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Book Review: Steven Conn: Americans Against the City: Anti-Urbanism in the Twentieth Century

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Above: The New Deal experimental town of Greendale, Wisconsin

Steven Conn’s smart, witty, and even funny book is an excellent overview of how a deep mistrust of cities and strong anti-urbanism among urban planners themselves shaped American urban policy through the twentieth century. This is an important addition to the literature on urban history. It’s also worth a read from a general audience interested in urban issues in the present.

Conn argues the purpose of book is to describe the relationship between the physical and political landscape as they develop in the 20th century. The former is the suburbanized landscape of much of metropolitan America; the latter is the deep suspicion of government and the role it should play in our lives that shapes our political discourse. The two are connected by the anti-urbanism at the core of American life and infrastructure. City planning has largely assumed that density is a dangerous problem that needs a solution of low-density sprawling housing that recreates country living or small towns where they believe democracy originates. With density classified as a problem, both urban theorists and government policy promoted fixing said problem, with long-term results that shape our urban problems today.

Nineteenth-century America was full of anti-urban fears, going back to Jefferson and before. But the explosive growth of the city after the Civil War forced a rethinking of American urbanism. During the Progressive Era, early planners and intellectuals had an urban moment. Conn looks at Chicago, that prototype of American urbanism, where Jane Addams and her colleagues were studying urban conditions to improve the lives of residents, looking at the city from the sidewalks. On the other hand, Daniel Burnham was designing a futuristic city in his Plan for Chicago from 30,000 feet that was largely devoid of real people. But Conn argues both Addams and Burnham saw the city as a site where moral exhortation could no longer handle the urban crisis. Rather, public policy and an activist government would be necessary. Reorganizing space rather than moral reform was necessary. The city became a public rather than a private issue.

But almost immediately, the plans to solve urban problems revolved around reducing their density by decentralizing the city. Lewis Mumford is the most famous decentralist, a child of the city who first tried to establish low-density model housing in Queens through his Sunnyside Gardens project (surprisingly not mentioned by Conn) and who ended up moving to the Hudson Valley. Conn discusses other key figures in this movement such as Ralph Borsodi and his experiments moving people out of Dayton, where he hoped a small village with no government interference would provide a model for the future. Frank Lloyd Wright loathed cities. Like Borsodi, Mumford, Catherine Bauer, and others, he hoped to restore democratic community to a nation dominated by dangerous cities. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was influenced by such thinkers. An anti-urbanist himself, the Tennessee Valley Authority may have provided the power for the growth of southern urbanism, but his New Deal planners hoped to create their own small villages through the greenbelt town project and the TVA model towns like Norris, Tennessee. Conn quotes liberally from commenters of the time about what these towns provided. What provided the good life to Americans was air and grass and sunlight in the open country, the opposite of the dirty, grungy, dense, polyglot city. Longing for a reversal of industrial capitalism into a romanticized vision of agrarian life was more palatable to these planners than reconfiguring the cities to make them work better for the residents. Of course, none of these experiments actually created some new sort of democratic anti-urban paradise. Mostly, they all ended up failing entirely or just became suburbs not too different than other suburbs.

At the heart of most of these plans was a romanticized idea of the values of the small town and countryside that often belied their reality. At the same time that rural New England was deeply impoverished in the first half of the twentieth century, urban theorists dreamed of the area’s villages and their supposedly democratic politics as an antidote to the big, filthy, impoverished, crime-ridden city. This would influence post-war urban planing as well.

We often think of postwar suburbanization as a story fundamentally about white flight and race. It is, but that racism just amplified and built upon the already existing anti-urban bias to create the postwar suburban landscape. Of course, the creation of the suburbs did not just take tax dollars and jobs away from the inner cities, leaving African-Americans in deep poverty, but the interstates that shuttled white people to and from the cities ran straight through black neighborhoods, usually more for reasons of the path of least resistance that overt targeting of black people. But as they tore up black housing, these planners added to the urban housing problems that fed the need for urban renewal instead of seeking to help the problem. Conn calls urban renewal “a conceptual failure, a failure of ideas and imagination,” which started with demolition of housing and at its core was run by people who found density a problem. Of course, dilapidated housing was also a major problem in American cities and that needed attention. But while urban renewal created public housing projects, when those became all-black because of white flight, they were nearly doomed to failure because of the lack of a funding mechanism for upkeep. As urban renewal developed in the 1950s, the cities became spaces where the public good was set at odds with private interests and the latter won. By the 1970s, these plans had sent the cities into the greatest crisis they had ever faced. Seventy-five years of urban planning had not fixed the cities. It had destroyed them. Ultimately that’s because those planning them never liked cities.

