CNU Fact Check: What War on Suburbia?

UPDATE: The original story stated falsely that Senator-Elect Scott Brown gained 11 points over the McCain vote statewide. The actual number is 16. This version has been updated to the correct figure.

In the most recent issue of The American magazine, Joel Kotkin makes the case that suburban sprawl is under attack by new urbanism and its allies (including members of the Obama administration), and predicts this stance will backfire.

CNU member and Assistant Professor at Florida Coastal School of Law Michael Lewyn does some paragraph-by-paragraph fact checking and offers a new urbanist's counterarguements (in italics).

Kotkin writes:

A year into the Obama administration, America’s dominant geography, suburbia, is now in open revolt against an urban-centric regime that many perceive threatens their way of life, values, and economic future. Scott Brown’s huge upset victory by 5 percent in Massachusetts, which supported Obama by 26 percentage points in 2008, largely was propelled by a wave of support from middle-income suburbs all around Boston. The contrast with 2008 could not be plainer.

Brown’s triumph followed similar wins by Republican gubernatorial contenders last November in Virginia and New Jersey. In those races suburban voters in places like Middlesex County, New Jersey and Loudoun County, Virginia—which had support President Obama just a year earlier—deserted the Democats in droves. Also in November, voters in Nassau County, New York upset Nassau County Executive Thomas Suozzi, an attractive Democrat who had carefully cultivated suburban voters.

Kotkin implies that only suburbs have revolted against Democrats. But in fact, Democrats have lost ground in suburb and city alike. In 2010, Scott Brown got 30% of Boston’s vote ( . ) an 11 point gain from John McCain’s 19% ( ). Brown did as well (relative to the GOP base vote for McCain) in Boston as the rest of Mass.- he gained 11 % pts in the city and gained 16 % pts statewide. Similarly, in 2009 Republican gubernatorial candidate Bob McDonnell got 40% of Norfolk’s vote (a 12 point gain from McCain’s 28%) and 30% of Richmond’s vote (a 10 point gain from John McCain’s 20%.).

Kotkin writes:

The lesson here is that political movements ignore suburbanites at their peril. For the better part of a century, Americans have been voting with their feet, moving inexorably away from the central cities and towards the suburban periphery. Today a solid majority of Americans live in suburbs and exurbs, more than countryside residents and urbanites combined.

As a result, suburban voters have become the critical determinants of our national politics, culture, and economy. The rise of the Republican majority after 1966 was largely a suburban phenomenon. When Democrats have resurged—as they did under Bill Clinton and again in 2006 and 2008—it was when they came close to splitting the suburban vote.

This doesn’t mean that either party’s policies were targeted towards suburbanites. More likely, it means that rural areas are safe for Republicans, urban areas safe for Democrats, and suburban areas more evenly balanced. So in an election where every group moves slightly towards the Republicans, rural and urban areas might be slightly more (or less) one-sided than usual, while a suburb might tip from slightly Democrat to slightly Republican.

But now, once again, things have changed. For the first time in memory, the suburbs are under a conscious and sustained attack from Washington. Little that the adminstration has pushed—from the Wall Street bailouts to the proposed “cap and trade” policies—offers much to predominately middle-income-oriented suburbanites and instead appears to have worked to alienate them.

I fail to see how Wall Street bailouts or “cap and trade” offer more to urbanites than to suburbanites. Wall Street bankers are as likely to commute from suburbs as from upper Manhattan. And to the extent that urbanites think of themselves as more dependent on federal support, any policy that reduces the long-term solvency of the Federal treasury hurts urbanites in the long run.

And for some reason, Kotkin doesn’t bother to mention Obama’s bailout of the auto industry. Hmmm… I wonder why.

And then there are the policies that seem targeted against suburbs. In everything from land use and transportation to “green” energy policy, the Obama administration has been pushing an agenda that seeks to move Americans out of their preferred suburban locales and into the dense, transit-dependent locales they have eschewed for generations.

As in so many areas, this stance reflects the surprising power of the party’s urban core and the “green” lobby associated with it. Yet, from a political point of view, the anti-suburban stance seems odd given that Democrats' recent electoral ascendency stemmed in great part from gains among suburbanites. Certainly this is an overt stance that neither Bill nor Hillary Clinton would likely have countenanced.

Kotkin’s assumption here seems to be that any policy that supports the “urban core” is “anti-suburban.” But don’t suburbs benefit from being near a healthy city? Or does Kotkin believe that suburbs benefit when cities are destroyed?

