My personal feeling about suburbs is not equivocal.
Rural is brilliant, the original creation, natural unspoiled environment and its organic evolution to include grazing and arable land for crops.
Urban is just as noble. The aggregation of business and labor together in a more efficiently organized society. Cities also evolved, organically around ports and hubs of trade and represent the extent of human achievement.
Suburbs are artificially created residential districts purposefully situated outside of cities, close enough to commute (although completely dependent on the automobile), but with more light and space like nature, in order to have it both ways. But really they have neither. They’re “communities” in name only with the only common denominator for its inhabitants being a desire for more privacy, space and safety – indeed the opposite of a community. Suburbs are a netherland that evoke alienation from the urban, the rural and their own neighbors. We can say now after 80 or so years of development that the impact of their sprawl on the land, energy consumption, water consumption, transportation and air pollution and a dozen other items have all been negative.
I don’t like them. We’d all be better off if they’d never developed.
But they did and we have to live with, and learn from, the consequences.
Matt O’Brien in the Atlantic asks Are the Suburbs Where the American Dream Goes to Die? as he unpacks research showing that upward mobility, which has taken a hit in America over the last few decades, is stronger in densely populated areas.
So why does a kid from the bottom fifth in the South or the Rust Belt have such a hard time making it to the top fifth? It’s not how progressive local taxes are. Or the cost of college. Or how unequal a place is. At least not much. The research team of Raj Chetty and Nathanial Hendren of Harvard and Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez of the University of California-Berkeley found that these factors only correlated slightly with a region’s social mobility. What seems to matter more is the amount of sprawl, the number of two-parent households, the quality of elementary and high schools, and how involved people are in things like religious and community groups.
So sprawl has negative effects on upward mobility, at the same time that it also has to take a hit in the debate about the American obesity epidemic, in a separate article How Sprawl Makes Fighting Childhood Obesity So Much Harder.
If I were a parent in Loudoun County, I’d be upset, too. Growth there has essentially been a leapfrog pattern of automobile-dependent sprawl since the county began transforming from farmland to new suburbs a couple of decades ago. It’s the usual mix of wide arterial roads, connectors with no sidewalks, and randomly placed cul-de-sac subdivisions.
School sprawl has been part of the pattern, too, with large campuses placed at a distance from most students and their families. Check out the locations of three Loudoun County schools on the satellite map above: they have all been placed on former farmland just beyond the reach of sprawling new subdivisions. And please don’t think I’m picking on Loudoun County; this is the case all over suburban America.
While the reasons for the dramatic increase in childhood obesity surely are many and complex, one of them is reduced physical activity. Walkable schools could help.
The article lists a number of good suggestions for suburban school development that it would just be prudent to follow.
Getting back to the economic issues of mobility, there is a differential between certain low density suburbs with little mass transit and higher density suburbs where mass transit was seemingly ignored in the planning stages. I think history shows that it was purposefully ignored, for a reason. And that’s how we get to race.
This brings us to the story of Robert Moses, the master planner of New York, whose biography by award winning biographer Robert Caro, “The Power Broker”, (written before his tomes about LBJ) is a tremendously informative read that I highly recommend. If you don’t know who Moses was, in short, he was responsible for almost all of the highways and bridges built in the New York City area from the 20s through the 60s. His sphere of influence expended across the country but he was well known as the most powerful man in NYC. He was an autocratic megalomaniac who also happened to be racist (and an anti-semite, despite his own Jewish background).
He quite famously hated mass transportation and loved automobiles. Thus he can take almost single handed credit for the development of Nassau and Suffolk counties on Long Island as suburbs of NYC through the building of the Long Island Expressway, Grand Central Parkway and most of the arteries that allowed New Yorkers to spread out to Long Island and transform it from mostly farming and fishing to the first and biggest suburb of a major city.
In constructing certain of the east-west roads that had to cut across north-south cross traffic, he personally designed overpasses that would not accommodate buses. He deliberately did this to keep people who did not own cars (read: black people) from ever being able to access his vision of a lily white Long Island.
That kind of thinking informed the development of suburbs in many places.
Now, it’s not that suburbs outside the South and Rust Belt are some kind of integrated utopia — far, far from it — but rather that density changes things. Well-off whites who work in the city and live close by have an interest in paying for the kind of public goods, like mass transit, that benefit everybody. Well-off whites who live far away don’t. Atlanta, of course, is the prototypical case here:going back to the 1970s, it’s under-invested in public transit, because car-driving suburbanites haven’t wanted to pay for something they think only poor blacks would use (to come, they fear, to their lily-white cul-de-sacs).
Thomas Jefferson was a genius, but wrong about his vision of an agrarian utopia for America. Whereas Hamilton was wrong about a lot but his vision of cities as the economic heart of the country was right.
Over time, as people left the countryside for the cities during the Industrial Revolutions, this vision morphed: it became a nostalgia for (and even snobbery of) small towns. It’s a vision that Republicans still cling to. Remember when Sarah Palin talked about “real America“? Or when Republicans warned that high-speed rail and bike lanes were some kind of socialist plot? It’s a vision of America at odds with the American Dream today.