‘Tis the season to be jolly, and all that.  But, apparently, not if you want to accuse someone—or a lot of someones—of being naughty.  This past Sunday, author Joel Kotkin launched a broadside against Portland, Oregon by publishing a dismissive op-ed in the Oregonian that derides the city thus…

Portland is becoming what I call an Ephemeral City. What do ephemeral cities do? Not much by traditional standards. They don’t create a lot of jobs for working or middle-class people. Instead they mostly exist to celebrate themselves and provide an attractive setting for visitors and would-be migrants…

An ephemeral city doesn’t compete with lesser places—you know, those ugly cities with functional warehouses and factories, Wal-Marts and strip malls—for jobs, companies or investors. An ephemeral city’s economy relies largely on a high level of self-esteem among its residents.

Not to put words in Kotkin’s mouth, but he seems to believe that Portland is simply too focused on creating an enjoyable city—the horror!!–and not enough on…well, manufacturing or strip malls or something sturdy and middle-American.

Now, I happen to feel that most of what Kotkin is trying to pass of as "analysis" is simply sneering.  And if you scratch the surface, much of his case simply falls apart.

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  • Economist Joe Cortright and George Washington University prof MIchael Lewyn have done a good job pointing out the inconsistencies in Kotkin’s thinking—and, just as importantly, showing where Kotkin’s just mouthing off, as opposed to marshalling facts in support of an argument. Just to pile on, here are a few things that I thought worth mentioning…

    1. Kotkin writes:  "Portland’s sprawl has continued to spiral about as much, or even more, than most American regions."  This, as it turns out, is simply false—unless, of course, Kotkin has some special definition of "spiral" or "sprawl" in mind.  Back in reality, though, greater Portland has had some remarkable success in recent decades in curbing the loss of farmland and open space at the urban fringe. 
    2. More Kotkin: "Four decades ago, author Neil Morgan used the term ‘narcissus of the West" to describe an already self-indulgent San Francisco. Now it’s time for the City by the Bay to move over—the City of Roses wants to take its place in front of the mirror."  Hmmm.  Seems like San Francisco’s done surprisingly well for itself over the last couple of decades—it attracted over 100,000 new residents since 1980; has one of the highest median family incomes in the country; is the major center of the business and finance industries on the west coast.  Etc.  San Francisco ephemeral?  Every city should be so lucky.
    3. Still more…"Portland already has one of the lowest percentages of little tykes among American cities."  True enough.  But the share of households with kids is higher in Portland than in, say, San Francisco, Seattle, and Denver.  Portland’s just barely behind Minneapolis-St. Paul on this measure.  But it’s barely worth quibbling over numbers here, since it’s not at all clear to me why it matters what share of in-city households have kids.  Some cities attract and hold families with kids; some don’t.  It depends on a lot of factors—the amount of single-family housing in the city; the size and density of the city; median incomes; poverty levels; the age and education levels of the population; whether empty-nesters choose to move out of their urban homes; you name it. (I doubt that the alleged "high level of self esteem" among Portland’s residents has any role at all here.) And as Kotkin points out, lots of people move to the suburbs to have kids, for all sorts of reasons.  So how does this make Portland a bad city, exactly?
    4. And this…"As regulation helped boost the housing prices in the close-in areas, the middle class has moved farther and farther out. It turns out that most families—yes, they still exist—usually opt not to raise their kids inside sardine cans if they can at all help it."  This isn’t even wrong—it’s just incoherent.  You see, Portland can deal with its population influx—resulting from its deserved reputation for quality of life—in one of two ways.  It can accept more density by building more multi-family housing within the city, for example by letting developers turn existing single-family homes into duplexes, condos, apartment complexes or row houses.  Or it can prohibit density by stopping new construction, which would cause the price of the existing housing stock to rise as demand for housing outstrips supply.  Either way, lots of middle-income families with kids will choose to move to the suburbs, either to seek a different combination of amenities, or lower prices. But in Kotkin’s view, these basic market dynamics—more people competing for a finite amount of land—somehow prove that Portland is kid-unfriendly, narcissistic, and over-regulated.  (Maybe if Portland could just make some more land, everyone could get a big house and a big green lawn at a reasonable price, all within city limits—and a pony!!)

    I could go on (and on) about Kotkin’s whine, but I’ll stop here—except to note one thing.

    A few years back, Portland contrarian Wendell Cox (one of Kotkin’s sources for the article) held an anti-smart growth conference for conservative think tanks and funders.  From what I read the conference was, in essence, a training session for how to vilify smart growth.  The advice:  don’t engage on the substance—because that gets sidetracked into a discussion of what kind of communities we collectively want to create, which is smart growth’s strongest turf.  Instead, the best way to stop smart growth is to tar its advocates as latte-sipping, brie eating urban elites who look down on ordinary Americans, are opposed to freedom of choice, and want to tell everyone else the how and where to live.

    Kotkin’s op-ed seems to flip this general strategy on its head.  Now it’s Kotkin and his ilk who are looking down on people who’ve freely chosen to live in Portland—they’re narcissistic and self-important, and insufficiently interested in bearing children and building strip malls, Walmarts, and factories. 

    So who’s the sneering elitist now?