Whenever possible, the Clintons expressed empathy with suburban and small-town voters. In contrast, the Obama administration seems almost willfully city-centric. Few top appointees have come from either red states or suburbs; the top echelons of the administration draw almost completely on big city urbanites—most notably from Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. They sometimes don’t even seem to understand why people move to suburbs.

Secretary of Transportation Ray Lahood represented Peoria in Congress- hardly a big city. EPA head Lisa Jackson, before moving to Washington to join the Obama Administration, lived in East Windsor, NJ ( ), a suburb of Princeton. (In fact, if you look at East Windsor on “Google Maps” it seems like the very definition of exurbia) Transportation Undersecretary Roy Kienitz has spent the past six years working for the governor of Pennsylvania in tiny Harrisburg.

Many Obama appointees—such as at the Departments of Transportation and of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—favor a policy agenda that would drive more Americans to live in central cities. And the president himself seems to embrace this approach, declaring in February that “the days of building sprawl” were, in his words, “over.”

Would that it were so! But the term “sprawl” is sufficiently vague that Obama’s statement strikes me as pretty meaningless.

Not surprisingly, belief in “smart growth,” a policy that seeks to force densification of communities and returning people to core cities, animates many top administration officials. This includes both HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan and Undersecretary Ron Sims, Transportation undersecretary for policy Roy Kienitz, and the EPA’s John Frece.

First of all, Kotkin’s statement completely misrepresents “smart growth.” Smart growth need not involve “forcing” anyone to do anything. If we eliminate regulatory obstacles to more compact development, builders will build it without the coercion Kotkin fears. How do we know this? Well, people have been returning to the healthiest core cities on their own, despite zoning rules that discourage new construction in those cities. According to the most recent Census Bureau estimates, even long-suffering cities like Philadelphia and Washington have begun to gain population in recent years. (See ).

Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood revealed the new ideology when he famously declared the administration’s intention to “coerce” Americans out of their cars and into transit. In Congress, the president’s allies, including Minnesota Congressman James Oberstar, have advocated shifting a larger chunk of gas tax funds collected from drivers to rail and other transit.

Indeed, LaHood did make the statement alleged. But if you look at the whole transcript of the speech ( ) you might suspect that LaHood was joking. How do we know this?

Because in the same speech, LaHood stated: “The DOT has made more money available to states more quickly than any of our other routine programs. For example, the highway portion of the stimulus package is flowing at a rate of $4 billion a month -- nearly twice as fast as traditional highway dollars.

Let me repeat that. We're sending money out the door nearly twice as fast as we normally do. When it comes to rolling out the money, we're actually ahead of schedule.” A couple of paragraphs later, he stated: “On roadway projects, the pace of construction and hiring is about to accelerate, as we enter the peak summer season.” Like it or not, the Obama Administration is committed to business as usual when it comes to accommodating driving.

In addition, the president’s stimulus—with its $8 billion allocation for high-speed rail and proposed giant increases in mass transit—offers little to anyone who lives outside a handful of large metropolitan cores.

Kotkin is evidently unaware that the stimulus provides $27.5 billion in highway funds- three times as much as for high-speed rail. ( ). Because the money goes to all 50 states, and states have discretion to identify projects, presumably plenty of the projects are “outside a handful of large metropolitan cores.

Economics writer Robert Samuelson, among others, has denounced the high-speed rail idea as “a boondoggle” not well-suited to a huge, multi-centered country like the United States. Green job schemes also seem more suited to boost employment for university researchers and inner-city residents than middle-income suburbanites.

In other words, if a program is “green” it by definition can’t employ suburbanites?Why?

Suburbanites may not yet be conscious of the anti-suburban stance of the Obama team, but perhaps they can read the body language. Administration officials have also started handing out $300 million stimulus-funded grants to cities that follow “smart growth principles.” Grants for cities to adopt “sustainability” oriented development will reward those communities with the proper planning orientation. There is precious little that will benefit suburbanites, such as improved roads or investment in other basic infrastructure.

$300 million is nothing compared to the $27.5 billion that the stimulus gives to highways. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that only urban centers can follow “smart growth” principles. Suburbs can become more walkable and yet remain identifiably suburban, as anyone who has visited the commuter-train suburbs of New York and Philadelphia might notice.

But ultimately it will be sticks and not carrots that planners hope to use to drive de-suburbanization. Perhaps the most significant will be new draconian controls over land use. Administration officials, particularly from the EPA, participated in the drafting of the recent "Moving Cooler” report, which suggested such policies as charging tolls on the Interstate Highway System, charging people to park in front of their homes, and steering some 90 percent of all future development into the most dense portions of already existing urban developments.