Of course, not every city declined in those years. The Sunbelt exploded. So did a few northern cities that already lacked a strong urban core based around heavy industry, like Indianapolis and Columbus. Those cities became geographically huge with very low density. Houston’s zoning-free urbanism and hatred of government interference led to a huge traffic nightmare, deep racial segregation, major pollution problems, and a emphasis on private property rights over any competing ideology. For Columbus, where Conn lives and teaches, this model seemed appealing. Columbus began annexing huge tracts of land in the 1950s, creating one of the most auto-reliant cities in the nation. In addition, Columbus is a city without any identity, or as Conn says, “After the Second World War, Columbus transformed itself from a small, compact nineteenth-century midwestern city into a sprawling Sunbelt-style metropolis, but along the way it lost track of its soul.” (226) By the 1970s, real concern over urban sprawl began to influence urban planners to some extent, but for those who took it seriously, ideas like New Urbanism that came into vogue in the 1990s did not solve the problem of anti-density.

Today, the United States is witnessing arguably the first overtly pro-urban period in its history. It is happening upon an urban landscape that has suffered from a century of anti-urban policies. That has led to housing shortages, gentrification, and escalating rental prices. The few downtown neighborhoods that escaped urban renewal have become incredibly costly. Public transportation lags. The anti-urban impulse is baked into the Republican Party’s DNA, with opposition to public transportation and other programs that would encourage density. Building an urbanism that is inclusive, affordable, and sustainable needs to be a national priority. It is not, even as the demand for this style of living has exploded. Conn believes that the community so many urban planners have sought in the small town and the suburb actually is found in the city. That’s true, but only if we can reshape urban policy to facilitate the infrastructure necessary for dense urbanism to thrive. That’s our challenge. Understanding the roots of the present problem is key to reshaping our cities. Conn’s interesting work can help us on that journey.

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  • Russell Arben Fox

    Thanks for the review, Erik; this book has been sitting on my desk for about four or five months, and I’ve been trying to find the time to read it ever since. Your comments here just increase my interest; for example, that Mumford was a decentralist, and FDR had Jeffersonian longings, were things I knew–but if Conn develops an anti-urbanism-in-America thesis which links both of them theoretically together, that may teach me something I didn’t know before.

    • djw

      Yeah, thinking about anti-urbanism as a long American tradition, rather than a few different ones, is an interesting thought experiment. I’d add 19c Southern anxiety (not wholly unjustified) about the capacity for city life to undermine the peculiar institution, which has an interesting, partially conflicting partially complementary relationship to Jefferson’s anti-urbanism.

    • The Lorax

      Is the title referencing Intellectuals Against the City by philosopher Morton White?

  • Cheerful

    Every generation of architects reacts against the one before. 19th Century and early 20th Century city housing could be pretty terrible places to live – inadequate sanitation, lack of parks, noisy, cramped. But the possibility of improving on those places as opposed to abandoning them did not seem to occur to some people.

    At least in the U.S. I was impressed the first time I saw Rotterdam, where a large chunk of the downtown was bombed to pieces by the Luftwaffe in WWII and the residents took the opportunity to build a downtown, with innovative residential buildings, that really works. It’s not super high density, like Manhattan or Hong Kong, but at least as dense as what was there before, but now with residential buildings that have light, space and visual interest.

    • But the possibility of improving on those places as opposed to abandoning them did not seem to occur to some people.

      They just couldn’t picture cities that weren’t dirty, that didn’t have severe crowding (multiple families in each apartment), that didn’t have polluted rivers. They thought those features were innate in urban levels of density and activity, at least inescapable in the industrial era.

