Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Land use conference kicks off with contrast

On a day when planners attending the Rocky Mountain Land Use Conference at DU were tasked with envisioning the next American landscape, the conference’s keynote speaker asserted that the vision behind most planning theories is wrong.

The contrast Thursday underscored the title of the institute’s 19th annual gathering, “The New American Landscape.” The program witnessed an appeal from Tom Ragonetti, president of the Rocky Mountain Land Use Institute, for planners to craft a more sustainable America, then also heard attacks on conventional wisdom from self-described contrarian Joel Kotkin.

Instead of forcing sustainability on people like some anti-suburban, high-density harsh medicine, Kotkin said, planners should look to “greening” what people actually want. And what about 80 percent of Americans want, he said, is a safe, affordable, low-density, single-family home in the suburbs.

“You have to start figuring out some way you can do that in a sustainable way instead of saying, ‘I’m going to impose a solution whether people want it or not,’” said Kotkin, a presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. You have to give people their privacy, safety and “a little bit of space.”

“If you can’t figure out how to do that with your environmental laws, you’re going to have very serious problems,” said Kotkin, who also believes there isn’t an oil crisis, that tele-commuting and flexible work will be more important than mass transit systems, and that “millennials” between ages 13 and 24 will be family-oriented and prefer local culture to national forms of culture.

Kotkin said he favors re-emphasizing “skills” jobs that train young people to be plumbers, machinists, welders, technicians etc. and recommends bringing back the Works Progress Administration to teach young people manual skills. “Right now, I can be a lawyer, work at Target or deal drugs. Somehow, that doesn’t feel like a full range of options,” he said.

The urban futures expert, whose latest book is an interpretation of population data and attitude surveys called The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, said he doesn’t believe in abandoning cities. About 20 percent of Americans will continue to prefer them, he said. But cities will have to become less hostile to business and more multi-generational, taking special steps to “capture and keep young people” and becoming more affordable and manageable.

Suburbs will also have to change, Kotkin said. “When we plan suburbs, we need to plan them in a sustainable way so not everybody has to get into the car and go to a job center. Suburban development where you’re building houses far away from jobs is not a sustainable model in the long term.”

Kotkin’s certainty was offset by Ragonetti’s admission he has few answers to the problems of sustainability and future planning. Not even after taking attendees through an outline of American planning history was he able to offer answers. Rather, Ragonetti noted that new urbanists and others are seeking to escape from the landscape they don’t like by embracing ideas from the past. That’s “going forward by going backward,” he said, arguing that a new vision for planning is the only way out.

“I don’t have the answers, but I’m having a great deal of fun looking at the question,” Ragonetti said. “It’s wonderful to contemplate.”

The assembly of more than 450 planners, architects, lawyers and elected officials from more than 20 states will be tackling related land-use issues through Friday. For information on the institute at the Sturm College of Law, go to

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