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Suburbanization
New Urbanists Take It on the Chin

In his column on Sunday, Ross Douthat offers a series of “implausible” proposals to break up cities and spread the benefits they have accrued to the rest of America:

We should treat liberal cities the way liberals treat corporate monopolies — not as growth-enhancing assets, but as trusts that concentrate wealth and power and conspire against the public good. And instead of trying to make them a little more egalitarian with looser zoning rules and more affordable housing, we should make like Teddy Roosevelt and try to break them up.

It’s a smart and provocative piece; read the whole thing.

But it may not take any radical redistribution of economic assets to weaken America’s big blue cities. As FiveThirtyEight reported last week, many of those places are already losing out:

The suburbanization of America marches on. Population growth in big cities slowed for the fifth-straight year in 2016, according to new census data, while population growth accelerated in the more sprawling counties that surround them.

The Census Bureau on Thursday released population estimates for every one of the more than 3,000 counties in the U.S. I grouped those counties into six categories: urban centers of large metropolitan areas; their densely populated suburbs; their lightly populated suburbs; midsize metros; smaller metro areas; and rural counties, which are outside metro areas entirely.

The fastest growth was in those lower-density suburbs. Those counties grew by 1.3 percent in 2016, the fastest rate since 2008, when the housing bust put an end to rapid homebuilding in these areas. In the South and West, growth in large-metro lower-density suburbs topped 2 percent in 2016, led by counties such as Kendall and Comal north of San Antonio; Hays near Austin; and Forsyth, north of Atlanta.

As we’ve written, major American cities may soon see the establishment of a third ring of suburbs as millennials swim upstream to spawn. Driverless cars, telework, restrictive zoning in urban centers—all of these developments could make suburbs more attractive in the years and decades to come.

“Urban renewal” is a phenomenon disproportionately enjoyed by the wealthy and the well-educated. The New York Times’ culture sections reflect a lifestyle that is inaccessible to most Americans. Most people can’t afford $2400-per-month 320 sq. ft. studios, paying $16 for cocktails or $12 for a jar of homemade jam. While young often parent-subsidized graduates of top colleges can survive and even thrive in such places, most everyone else has to move elsewhere.

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  • RedWell

    New urbanists are impractical and unaware of their elitism. But the implied defense of suburbanism is misplaced.

    The ubranists have a point. Living in a place where you walk every day, experience spontaneous social encounters and preserve agricultural and other land is far more natural and healthy than the alternative, as it is presented here. Namely, suburban living is resource intensive and inefficient for both individuals and governments; sitting in vehicles to go everywhere is fundamentally unhealthy and unnatural; it is a socially isolating life in which older people, for instance, can become virtual Robinson Crusoes.

    Yes, you avoid the messiness of the city, and yes, suburbs are affordable for families. But they are also, basically, disposable city planning. They are one use: if you arrive in the first generation, you enjoy the cheap land and good schools. After that, infrastructure gets old, schools decline to the median, things get crowded and so forth. How many boomer-era suburbs are desirable today?

    Building yet another ring around your city is not a long-term solution, and it carries only the appearance of savvy planning. Put differently, do we really think Americans in a hundred years will look back at our use of land and shabby residential construction as a favor to them?

    • Andrew Allison

      Exactly. For a case study in the horrors of endless surburbanisation, see Los Angeles. I would argue that we need to prevent the spread of suburbs by making the cities more affordable (infilling, replacing derelict neighborhoods with affordable housing, etc.).

      • Josephbleau

        Replacing derelict neighborhoods takes a long time as the blue powerlords like to take a decent interval to transfer them to their nieces and nephews.

    • LarryD

      “Living in a place where you walk every day, experience spontaneous social encounters and preserve agricultural and other land is far more natural and healthy than the alternative…”

      You realize that’s a description of a small town, don’t you? There is plenty of evidence that high density is psychologically and sociologically unhealthy. Not to mention that mega-cities governments are corrupt and riddled with rent-seeking.

      “After that, infrastructure gets old…” As if this doesn’t happen, hasn’t already happened, in big cities.

      • RedWell

        What small town has not been hollowed out by cars? Seems like a non sequitur. It might even prove the point: many of most of America’s small towns are basically abandoned.

        As for “high density,” this sort of planning is not binary. Your choice is not limited to Hong Kong or suburban Atlanta. That’s a debating tactic to bypass actually engaging the issue.