      The important intellectual work of modern urbanism is about disaggregation. Walkable densities aren’t the same as crowding. Diversity of incomes and ethnicities isn’t the same as crime. Intensity of use isn’t the same as trampling.

  • N__B

    Another issue: some of the people who liked cities had terrible ideas. Corbusier and his allies gave us the “towers in a park” paradigm, which might have been well intentioned but is death to the street life and sense of place that make cities interesting. Corbu’s fingerprints are on every high-rise housing project.

    • West

      I’d argue that Corbu hated cities, and hated the people who lived in them. What he loved was his own clean pure vision, and he would have loved to impose it upon every city he could have gotten his hands on. Have you ever seen his proposed plan for Paris? No one who likes cities could ever think of doing such a thing to any existing city, let alone Paris. Shit, the friggin Nazis weren’t contemplating doing that (at least, not that I’ve seen – maybe I’ve missed something).

      You’re absolutely right about Corbu’s fingerprints being on every high rise housing project. The architects who built them were pretty explicit in referencing Corbu. The clients who ordered up those housing projects also pretty clearly disdained (or worse) the residents who would live in them. As for the architecture, I suspect the average mayor ordering up a high rise project was thinking to himself “Corbu Schmorbu – it’ll be cheap as hell to build!”

      • Karen24

        Didn’t Corbu want to prohibit residents in his buildings from even adding house plants or curtains? Those few buildings of his I’ve seen have their highest and best uses as sets for dystopian future movies — the nightmare villages imposed by the Evil Powerful Them.

      • N__B

        I’d argue that Corbu hated cities, and hated the people who lived in them.

        I agree. His propaganda, however, was that he loved cities and was intent on perfecting them.

        Have you ever seen his proposed plan for Paris?

        Saw it, read the text, played with dolls, projectile vomited over the model.

        I suspect the average mayor ordering up a high rise project was thinking to himself “Corbu Schmorbu – it’ll be cheap as hell to build!”

        Caro was merciless on the appeal of those buildings to Moses. Cost and nothing else, and who cares if they’re terrible; since those people will live there.

        • Vance Maverick

          People often talk as though the influence of Corbusier was underhanded as well as pernicious — that is, as though he used his prestige to lead planners and architects astray. But how did he earn that prestige, except through advocating exactly what he led people to? I think people liked what he was selling, and to the extent he was wrong, it was a shared error. If he was selling Ronchamp and delivering the Unite d’habitation, that would be another matter, but he seems to have done both, for different cases.

        • wjts

          For those unfamiliar with Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin, details are here. I wouldn’t have thought it would be possible to make Paris uglier, but damned if he didn’t find a way! And his hatred for cities is admirably expressed in the text:

          The street consists of a thousand different buildings, but we have got used to the beauty of ugliness for that has meant making the best of our misfortune. Those thousand houses are dingy and utterly discordant one with another. It is appalling, but we pass on our way. On Sundays, when they are empty, the streets reveal their full horror. But except during those dismal hours men and women are elbowing their way along them, the shops are ablaze, and every aspect of human life pullutates throughout their length. Those who have eyes in their heads can find plenty to amuse them in this sea of lusts and faces. It is better than the theatre, better than what we read in novels.

          Nothing of all this exalts us with the joy that architecture provokes. There is neither the pride which results from order, nor the spirit of initiative which is engendered by wide spaces … only pitying compassion born of the shock of encountering the faces of our fellows; and the realization of what the English call the “hard labour” of our own lives.

          As regards the supposed ugliness of a thousand discordant houses, well, I refute it thus.

          • There is neither the pride which results from order, nor the spirit of initiative which is engendered by wide space

            Wow, that could be Albert Speer.

          • Tyro

            As regards the supposed ugliness of a thousand discordant houses, well, I refute it thus.

            That picture is discordant to my eyes. However, we do not live in cities from a distant vantage point. We live in them from the POV of the streets and sidewalks, which they look better and are more functional to us.

            Architecture has ended up becoming a subfield of sculpture with buildings to be admired rather than functional, reusable spaces for people.

            • Lee Rudolph

              As regards the supposed ugliness of a thousand discordant houses, well, I refute it thus.