The “Moving Cooler” ideas are more a list of possibilities than affirmative recommendations. Moreover, many of these proposals are hardly “anti-suburban” policies. Supporters of bigger and better highways, such as the Reason Foundation, have aggressively promoted toll roads.

Kotkin’s reference to “charging people to park in front of their homes” refers to an option listed as “Option C: Maximum Effort”- in other words, the most extreme possible recommendation, something not likely to happen anytime soon. This option states: “Require residential parking permits for on-street parking in residential areas.” (Page A-4) If Kotkin had actually visited any suburbs recently, he would notice that in the overwhelming majority of suburbs, people have driveways and garages. So only in very dense urban areas do most people actually park in front of their homes.

And in such places, parking permit systems are often demanded by neighborhood residents themselves, to keep visitors to nearby stores from parking in their neighborhoods. For example, in the 1970s case of Richards v. Arlington County, the Supreme Court upheld such a system in Arlington, one of the more compact suburbs of Washington. ( )

Finally, the “90 percent proposal” refers to a proposal to steer development into “pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly neighborhoods” (Page A-6) with “sidewalks, bicycle facilities, [and] good connectivity.” It is simply not the case that neighborhoods need to be in big cities to fit this category. For example, East Aurora, New York is a small town about 15 miles from Buffalo. But it has sidewalks and well-connected streets, and, it seems to me, is the kind of community that the proposal is intended to refer to. East Aurora has 2482 people per square mile, lower than that of many less walkable American suburbs.

Of course, such policies have little or no chance of being passed by Congress. Too many representatives come from suburban or rural districts to back policies that would penalize a population that uses automobiles for upwards of 98 percent of their transportation and account for 95 percent of all work trips.

But the president’s cadres may find other ways to impose their agenda. New controls, for example, may be enacted through the courts and regulatory action. There is already precedence for this: As EPA director under Clinton, current climate czar Carole Browner threatened to block federal funds for the Atlanta region due to their lack of compliance with clear air rules.

Which doesn’t seem to have prevented suburban development in Atlanta.

Such threats will become more commonplace as regulating greenhouse gases fall under administrative scrutiny. As can already be seen in California, regulators can use the threat of climate change as a rationale to stop funding—and permitting—for even well-conceived residential, commercial, or industrial projects construed as likely to generate excess greenhouse gases.

Evidence? Has this actually happened? And how “well-concieved” is a project that will “generate excess greenhouse gases?”

These efforts will be supported by an elaborate coalition of new urbanist and environmental groups. At the same time, a powerful urban land interest, including many close to the Democratic Party, would also support steps that thwart suburban growth and give them a near monopoly on future development over the coming decades.

Not quite as elaborate as the coalition that Kotkin speaks for- highway builders and real estate developers that benefit from a piggy bank of state, federal and local subsidies, then funnel the profits into campaign contributions to politicians, who then give them more money to build more projects, which in turn gets used … well, you get the idea. Not to mention the recently-bailed-out auto companies that also benefit when everyone has to drive.

Glimpse the Future

One can glimpse this future by observing what takes place in most European countries, including the United Kingdom, where land use is controlled from the center. For decades, options for new development have been sharply circumscribed, with mandates for ever-smaller lots and smaller homes more the norm for single-family residences.

In Britain the dominant planning model is widely known as “cramming,” meaning forced densification into smaller geographic areas. Over the past generation, this has spurred a rapid shrinking of house sizes for a generation. Today the average new British “hobbit” house, although quite expensive, covers barely 800 square feet, roughly one-third that of the average American residence. Even in quite distant suburbia many of the features widely enjoyed here—sizable backyards, spare bedrooms, home office space—are disappearing.

Far from being a result of left-wing planning, British hobbit houses are a result of Thatcherism and of the free market. According to the right-wing Daily Telegraph, “Up until 1980 all builders of private housing adhered to the Parker Morris standards, which set a minimum square footage for houses, depending on the number of bedrooms. But the Thatcher revolution, which helped to create a new generation of owner-occupiers, also saw the standards dropped and rooms shrink.” ( )

But these suburban hobbits will be living large compared to the sardines who would be forced to move into inner cities. In London, already a densely packed city, planners are calling for denser apartment blocks and congested neighborhoods.

London has 12,331 people per square mile ( )- fewer than New York or San Francisco, or about the same as Chicago).

