Reviewing A Review of "The End of the Suburbs"

MLewyn's picture

In the Wall Street Journal, Joel Kotkin pans Leigh Gallagher's "The End of the Suburbs."  Generally, I don't consider a fight about whether cities or suburbs are winning the future to be of much interest; in reality, there are growing cities and growing suburbs, just as there are declining cities and declining suburbs.  However, Kotkin does raise a number of points which I think are worthy of discussion.

Kotkin claims that suburbia is still ascendant because "Four out of five prospective home buyers in the U.S. prefer single-family houses, according to a 2011 survey conducted by the National Association of Realtors and the advocacy group Smart Growth America."

But "single-family homes" and "suburban sprawl" are not the same thing.  Much of the United States, both inside and outside the limits of major cities, is dotted with 1920s streetcar and commuter-train suburbs.  These communities tend to quite walkable; they usually have grid systems and are close to shops and public transit- yet they have an ample supply of single-family homes.  For example, in Great Neck (a wealthy suburb of New York City) almost three-fourth of housing units are single-family detached houses- but 30 percent of people use public transit to get to work, and the town's Walkscore is 75.  Even outside metro New York, there are plenty of walkable homeowner-oriented places.  For example, in Atlanta's Ansley Park neighborhood, most dwellings outside one or two main streets are single-family homes, yet the neighborhood has a Walkscore of 75.

Kotkin writes that "some American urban centers, most notably New York, San Francisco and Washington, have experienced modest population growth over the past decade or two, although still well below the national average. And even in these cities, there are many neighborhoods that sophisticated urbanites wouldn't really want to set foot in. In newly hip, and now increasingly expensive, Brooklyn, nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line. "

Kotkin isn't wrong on his facts- but I can't help wondering, if Brooklyn didn't have a 25 percent poverty rate, would he be celebrating this fact?  Or would he be complaining that frou-frou gentrification is pushing the poor out? 

Then Kotkin tries to predict the future, asserting that when millenials have children, "they will start to seek out single-family houses in lower-density areas."  To which I respond: First, the growth of the 0-5 population in most major cities suggest that this may no longer be the case.  Second, if they leave why doesn't Kotkin think they are will be replaced by more millenials?

Kotkin then beats the drum of families, asserting that "High-density cities repel families." First of all, even if he's right, the number of childless Americans and empty-nesters has grown dramatically over time.  In 1960, half of all households had children under 18; now, this number has fallen to under 30 percent. Thus, the market for urban life has grown.  Second, low-density cities aren't that much more successful (unless they happen to have warm weather or a booming job market); for example, Cleveland lost over 20 percent of its 0-5 year olds between 2000 and 2010.

I actually agree with Kotkin that predictions of the "death of the suburbs" are overblown.  (In fact, Gallagher herself writes that she doesn't literally mean what her title implies).  But nevertheless, we aren't in the 1970s anymore: in those days, many cities were dominated by low-rent districts.  Today, cities are (to some extent) recovering.


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