During a breakfast presentation today in Seattle, the author Joel Kotkin delivered an optimistic forecast for our region that left everyone with a spring in their step. I enjoyed the message, but wonder if we got the right lesson.
The talk was in support of Kotkin's new book The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050. (His previous book The City: A Global History was fantastic so I was eager to hear him. Thanks again for the invitation, Will!) Unlike many soothsayers, he thinks growing population due to high immigration means America's prospects are good. (More on that on his Web site.) The Seattle area is particularly well poised to prosper from its position on the Pacific Rim, partly because, as he put it, Seattle is "like Portland with an economy."
But he lost me when it came to describing the sort of land use and development we'll need to accommodate more people in 2050. He said that 86% of Americans now "want" to live in detached, single-family homes, a category that presumably includes everything from mansions on five-acre lots to tall, narrow urban infill homes. More than once he said that today's planners are going too far by "forcing" people to live too densely.
Most of the 50 or so of us at the breakfast love the houses where we live, but no discussion of "want" is credible without acknowledging incentives. People often say they "want" something because they don't know otherwise or have incentive to do so. In a region where gas is heavily subsidized and using roads is "free," who wouldn't want to drive long distances if it means no compromises on personal space? But if the cost of driving is higher (and there are good alternatives) maybe I'll decide I'm comfortable with different kind of housing.
One man in the audience asked how we'll accommodate another million people in the Puget Sound area without relaxing growth boundaries to allow more housing construction. Kotkin said the barrier probably has to go and cited California, where the masses who can't afford lofts on the coast have to move far inland to buy a house. He didn't note that the cost of living in sprawl is artificially low because it doesn't include the impact of pollution, roads, resources, etc. A reasonable alternative would be to keep the current boundaries (and preserve nature beyond) through the creative use of incentives.
A few other notes I took away:
- There's a big real estate boom ahead. Half of the current building stock will need to be redone by 2030, which means a chance to rethink the format. If you're in real estate, just hold on a few more years, he said.
- The biggest opportunity for commercial building is suburban infill. Most retirees don't want to live in downtown highrises. They may want to downsize to suburban infill. As an example of how it could be done right, he cited Rockville Center, N.Y., (Long Island) where retirees shop and go to restaurants during the weekdays, young people go out at night and families on the weekend. That provides life for the streets and three distinct markets for businesses. I immediately think of my neighborhood, Columbia City, as ripe for this sort of development.
- Digital technology will upend development patterns. He estimates that the share of people who telecommute at least some of the time will double over the next couple decades. This seems like a chance to implement congestion pricing to make the telecommuting times most efficient.
- For cities, the key to the future is economic growth. In other words, culture follows wealth. "Most mayors don't get it," he said (in our case it's tempting to agree). He noted that Jane Jacobs said a successful metropolitan economy makes poor people into the middle class. Success doesn't come from chasing the rich or mobile.
I'm prepared to accept that a lot more people here in 2050 won't mean disaster. But we (including Vancouver and Portland) need to be aware of the tradeoffs.