This top-driven scenario may be playing soon in America. Following the proposed edicts of "Moving Cooler," the urban option increasingly would become almost the only choice other than the countryside. Unlike their baby boomer parents, the next generation would have few affordable choices in comfortable, low- and medium-density suburbs and single-family homes.

Given that most developed land is in the suburbs, this fear seems highly farfetched. To give just one example: the city of Atlanta has 186,000 housing units – about one-fourth the 735,000 housing units in Fulton and DeKalb Counties (both of which include parts of Atlanta), not to mention the 382,000 housing units in Clayton and Cobb Counties (both of which, I believe, border Atlanta) or the housing in other suburban counties such as Douglas, Henry, and Gwinnett. Even if every single new housing unit for the next 50 years was in the city of Atlanta, I am not sure that most people would be living in urbia.

Ownership of a single-family home would become increasingly the province only of the highly affluent or those living on the fringes of second-tier American cities. Due to the very high costs of construction for multi-family apartments in inner cities, most prospective homeowners would also be forced to remain renters. Although widely hailed as “progressive,” these policies would herald a return to the kind of crowded renter-dominated metropolis that existed prior to the Second World War.

In other words, anything other than the status quo means the extinction of single-family housing. Anyone who has visited New Urbanist communities such as Celebration and Kentlands, let alone older pedestrian-friendly communities such as East Aurora, knows this is just rubbish.

Moreover, the correlation between homeownership and sprawl is pretty slim. While homeownership rose rapidly in the first decades of postwar sprawl, it was stagnant between 1965 and the 1990s-2000s housing bubble. ( , page 397). On the other hand, many European countries have higher homeownership rates than the United States. ( ). Thus, there is no reason to believe that the United States cannot develop somewhat differently and still retain high homeownership rates.

Are Suburbs Doomed?

The anti-suburban impulse is nothing new. Suburbs have rarely been popular among academics, planners, and the punditry. The suburbanite displeased “the professional planner and the intellectual defender of cosmopolitan culture,” noted sociologist Herbert Gans. The 1960s counterculture expanded this critique, viewing suburbia as one of many “tasteless travesties of mass society,” along with fast and processed food, plastics, and large cars. Suburban life represented the opposite of the cosmopolitan urban scene; one critic termed it “vulgaria.”

Liberals also castigated suburbs as the racist spawn of “white flight.” But more recently, environmental causes—particularly greenhouse gas emissions as well as dire warning about the prospects for “peak oil”—now drive much of the argument against suburbanization.

The housing crash that began in 2007 added grist to the contention that the age of suburban growth has come to an end. To be sure, the early phases of the subprime mortgage bust were heavily concentrated in newer developments in the outer fringes. In part due to rising home prices, a disproportionate number of new buyers were forced to resort to sub-prime and other unconventional mortgages.

The outer suburban distress attracted much of media attention and delighted many who had long detested suburbs. One leading new urbanist, Chris Leinberger, actually described suburban sprawl as “the root cause of the financial crisis.” Leinberger and other critics have described suburbia as the home of the nation’s future “slums.” The favorite images have included McMansions being taken over by impoverished gang-bangers and other undesirables once associated with the now pristine inner city.

Others portray future suburbs as serving at best as backwaters in a society dominated by urbanites. In contrast to a brave new era for “the gospel of urbanism,” the suburbs are expected to contract and even wither away. According to planner Arthur C. Nelson’s estimate, by 2025 the United States will have a “likely surplus of 22 million large lot homes”—that is, residences on more than one sixth of an acre.

City boosters, however, largely ignore the real-estate crisis impact on urban condo markets throughout the country. Like the new developments on the fringe, the much-hyped apartment complexes in central cities such as New York, Miami, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Denver came on line precisely as the housing market crashed, with similar devastating effects. Many remain unoccupied and others have been converted from high-end condos to more modest rentals.

Yes, but foreclosures have been heavily concentrated in four states- California, Florida, Arizona, and Neveda. ( ). Three of these states (Florida, Arizona, and Neveda) have no pedestrian- or transit-friendly urban center comparable to New York or San Francisco. And in California, exurban Riverside County (1 foreclosure per 92 households) has a higher foreclosure rate than nearby, more urban counties, such as Los Angeles (1 in 202)- let alone cities such as Philadelphia (1 in 555), or Denver (1 in 398). (

Yet fundamentally the attack on suburbia has less to do with market trends or the environment than with a deep-seated desire to change the way Americans live. For years urban boosters have proposed that more Americans should reside in what they deemed “more livable,” denser, transit-oriented communities for their own good. One recent example, David Owens’ Green Metropolis, supports the notion that Americans should be encouraged to embrace “extreme compactness”—using Manhattan as the model.