              That picture is discordant to my eyes.

              My understanding of wjts’s meaning was that that photo of Pittsburgh, whether or not it is discordant, is not ugly.

              • wjts

                Right. And, contra Tyro, that’s a view that many folks in Pittsburgh will see every day, travelling down the Boulevard of the Allies or I-376 and looking to the south. And (more importantly), contra Le Corbusier, it’s a very pleasant environment in which to live.

            • That picture is discordant to my eyes. However, we do not live in cities from a distant vantage point. We live in them from the POV of the streets and sidewalks, which they look better and are more functional to us.

              And the opposite is true, too: an urban form that looks sleek and graceful from a distant vantage – Brasilia, for example – is likely to be a nightmare to actually walk around in.

              Some high-rise cityscapes – downtown Boston’s, for example – are an exception to this rule, because they look like a sleek, cohesive, large-scale grand view from a distance, but are nicely varied on a human scale when you’re on the sidewalk.

              • N__B

                I’ve been on a number of very long walks through places where I wasn’t really meant to walk. The worst, by far, was from the hotel zone of Brasilia to the university.

                • It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…it’s…it’s…SuperFlorida!

                • sonamib

                  One of the stupidest things about Brasilia is the total segregation of uses. As you say, N_B, there’s a hotel zone. As in, when you stay in a hotel in Brasilia, the only buildings in your immediate neighborhood, the only places you can walk to, are other hotels. Everywhere else is totally unwalkable. Some very smart urban planning right there.

                • Ronan

                  On the topic of Brazil, A friend living in Sao Paulo was saying that there’s no rhyme or reason to large parts of the city. I was questioning whether this was an example of some class of emergent spontaneous self organised chaos, and he was saying it’s basically just chaos.

                  Brasilia was built by the military regime right? As their showcase of a modern Brazil?

                • wjts

                  No, during the Kubitschek presidency in the fifties, prior to the coup, as part of a plan to modernize Brazil.

                • sonamib

                  Yep, we can blame Kubitschek for Brasilia. It was part of the grand plan to populate the west of Brazil.

                • sonamib

                  And Ronan, I’ll take São Paulo’s chaos any day over the orderly hellscape of Brasilia. São Paulo does have its Brasilia-like spaces (like the Avenida 23 de maio) but it also has some nice neighborhoods.

                • Ronan

                  He wasn’t really saying it negatively , just he found it..peculiar and disorientating (having said that , when I was writing the comment I wasn’t sure if it was Sao paolo he was talking about or somewhere else. Does it sound like Sao Paolo?)

                • sonamib

                  It does sound like São Paulo. Maybe Rio de Janeiro, but Rio does have the beach and the hills to give it a rhyme and a reason.

        • Ken

          His propaganda, however, was that he loved cities and was intent on perfecting them.

          “But before ve can perfect the cities, ve must perfect the people who vill live in them.”

                 – Marvel super-villain template #4

          (Actually, given the “thousand discordant houses” quote, IT from A Wrinkle in Time is also an acceptable answer.)

          • wjts

            (Actually, given the “thousand discordant houses” quote, IT from A Wrinkle in Time is also an acceptable answer.)

            Heh. Though I think you’ve got Baron Strucker’s* Le Corbusier’s model backwards: once we perfect the cities, perfection of the populace will inevitably follow – FOR THEY WILL HAVE NO CHOICE!

            *You can’t tell me there’s not a resemblance.

      • “A house is a machine for living in,” but cars…now, cars were the glittering sparkles that gave the city its energy and beauty.

        Le Corbusier’s idea of the city was profoundly twisted.

        ETA – and as Vance says, it was twisted in a quite common, popular manner. Rather than being an iconoclast, he took what was already common to its ultimate end.

      • LeeEsq

        Corbusier’s tower in park idea seemed liked a slightly more urban version of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Broadacre city idea.

  • Matt McIrvin

    In 1977, Co-Evolution Quarterly came out with a book of essays and debates on space colonies, inspired by the NASA studies of the subject that were done around that time and the L5 Society’s advocacy. In 2009, James Nicoll did a series of LiveJournal posts informally reviewing the book, with ensuing discussion.

