up prices even in places like Australia, despite the relatively plentiful supply of land near its major cities.

More recently, “smart growth” has been bolstered by claims, not always well founded, that high-density development is better for the environment, particularly in terms of limiting greenhouse gases. Fighting climate change (aka global warming) has given planning advocates, politicians and their developer allies a new rationale for “cramming” people into more dense housing, even though most surveys show an overwhelming preference for less dense, single-family houses in most major markets across the English-speaking world.

And another:

It contains this opening:

So why is Obama still so determined to push the high-speed boondoggle? Largely it’s a deadly combination of theology and money. Powerful rail construction interests, notably the German giant Siemens, are spreading cash like mustard on a bratwurst to promote the scheme. Add to that construction unions and the ever voracious investment banks who would love to pocket fees for arranging to sell the bonds and you have interests capable of influencing either party.

No mention in the article from who benefits from building highways.

Well the Property Council did promise Kotkin would be controversial and we can never be ungrateful for an opportunity to challenge these spruikers for business as usual, who masquerade as academics and thought leaders.

Besides, connecting the dots is fun. Pity it’s also child’s play and we don’t have time to mess around.

Brian Howe

Of course some of the things Kotkin said were helpful and even insightful, but then that’s the game of spruiking. (See more Kotkin sound bites below. Should we start a collection?)

Planning issues: provocative…in a good way

By contrast the rest of the summit had some outstanding content.

There was a great presentation from Ben Guy of Urban Circus in Brisbane, explaining his firm’s use of uber cool interactive technology that deals with the fierce objectors to density by showing exactly how tall a project will be, where the shadows fall, and of course what it will look like in context with its surroundings.

Brian Howe who headed the Building Better Cities unit under the Keating Government, said rail drove the start of Australian cities. It could do so again.

Andrew McLeod chief executive officer, Committee for Melbourne showed the power of imagination in solving cities problems. Geelong, an hour away from Melbourne, used to feel like the poor cousin, he said, but the challenge was to focus on the synergies between the two cities. Another was to ask what happens to perceptions of long commutes if you introduce wi-fi to the train and the boss says your working day starts when you get aboard.

You do all the things you normally do when you start work, said McLeod: check your emails, Facebook, Twitter, but you do it on the train.

Peter Verwer, as moderator, flagged why we don’t put a metropolitan commission in charge of Melbourne and Sydney.

“It would be very controversial,” said Brian Howe, “but there is a case for a more radical approach to government.” [In terms of cities].

One commentator said Australia was not producing the planners capable of managing large urban themes. It was a point made by the Productivity Commission: we are training planners to be regulators – not to be creative; with far too much emphasis on land use not planning, the commentator said. The key questions were how to “make the relationships work” to build a city.  The challenge was “nation building” but also community.

“We have to secure and rethink planning as part of the big picture, not part of the parish pump,” was another comment.

McLeon said politicians needed to be more transparent and accepting of long term challenges.

When was the last time we got leaders to say, ‘hmmm,  not sure on that one, I’ll get back to you’… What about having media briefings once a week [instead of almost every day and on the run]?”

Verwer said we needed to hard wire an intergovernmental approach that tied dollars to performance. A national competition policy ­of carrot and stick.

Howe responded with the thought that this was what the Council of Australian Governments was designed to do. The grants were tied to performance.

But without targets, the performance could be fudged, responded Verwer. The states and territories, after all, don’t want the COAG process, he said.

McLeod thought the solution was “more about persuasion than power.”

Left to right: Ben Waters, Alison Terry, Joe Van Belleghem, Siobhan Toohill, Tosh Szatow

Reintroducing a Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works, as some people have suggested, was not the answer, he said.

“What killed the Board of Works was not its lack of responses to democratic forces [but criticism of its actions]”

Today shock jocks Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt who have “inordinate” power, would decimate such a body.

It would be “chopped down; everyone will kick it down,” McLeod said.

Radical precincts

Another provocative session – in a good way – titled “radical precincts” included Lend Lease’s Joe Van Belleghem, Alison Terry from solar car company Better Place, Tosh Szatow (a contributor to The Fifth Estate), Siobhan and Ben Waters of GE’s ecomagination unit.

The conversation about cars was outstanding and exciting. But more on that later… stay tuned.

Kotkin sound bites

“About 33 per cent of people want to be in a suburban environment, 13 per cent in a city, 35 per cent in a rural community and 18 per cent farther out.)

“The realities of life are that people make this choice of suburbia because it’s the most practical.”

“The idea that people will come to the cities is nonsense.”

“Most of these people have lived in the suburbs almost all their lives and are not ready for the city.”

Ben Guy

“Ninety per cent of people over 50 would prefer to stay put, in the same area. We underestimate the degree to what people want to be near their children, their friends and go to the same church.”

“Younger people are big city oriented but it’s temporary they want to [later] be in the suburbs.”

“A bleaker shade of green”

“A single family home  and townhouses are better than high rise [for sustainability]”

“Why don’t we figure out how to make where people want to live more sustainable?”

“Telecommuters will go from 34 million to 63 million.”

“Working at home is good. There is a social advantage to working at home. The whole notion of commuting is only 100 years old. ”

“I was in Singapore with the Mayor of Freiburg. ‘What’s the future of Germany?’ I asked. ‘There is no future of Germany. There are no children, such low birth rates, if you take out the children of the Turks and other immigrants. There will be no German culture.”

“Toronto just voted out its green mayor and put in one from the suburban rebellion.”

“We have to build new communities.  Shoving more people into existing suburbs is very dangerous and you end up destroying the reason that people moved there.”

“There is a poverty of ambitions”