Convinced Manhattanization is our future, some “progressives” are already postulating what to do with the remnants of our future abandoned. Grist, for example, recently held a competition about what to do with dying suburbs that included ideas such as turning them into farms, bio-fuel generators, and water treatment plants.

What Do the Suburbanites Want?

In their assessments, few density advocates bother to consider whether most suburbanites would like to give up their leafy backyards for dense apartment blocks. Many urban boosters simply could not believe that, once given an urban option, anyone would choose to live in suburbia.

Jane Jacobs, for example, believed that “suburbs must be a difficult place to raise children.” Yet had Jacobs paid as much attention to suburbs as she did to her beloved Greenwich Village, she would have discovered that they possess their own considerable appeal, most particularly for people with children. “If suburban life is undesirable,” noted Gans in 1969, “the suburbanites themselves seem blissfully unaware of it.”

Contrary to much of the current media hype, most Americans continue to prefer suburban living. Indeed for four decades, according to numerous surveys, the portion of the population that prefers to live in a big city has consistently been in the 10 to 20 percent range, while roughly 50 percent or more opt for suburbs or exurbs. The reasons? The simple desire for privacy, quiet, safety, good schools, and closer-knit communities. The single-family house, detested by many urbanists, also exercises a considerable pull. Surveys by the National Association of Realtors and the National Association of Home Builders find that some 83 percent of potential buyers prefer this kind of dwelling over a townhouse or apartment.

Actually, most Americans don’t want to live in suburbs or cities. One poll showed that when asked to choose between cities, small towns and suburbs, 39 percent chose small towns, 27 percent suburbs, and 21 percent big cities. ). And by trying to recreate the traditional American small town, among other pursuits, new urbanists are trying to meet this demand). (See also .

Furthermore, just because people want single-family homes does not mean they want sprawl as presently constituted. A May 2003 survey asked a representative167 sample of Houstonians: “Would you personally prefer to live in a suburban setting with larger lots and houses and a longer drive to work and most other places, or in a more central urban setting with smaller homes on smaller lots, and be able to take transit to work or walk to work and other places?”168 55% of survey respondents chose the “Central urban setting” and only 37% chose the “Suburban setting.” (at )

In other words, suburbs have expanded because people like them. A 2008 Pew study revealed that suburbanites displayed the highest degree of satisfaction with where they lived compared to those who lived in cities, small towns, and the countryside. This contradicts another of the great urban legends of the 20th century—espoused by urbanists, planning professors, and pundits and portrayed in Hollywood movies—that suburbanites are alienated, autonomous individuals, while city dwellers have a deep sense of belonging and connection to their neighborhoods.

Indeed on virtually every measurement—from jobs and environment to families—suburban residents express a stronger sense of identity and civic involvement with their communities than those living in cities. One recent University of California at Irvine study found that density does not, as is often assumed, increase social contact between neighbors or raise overall social involvement. For every 10 percent reduction in density, the chances of people talking to their neighbors increases by 10 percent, and their likelihood of belonging to a local club by 15 percent.

I found the survey (by Prof. Brueckner of Irvine) I think Kotkin is talking about: not sure where he gets the numbers, since the study is basically a bunch of regression analysis, most of which seems like gibberish to a non-specialist such as myself. ( ). In any event, this survey has been debunked.

One commentator on the Bruckner paper wrote: “That's a frustrating paper: no plots, no tabulations of simple things that are immediately relevant...just regression tables with coefficient estimates for dozens of variables (and only for regressions that include all of the variables at the same time). I'm sure they looked at a lot more than that; I wish they had shown just a little bit of what they looked at.

My gut feeling is that I'm suspicious of these kitchen-sink regression models (in all contexts). There are just so many possibilities for unexpected relationships between variables to screw things up. This doesn't mean the results are "wrong" or that there is a problem in this particular case, just that I'm cautious about taking regression coefficients at face value.

These preferences have helped make suburbanization the predominant trend in virtually every region of the country. Even in Portland, Oregon, a city renowned for its urban-oriented policy, barely 10 percent of all population growth this decade has occurred within the city limits, while more than 90 percent has taken place in the suburbs over the past decade. Ironically, one contributing factor has been the demands of urbanites themselves, who want to preserve historic structures and maintain relatively modest densities in their neighborhoods.