    A theme that came up over and over in it was this intense anti-urbanism. The studies and conceptual art always imagined the space-colony interiors as green leafy places containing something that looked like low-density California suburbs. The space colonies were a place people could move to escape the teeming anthills of Earth. The article by Paolo Soleri (the founder of Arcosanti) was something of an exception, but it also came across as completely unhinged word salad.

    • Linnaeus

      That got me thinking of Isaac Asimov’s The Caves of Steel and the opposition between the low-density “Spacer” worlds and a heavily urbanized, overcrowded Earth.

    • sonamib

      Low-density in space? That seems wrong, when we look at the ISS, it looks cramped as hell. And it was very expensive to build. Sending stuff into space is so expensive, I don’t really see how anyone could afford the luxury of having thousands of square feet to themselves.

  • West

    Thanks for the review, you’ve prompted me to get it.
    Amongst other things, I’ve very curious to see what the author does with the New Urbanism. Your quick take of:

    ideas like New Urbanism that came into vogue in the 1990s did not solve the problem of anti-density.

    I feel that understates it. To some degree, in most of the specific developments actually built, the New Urbanists have been anti-urban. I’ve felt from the get-go of that movement that their name is dishonest. They should call themselves the Retro-Suburbanists. I completely grant that their developments, where built, have been an improvement over stock suburbia. But they explicitly harken back to the streetcar suburbs of the 1920s and they are (mostly) still building suburbs. And while their retro suburbs are indeed denser than the typical stock suburb, they most have often been built on green fields removed at some distance from the nearest town – better to have full control over the architectural vision (see Southern Village to the south of Chapel Hill NC, e.g., which looks really good btw). Seaside Village, the backdrop for “Truman”, is the ultimate example of this. The New Urbanists tout Seaside as their ultimate glory. It is utterly not at all urban, so much so that it made the perfect backdrop for that surreal story.

    There have been a few efforts infused with New Urbanist ideas that are much more legitimately urban: the CityWest HOPE VI redevelopment on the west side of Cincinnati comes to mind, and would be a good counter-argument to what I’m asserting here. Putting the New Urbanist planning scheme into place there (and it was specifically named as such there) depended upon having a full neighborhood tear-down opportunity upon which to start over with a clean slate. So a prior instance of severely failed urbanism was replaced by something that is vastly nicer looking and better quality, and not so suburban-ish as the typical New Urbanist development. But it was another tear-down and rebuild effort; while better done than the prior episode of tear-down / rebuild that had resulted in the Lincoln Homes and Laurel Homes projects, it’s still not the right way for an urban place to evolve.

    But, some counter-examples aside, I’d still assert that the so-called New Urbanists are mostly retro suburbanists, and as such are improving the quality of new suburbs but are still firmly within the anti-urban trend line.

    Having kicked over a hornet’s nest, I’ll see if I can manage to stay offline until lunch time.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Wasn’t James Howard Kunstler one of the early big names in the movement? His apocalyptic visions these days always imagine the big cities being destroyed forever, and something like New England small towns as the community of the post-collapse future.

      • Russell Arben Fox

        James Howard Kunstler one of the early big names in the movement?

        As I wrote just below, he was one of the participants at the conference, and you’re right–he thinks that only small communities with access to arable land and the ability to create local patterns of commerce are likely to survive climate change. He just doesn’t think developing a suite of homes and offices around green parkways are going to get you there, because he thinks that still treats land as a decorative and civic-enhancing asset, not as an actual local resource.

        • Matt McIrvin

          It strikes me as an odd claim, since huge cities existed in the preindustrial era, and huge cities exist in places where income is low enough that petroleum is effectively very expensive.

        • UserGoogol

          I haven’t been paying much attention to him lately so maybe he’s changed his tune, but his apocalyptic ideas seem to be focused around peak oil instead of climate change. Which is an important distinction to draw, there’s no particular reason to think small towns are more adaptable to global warming (I’d guess the opposite is true, since autarky means putting all your eggs in one basket) but he thinks we’ll have to roll back much of the industrial revolution once cheap energy goes away.

