Opinion Columns & Blogs

Stuart Leavenworth: Sacramento County offers a platform to skewed scholar of suburbs

I have good news for those of you who think that President Barack Obama wants to control every aspect of your lives, including the houses and neighborhoods in which you reside. The Sacramento Metro Chamber, along with County Supervisor Susan Peters, has invited the foremost provocateur of this theory to be a keynote speaker at an event next month entitled, “Suburbs, Popular and Politically Incorrect.”

Yes, your tax dollars are helping to pay for this.

The provocateur in question, Joel Kotkin, is brilliant. Brilliant at promoting himself. Brilliant at his selective use of facts to support his arguments. His arguments? “The Obama administration is the first anti-suburban administration in American history,” Kotkin said in an interview with Breitbart News.

A fellow in urban studies at Chapman University, Kotkin has little regard for places such as San Francisco and Portland, Ore., with their policies that encourage transit, walkable neighborhoods and yes, – goodness – density! Although he lives in the Golden State, he’s one of the leading proponents of the idea that California is failing, led by a hypocritical governor who resides largely in the Oakland hills.

Pore over his writings – a task in itself, since Kotkin is nothing if not prolific – and you’ll be left with the impression that anyone who supports smart growth is part of an elite group of Soviet apparatchiks, determined to take away your suburban house and cars and force everyone into condos close to a transit station.

All this, of course, is nonsense. Smart-growth advocates (including Obama) are not anti-suburb. They don’t want to force anyone into cities. The goal of sustainable planning is to offer options to people, young and old, who want to live in neighborhoods that are walkable, affordable and not completely ruled by the automobile.

Kotkin knows this. He’s been called on it. Writing in the California Planning and Development Report in April, Josh Stephens asserted that Kotkin “is willfully distorting the ideas most famously promoted by Jane Jacobs and now accepted widely in the planning community … Jacobs never advocated for unlimited density, and neither does anyone else I know.”

I called up Roger Niello, president and CEO of the Sac Metro Chamber, and asked him why Kotkin was chosen for the Nov. 15 event, which the county is contibuting to at a cost of $15,000. Niello said the goal was to focus attention on the county’s often-overlooked suburbs. “Joel Kotkin, we thought, could drive attendance and be a conversation starter,” Niello said.

Without a doubt, the Sacramento region should focus more on its suburbs. Second-ring neighborhoods such as North Highlands are hardly booming, and could benefit from an assessment of suburbs that are working well, such as Folsom. Yet inviting Kotkin to lead this discussion is analogous to inviting a tea party leader to be the keynote speaker at a forum on the Affordable Care Act.

Read Kotkin’s writings and you’ll see numerous references to “elites” in places such as San Francisco and Portland, but no mention of wealthy gated communities in the suburbs. You will see few or no references to how overbuilding of suburbs triggered the economic meltdown. You’ll see little discussion of how unchecked development adds to long commutes, air pollution, loss of farmland and wildlife habitat.

Kotkin is right that many urbanists are smug and out of touch with middle-class America. (Having been to a Congress for the New Urbanism conference, I’ve experienced that first hand).

But over the last decade, Kotkin has evolved from a respected observer of demographics to an ideologue who makes big money on the speaking circuit. His writings are widely cited bythe Agenda 21 crowd. (Agenda 21 is a nonbinding United Nations action plan on sustainable development that has become the focus of tea party conspiracy theorists.) When commenting about California and Gov. Brown, he has almost become a caricature of himself.

“Mr. Brown is taking aim at the suburbs,” Kotkin wrote in 2008 in the Wall Street Journal. “He sees suburban houses as inefficient users of energy. He sees suburban commuters clogging the roads as wasting precious fossil fuel. And, mostly, he sees wisdom in an intricately thought-out plan to compel residents to move to city centers or, at least, to high-density developments clustered near mass transit lines.”

Yes, folks, be scared. Be very scared. Jerry Brown is going to force you to live in a condo and ride on crowded trains next to smelly strap hangers.

Just so I am clear: I’m not advocating that Niello and Supervisor Peters disinvite Kotkin. He’s entitled to his skewed point of view. Dropping Kotkin from the bill would only feed far-right conspiracy theories.

But you have to wonder what the real agenda is here. Niello and Peters are big supporters of suburban growth, and both were key advocates for the leapfrog Cordova Hills project. By bringing Kotkin to town to a session called “Suburbs, Popular and Politically Incorrect,” they help feed the idea there is a pent-up demand for new suburbs, held back by arrogant planners.

Niello says that is not the case, so I will take him at his word. But if I weren’t such a critic of conspiracy theories, I would be tempted to think otherwise.