This paragraph contradicts two of Kotkin’s earlier assertions:

1. Kotkin argues that smart growth makes suburban life impossible for young families. But in this paragraph, he argues that Portland has had ample suburban growth, indicating that suburbia is a viable option even under the most stringent “smart growth” policies. Was he wrong here, or was he wrong earlier?

2. Kotkin argues here that NIMBYism has limited growth within the city of Portland – which implies that there are people who really want to live in Portland but can’t because of NIMBY-oriented, anti-development zoning. But three or four paragraphs ago he argued that real Americans prefer suburbia. Was he wrong here, or was he wrong earlier?

Multicultural Flight

Perhaps nothing reflects the universal appeal of suburban lifestyles more than its growing ethnic diversity. In 1970, nearly 95 percent of suburbanites were white. Today many of these same communities have emerged as the new melting pots of American society. Along with immigrants, African-Americans have moved to the suburbs in huge numbers: between 1970 and 2009, the proportion of African-Americans living in the periphery grew from less than one-sixth to 40 percent.

Today minorities constitute over 27 percent of the nation’s suburbanites. In fast-growing Gwinett County outside Atlanta, minorities made up less than 10 percent of the population in 1980; by 2006 the county was on the verge of becoming “majority minority.” In greater Washington, D.C., the Northeast’s most dynamic region in economic and demographic terms, 87 percent of foreign migrants live in the suburbs, while less than 13 percent live in the district, according to a 2001 Brookings Institution study.

Perhaps most intriguingly, this diversity is itself diverse, including not only African-Americans but also Latinos and Asians. Suburban areas such as Fort Bend county, Texas, and the city of Walnut, in the San Gabriel Valley east of Los Angeles, already have among the most diverse populations in the nation. And this is not merely a California phenomenon: Aurora (outside Denver), Bellevue (the Seattle suburb), and Blaine (outside Minneapolis) are becoming ever-more diverse even as the nearby city centers become less so. By 2000 well over half of mixed-race households were in the suburbs, a percentage that continues to grow.

Today the most likely locale for America’s new ethnic shopping centers, Hindu temples, and new mosques are not in the teeming cities but in the outer suburbs of Los Angeles, New York, and Houston. “If a multiethnic society is working out in America,” suggests California demographer James Allen, “it will be worked out in [these] places . . . The future of America is in the suburbs.”

The movement of minorities to the suburbs is just a continuation of the sprawl trends of the 1950s. In the mid-20th century, minorities moved out from downtown to “outer city” neighbourhoods a few miles from downtown, and whites moved out. Now, they are moving from outer city neighbourhoods to suburbs, and whites are moving out of those neighbourhoods. For example, in Cleveland Heights, one of Cleveland’s more affluent integrated suburbs, the total population has nosedived from over 60,000 in 1960 to 46,000 today. Since Cleveland Heights was 99% white then and is 52% white today, this means that Cleveland Heights has lost over half its white population. This is not evidence of a brave new multicultural America, but a continuation of the sprawl trends of the 1950s.

A War Not Worth Fighting

If most Americans clearly prefer suburbs, then why would our elected representatives choose to pick a fight with them? Perhaps the most widely used explanation lies with densification as a means of reducing greenhouse gases. But this rationale itself seems flawed, and could reflect more long-standing prejudice than proven science.

For example, a recent study by the National Academy of Sciences found that a nationally imposed densification policy would at best cut greenhouse gas emissions between less than 1 and 11 percent by 2050. Other research suggests that, by some measurements, low-density development can use less energy than denser urban forms.

This is not what the NAS study (available at ) says. In fact, the study states that increased density alone can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 5 percent (p. 2) but that when higher density is combined with more pedestrian-friendly design and better public transit, the savings may be as high as 20-25 percent (pp. 2-3). The 1-11 percent estimate is based on more modest assumptions (p. 4).

Although automobile commuting now consumes more energy resources than well-traveled traditional urban rail systems, the future generation of low-mileage cars may prove more efficient than often underutilized rail systems that are now seen as critical elements of fighting climate change. A public system running at low capacity—commonplace in many regions—may actually produce more emissions than the coming generation of personal vehicles.

Because fuel economy decreased significantly during the 1990s, the average fuel economy of American cars and trucks is actually lower now than it was in 1987- 22 miles per gallon then, 20.8 per gallon now. ( , page iii). Thus, there is simply no reason to assume that cars will inevitably become more fuel-efficient.