      • rea

        His apocalyptic visions these days always imagine the big cities being destroyed forever, and something like New England small towns as the community of the post-collapse future.

        So: (1) Climate change leading to the destruction of cities and collapse of civilization. (2) ????? (3) urban planning creates small towns?

        • He’s arguing that urban planning needs to create small towns now, not at the end of the process, so we’ll be resilient enough to survive the collapse of civilization as we know it.

          • rea

            How does he propose to make them economically viable (or get anyone to want to live there) before the collapse of c. a. w. k. i.?

            • The types of towns he describes are a lot like New Urbanist suburbs, which have proven to be quite desirable and economically successful.

        • Matt McIrvin

          I think his idea was more that a breakdown of transport networks caused by a Peak Oil crisis would make it impossible to ship enough food in to feed the cities, and they’d starve out, whereas communities with nearby land for subsistence farming would survive. I think he literally imagines the world suddenly knocked back to animal-drawn carts and hand labor, which, if it happened overnight, would certainly depopulate the cities. But I’m not convinced they wouldn’t re-emerge in a different form with the remnant population left after most of humanity died off.

          • rea

            In the first century AD, Rome had a population of more than a million, and was shipping wheat in from Egypt and the Black Sea to feed the city. You don’t necessarily need a petroleum-based economy to pull off urbanization.

          • KadeKo

            Without oil at the current supply, what kind of upheaval will there be in the monoculture grain basket of the Midwest and plains, to say nothing of the animal factories where that output largely goes?

    • Yeah, he does talk about New Urbanism a good deal and I just figured this post was long enough. I think you basically agree with Conn on it. I don’t have the book in front of me, but I think he calls it “Small Town-ism” or something like that.

      • West

        I like that formulation, too. Looking forward to the book.

    • But it was another tear-down and rebuild effort; while better done than the prior episode of tear-down / rebuild that had resulted in the Lincoln Homes and Laurel Homes projects, it’s still not the right way for an urban place to evolve.

      This is certainly true as a rule of thumb that cities shouldn’t evolve that way, but those urban renewal-era projects were so poisonous that radical surgery was necessary. There was just no way to evolve those things in most cases.

      • West

        I agree with you 100% in many cases. My prior employer was the developer for most of the HOPE VI phases in Cinci that I referenced. I was in some of the old units before demolition and yes, the buildings and the layout of the neighborhood was unsalvageable. I can name at least a half dozen other similar cases where you’re correct about the radical surgery.

        However, I did visit one housing authority that we bid on (and didn’t get) and my thought was, “why the fuck are they proposing to tear down THIS? Both the building itself and how it fits into the area is salvageable!!” So sometimes HOPE VI has been taken too far; not so often though, I concede that.

        There’s also the whole issue of how the physical radical surgery on housing units and neighborhoods has played out on existing tenants. I think the answer varies across cities and households (duh, right?). Some returning residents have benefitted greatly, some resident who took the mobile Section 8 option also benefitted greatly, … but,… some existing residents fell through the cracks. Or got screwed. It’s an uneven outcome. There are some truly great success stories and there are some justifiably bitter people out there, and in between there are some people whose socio-economic situation is in all other regards unchanged (but they do have much better housing, which is definitely huge).

  • Russell Arben Fox

    while their retro suburbs are indeed denser than the typical stock suburb, they most have often been built on green fields removed at some distance from the nearest town

    There are,as you admit, plenty of counter-examples to this, West, but I don’t think you’re fundamentally wrong. At a recent conference I attended, with presentations given by people like Catherine Tumber and James Howard Kuntsler, one of the primary upshots was that even New Urbanist vision still orients itself heavily around pedestrian-friendly green spaces–which is, of course, a good thing, but it also requires a fairly comprehensive use of land at the planning stage, which interferes with actual organic development, which is where the real willingness to walk is more likely to emerge. New Urbanism, important a movement as it has mostly been, has really been more about faux-density and walkability rather than allowing for the real article, or at least such was the conclusions I heard.

  • JMV Pyro

    Interesting. Thanks for putting this on my radar.