        • Tom

          Small towns were not hollowed out by cars. They began declining the moment that farming became more capital-intensive than labor-intensive.
          Furthermore, you can have high-density without Hong Kong. See Memphis or Birmingham–or Detroit.

        • ——————————

          “What small town has not been hollowed out by cars?”

          Cars to a degree, but we have also become more urban in our lifestyles because of the desire for higher wages so we can have more ‘stuff’…our mentality is all about having more, these days. And then there’s also the decline in rural labor over the years.
          Small towns can no longer support our high-consumption present-day lifestyles. Unfortunately, there is little opportunity in a small town these days….

    • Jim__L

      Dismissing families as airily as you do is a good reason to dismiss your practically-OCD urge to design other peoples’ lives.

      San Francisco is dying, as are other metro areas.
      https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/21/us/san-francisco-children.html?_r=0

      If something isn’t good for families, it isn’t good for humanity. Period.

      • RedWell

        On what basis did my comment dismiss families? In any case, since you are making assumptions about me, allow me fill in some detail. I have more than the average number of children, all under 10, and a stable marriage. I’m not airily dismissing families. Perhaps unlike many people, I’m living my convictions about the importance of family.

        OCD-urge to design other peoples’ lives? On what do you base that claim in my comment? Your stereotype of the kind of person who would make that comment?

        I offered no policies, only observations. Whether you are a creationist or a Darwinist, I think you would agree that (a) humans are innately social and designed to live in groups and (b) have two legs for walking, which was something their bodies are literally designed to do.

        • Jim__L

          “Yes, you avoid the messiness of the city, and yes, suburbs are affordable for families” is really where you should have stopped. That’s good for families, and it’s compelling.

          Your drive to plan urbanist living spaces for the masses IS policy. It is in direct conflict with allowing those spaces to grow by way of people making individual decisions for their families. Suburbs are growing naturally — why fight it?

          The human mind is designed to associate with no more than about 150 people. If everybody is somebody… you know about the right number of people.

          Walkable is nice, but to sacrifice ownership for it, to become a sheep for rentiers to fleece (or flay) is not a good trade.

          • RedWell

            Slums grow naturally. Suburbs are a response to zoning in conjunction with free decisions.

            “Drive to plan urbanisit living spaces” is overstated.

            However, if we are inevitably making zoning and other plans, why not experiment with some alternatives?

  • Beauceron

    The truth is that the urban Left gets what it says it wants– then flees the inevitable results of what it says it wants.

    • Jacksonian_Libertarian

      Detroitification – The Blue Model is destroying the big cities.

    • Jim__L

      Trump should target this group as a new “enemy of the people”. He’d gain a lot of points with his base, and reach out to big chunks of Hillary’s voters through their pocketbooks.

  • CaliforniaStark

    Throughout much of its history, the vast majority of the population lived in smaller towns and rural areas. In part major cities were developed because of industrialization, and the need for workers to live near factories and other industrial centers. When the ability to leave major cities and move to the suburbs became possible, the population did it in mass after WWII.

    Suburban living can be just as sustainable as urban living, you have more opportunity to use renewable energy such as solar, and also have a garden or greenhouse. Transportation can be made sustainable, and agricultural land preserved. Plus a lot of people are now engaging in more work at home and telecommuting from the burbs.

    Would also dare say that people in suburbs are just as likely to know their neighbors as in urban areas; and it is a much safer locations to raise children. One feature of new urbanism is the prevalence of “empty nesters”; families without children. Unfortunately too many urban areas are plagued with crime, gangs, and have serious transient issues — fiscal mismanagement just compounds these issues. People with adequate incomes either move to the burbs, or if they live in urban areas they often reside in luxury towers which in effect are vertical suburbs. The fact that President Obama, who is the product of urban politics and was a proponent of new urbanism, is rumored to be planning to retire in suburban Palm Springs — is indicative of the “do as I say,and not as I do” philosophy of a lot of those advocating for new urbanism. It sounds good in theory, but so far in reality has had limited success.

  • Matt B

    Coincidentally, the headline in the Seattle Times today is that the two counties north and south of Seattle’s King County were the fastest growing in the nation last year. Neither has anything like the regulatory structure of King county. Developments are effectively perched on the county line. At some point you may be able to see the lines from space, just like the border between North and South Korea.

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