Kotkin’s suggestion that the imaginary fuel-efficient cars of the future will be less polluting than public transit is implausible for two reasons. First, any technologies that improve the efficiency of cars might also improve the efficiency of public transit. Second, concerns about “low capacity” transit systems are a self-fulfilling prophecy. If (as Kotkin seems to propose) public policy favors sprawl, transit systems will have lower ridership and become less efficient. On the other hand, smarter growth means higher transit ridership, which in turn makes each bus and train more fuel-efficient.

At the risk of making an ad hominem argument, I note that throughout the 20th-century, most conservatives (and thus presumably most readers of the magazine Kotkin is writing for, the American Enterprise Institute’s magazine) opposed federal fuel efficiency standards on the ground that the more gas-guzzling the car or truck, the bigger and safer it must be. (See for an example of this sort of analysis).

Moreover, tall buildings may not be as green as some advocates suggest. Recent studies out of Australia show that townhouses, small condos, and even single-family homes generate far less heat per capita than the supposedly environmentally superior residential towers, particularly when one takes into account the cost of heating common areas and the highly consumptive lifestyle of affluent urbanites (with their country homes, vacations, and frequent flying). In terms of energy conservation, the easiest and least expensive option may be to retrofit single-family houses and wood-shaded townhouses.

This argument implies that “urban and/or walkable development” equals “tall buildings.” Before late 20th century suburban sprawl, most walkable urban neighborhoods were dominated by rowhouses and small single-family homes- for example, most of Brooklyn, and most of Philadelphia.

Two- or three-story homes or townhouses often require only double-paned windows and natural shading to reduce their energy consumption; one Los Angeles study found that white roofs and shade trees can reduce suburban air conditioning by 18 percent. Such structures are particularly ideal for using the heat- and water-saving elements of landscaping: after all, a nice maple can cool a two-story house more efficiently than it can a ten-story apartment.

Of course, density advocates can and do produce their own studies to justify their agenda. But there seems enough reasonable doubt to focus on more efficient, and less intrusive, ways to create greener communities by improving energy efficiency of automobiles and changing the way suburbs fit into metropolitan systems.

The classic logical fallacy of a false dichotomy: we can do X (reduce automobile dependence) or we can do Y (increase energy efficiency of automobiles). But if pollution and/or climate change are serious issues we probably need to do both.

Turning Deadwood into Greenurbia

The “green” assault on suburbia also largely ignores changes already taking place across the suburban landscape. In a historical context, the latest suburban “sprawl” may be compared to Deadwood. That rough-and-ready mining town on the Dakota frontier was developed quickly for the narrow purpose of being close to a vein of gold. But over time these towns developed respectable shopping streets, theaters, and other community institutions.

One change already evident can be seen in commuting patterns. Density advocates and the media often characterize suburbanites as people who generally take long commutes to work compared to the shorter rides enjoyed by city-dwellers. But with the continuing dispersion of work to the suburbs over the past two decades, suburban work locations actually enjoyed shorter commutes than their inner city counterparts in virtually all the largest metropolitan areas.

This is true even in New York. Although Manhattanites enjoy short commutes and can even walk to work, most people who live in New York City and work in Manhattan suffer among the longest commutes in the nation. In fact, residents of Queens and Staten Island spend the most time getting work of all metropolitan counties. Residents in suburbs and particularly exurbs actually endure generally shorter commutes, in large part because of less congestion and closer proximity to employment.

A look at the data shows that Manhattanites have shorter commute times than residents of Queens or residents of the suburbs. ( ). So the data doesn’t really support Kotkin’s point here.

Similarly, census data in other metro areas shows that city residents have shorter commutes. For example, the non-New York counties with the longest commuting times in the U.S. are Prince George’s County and Prince William County, two suburbs of Washington, DC. By contrast, the District of Columbia itself is No. 45 on the “long commute” list. Similarly, Contra Costa County outside San Francisco is No. 10, while San Francisco itself is No. 43. And in metro Atlanta, four suburban counties (DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and Clayton) are among the top 50, while Fulton (which includes the city of Atlanta) is not in the top 50. Case closed.

More broadly, Kotkin assumes that if you live in the suburbs and your job is in the suburbs, you will always have a shorter commute than if your job is in the city. This is true if suburbs sprawl in only one direction- but otherwise, not so much. Here’s why: suppose you live in a southern suburb of Atlanta. If your job is in another southern suburb, you are in good shape. If your job is downtown, you have a so-so commute. But if your job moves to a northern suburb your commute is even longer than it would be if you lived downtown.