    Veering off a bit into one of your areas of expertise, the more I’ve gotten into American environmentalism, the more I’ve began to notice that it’s got an undercurrent of anti-urbanism running through it, especially on the fringes(looking at you, Kunstler and Greer.) Given that urbanization is showing no signs of slowing down even with climate change and the fact that cities are almost always more diverse then the type of rural living this subset of environmentalists are glorifying, this whole “go back to the glorious agrarian past” line of thought always struck me as really out of touch and privileged.

    Given that you’re definitely way more in tune with the intellectual history of environmentalism then I am, I was wondering if you could shed some light on this? Maybe even point me towards some writers that have written about it? It’s something that’s been interesting me about environmentalism a lot lately.

    • Matt McIrvin

      I think you can understand it if you think about the environmental disaster areas that large US cities were before the regulatory reforms of the late 20th century. They may actually be the places where human beings can live with the smallest environmental footprint, but at the same time, they were where people came into the most intense and unhealthy direct contact with garbage, pollution and the rest of it.

      • Hogan

        Whereas now we have chemical fertilizer runoff, manure lagoons, bovine methane . . .

        • Matt McIrvin

          If you look at the US Midwest from an airplane you definitely get the sense of rural America as an intensely artificial landscape.

          • Lee Rudolph

            Rural everywhere (that I’ve been; principally, in this regard, France, Spain, and the US) is an intensely artificial landscape.

            • JMV Pyro

              That is something a lot of bucolics tend to miss.

              • In the absence of great masses of people living and doing business in non-rural settings, the rural countryside consists of clusters of villages with their own craft works and commercial centers and other features we associate with urbanism. The lone farm house with its fields, orchards, or meadows can only exist when almost everybody is living in towns and cities.

        • Now?

          The Chicago River used to be a manure lagoon from the cattle and pig yards.

          • Matt McIrvin

            Right in the city, whereas now these phenomena are more rural.

            • JMV Pyro

              Now that’s an interesting development.

          • Pat

            Wasn’t there a post about the tunnels in New York City where live cattle were herded to slaughter yards?

      • N__B

        You forgot horseshit. 2,500,000 pounds per day in NYC.

    • Certainly at the intellectual level, American environmentalism has always been quite anti-urban, whether we are talking about Thoreau or Muir or Bob Marshall or Aldo Leopold or any number of 1970s thinkers. But–and this is important–at the peak of American environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, it was actually quite an urban movement and not even per se a suburban movement. So the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and many other laws were about keeping the people and the cities livable and not just about protecting wilderness, although the Wilderness Act certainly was about that.

      Conn does touch on this slightly by discussing Benton MacKaye, who was involved in both the decentralist anti-urban movement and was a co-founder of the Wilderness Society. You might be interested in Paul Sutter’s Driven Wild, which is ostensibly about the movement to keep cars out of national parks, but which consists of 4 biographies of the Wilderness Society’s founders and which gets at this world, at least in the 1920s. Roderick Nash’s Wilderness and the American Mind is also a classic overview of these issues.

      • JMV Pyro

        Thanks for the suggestions. I’ll look into those.

        But–and this is important–at the peak of American environmentalism in the 1960s and 1970s, it was actually quite an urban movement and not even per se a suburban movement. So the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act and many other laws were about keeping the people and the cities livable and not just about protecting wilderness,

        Were these framed as environmentalist at the time or was it more of a public health/labor issue to the people passing it? I get the impression there was some type of coalition between the two groups in getting it passed.

        • Support for these laws were so widespread it’s hard to even call it a coalition. It was more an overwhelming desire to clean up the air and water of the nation that was rooted in postwar middle class consumerism.

    • shah8

      I’ll put this rrrriiiiiight here, as it’s topical to this subthread.

      http://marroninstitute.nyu.edu/uploads/content/Rise_of_Homevoters_Fischel_Feb16.pdf

  • Jake the antisoshul soshulist

    I grew up rural, but my father had an ironic term for the type of bourgeois-lite lifestyle that many still see as “the American Dream”.
    He would say that everybody wanted to live like “white folks”.
    The point made above about “white flight” is a good one.
    It is hard to question any individual’s desire to move out of
    urban density into a more livable area. But it seems no one had a vision of making density livable.
    Or if they did, it certainly did not gain any traction.