Such pairing of jobs and housing will shape the suburban future and represents among the easiest ways to cut transportation-related emissions. Even more promising has been the continuing rise in home-based employment. According to Forrester Research, roughly 34 million Americans now commute at least part time from home; by 2016 these numbers are predicted to swell upwards to 63 million.

According to the Census Bureau, only 4 percent of Americans work at home.

I think their statistics are a tiny bit more reliable than Forrester Research.

Oddly, despite these tremendous potential environmental benefits, the shift toward cyberspace has elicited little support from smart-growth advocates. Indeed most reports on density and greenhouse gases virtually ignore the consideration of telecommuting and dispersed work.

One reason may be that telecommuting breaks with the prevailing planning and green narratives by making dispersion more feasible. The ability to work full time or part time from home, notes one planning expert, expands metropolitan “commuter sheds” to areas well outside their traditional limits. In exchange for a rural or exurban lifestyle, this new commuter—who may go in to “work” only one or two days a week—will endure the periodic extra long trip to the office.

Yet although it may offend planning sensibilities, the potential energy savings—particularly in vehicle miles traveled—could be enormous. Telecommuters drive less, naturally; on telecommuting days, average vehicle miles are between 53 percent and 77 percent lower. Overall a 10 percent increase in telecommuting over the next decade will reduce 45 million tons of greenhouse gases, while also dramatically cutting office construction and energy use. Only an almost impossibly large shift to mass transit could produce comparable savings.

Ultimately, technology will undermine much of the green case against suburbia. If we really want to bring about a greener era, focusing attention on low-density enclaves would bring change that conforms to the preferences of the vast majority of people.

Oh yes, the old “technology will mean suburbia will be more desirable” line. But if that’s true, how come urban life has become more popular as technology has continued to improve? ).

Think Twice Before You Act

Ultimately, the war against suburbia reflects a radical new vision of American life which, in the name of community and green values, would reverse the democratizing of the landscape that has characterized much of the past 50 years. It would replace a political economy based on individual aspiration and association in small communities, with a more highly organized, bureaucratic, and hierarchical form of social organization.

In some ways we could say forced densification could augur in a kind of new feudalism, where questions of land ownership and decision making would be shifted away from citizens, neighbors, or markets, and left in the hands of self-appointed “betters.” This seems strange for an administration—and a party—whose raison d’être ostensibly has been to widen opportunities rather than constrict them.

Kotkin assumes that any step towards smarter growth will be the result of more centralized government. But there is no reason to believe this is so. The growth of urban life despite NIMBY resistance from people who already live in cities, and the growth of more pedestrian-friendly, new urbanist suburban communities, shows that the markets actually want a change from the suburban status quo.

Indeed it is one of the oddest aspects of contemporary “progressive” thought that it seeks to undermine even modest middle class aspirations such as living in a quiet neighborhood or a single-family house. This does not seem a winning way to build political support across a broad spectrum of the populace.

Of course suburbia is not and will not be the option for everyone. There will continue to be a significant, perhaps even growing, segment of the population which opts for a dense urban lifestyle or, for that matter, to live further in the countryside. But unless we see a radical change in human behavior and social organization, the majority will likely settle for a suburban or exurban existence.

Given these realities, it seems more practical not to work against such aspirations but instead to evolve intelligent policies that would reconcile them with our long-term environmental needs. Suburbanites like their suburbs but would also like to find a way to make them greener as well as more economically and socially viable.

This is exactly what smart growth is all about: not to eliminate suburbs, but to make suburbs more compact, pedestrian-friendly, and thus greener. Kotkin wants to have it both ways: he was for greener suburbs before he was against them (or maybe vice versa).

Right now neither party has developed such an agenda, and so the suburbs, now clearly leaning right, remain up to grabs. To win suburbanites over, politicians first have to respect th basic preferences while offering a realistic program for improvement. This remains a key to building a sustainable electoral majority, not just for the next election, but for the decades to come.

Joel Kotkin is a Distinguished Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University in Orange, California, and an adjunct fellow at the Legatum Institute in London. He is author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, which will be published by Penguin in February.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Florida Coastal School of Law in Jacksonville, FL, where he teaches a seminar on sprawl and the law (as well as numerous other courses).


MLewyn's picture

A slight error

Brown gained 16 points over the McCain vote statewide, not 11. However, the gap between his Boston gain and his statewide gain is sufficiently minor that, in my view, the point stands.


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