  • Wonderful, wonderful.

    I think it’s important to recognize that the 1990s represented a transition period. The solutions of that era were not complete, but they turned things around and pointed us in the right direction.

  • This sounds interesting. When I hear “anti-urbanism in America,” I think of Leo Marx’s The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America, which I never managed to finish and is probably not about the same thing, but I’ll put Conn’s book on my list.

  • LeeEsq

    Jefferson helped embed a notion that the real America is located in small towns and farmsteads. America’s sheer size and low population density makes it possible for American cities to contain a lot of single family housing. Booming sunbelt cities are more like collections of suburbs, although they are getting more dense, than what many people imagine a city to be. Even the older and denser cities have a lot of single family housing. The suburbs seem almost inevitable when you consider this.

  • Atrios

    The new urbanists were all about building new small towns, not cities. And there’s nothing wrong with small towns. In slightly different ways and because of slightly different policy choices Bedford Falls was also destroyed. But ultimately as long as your vision still involves one car per driving age household member (which even with a nice little walkable town center you need in these places), you aren’t going to succeed. You can’t have that much parking and walkability.

  • DAS

    Isn’t one of the reasons for the “anti-urbanism” of certain progressives (as well as one of the motivators of flight from the cities) the degree to which cities are seen as facilitating great inequality of wealth? After all, in a city, land is scarce and hence anything that depends on land (which is everything: any business needs space to exist) is subject to intense competition. In essence a city is really a libertarian paradise of competition for everything, and as you expect in a libertarian paradise, wealth inequality abounds. It should not be surprising that certain progressives rejected this.

    Moving to the suburbs has historically meant that a middle class family can afford to live a certain lifestyle unavailable to that family in the city: a house with some room, cheaper goods/services, etc. If cities are libertarian paradises, suburbs, made possible with huge government infrastructure subsidies and regulations such as zoning rules, are paradises for a government created (e.g. educated via GI bill funds) middle class.

    I think, though, now is a good time for a new progressive urbanism in part because inequality is really increasing within at least certain suburbs. For example, in the inner/middle ring suburbs of Northern NJ, it costs just about as much to purchase a 2-3 bedroom condo (not even a house, a condo!) in a good school district, low crime area (outside of a flood zone) as it does to purchase a 2-3 bedroom co-op in a fancy zip code (albeit at the edge of the zip code away from mass transit) in Central Queens. To buy a house, outside of a flood zone, bad school district or high crime area, is lately out of the reach of many otherwise middle class families.

    • Matt McIrvin

      Right now a lot of movement to the suburbs is definitely not so much white flight as “drive till you qualify”.

    • Vance Maverick

      The “libertarian paradise” angle seems to me bizarrely off-target (not least because libertarians demonstrably hate cities). Rather, the tug-of-war between the civic impulse for the common good and the acquisitive/exclusionary drive of wealth is more visible in the city, because it’s played out in a smaller space.

      • Atrios

        pretty sure almost all of the professional libertarians live in cities.

        • Vance Maverick

          But will they admit to approving of the ways cities are organized in practice?

        • Matt McIrvin

          But they spin fantasies about becoming rugged homesteaders off the grid.

          I mentioned space colonies above; you see a lot of this in science fiction as well. There’s a strong libertarian streak in the SF community, and they often imagine futures in which rugged individualists light out for the territory and settle wild planets while the cities of overpopulated Earth devolve into nightmarish disaster zones.

      • djw

        The “libertarian paradise” angle seems to me bizarrely off-target

        No kidding. What a bizzare claim.

  • NewishLawyer

    At 35, I have a lot of friends who are starting to have families. It is interesting to see which married with kids friends are starting to move the suburbs and which are fighting to stay in cities with all dear lives.

    Lee brings up a good point. The United States is simply a very big country. There might be good reasons for urbanization and urban living but it is hard sell in a country with a lot of space.

    My general observation is that cities and urban planners have a hard time making cities affordable or attractive to middle class families with children. This gives the impression (accurate or not) that cities are for the very wealthy, the very poor, and childless professionals especially young, childless professionals.

    A friend of mine in college grew up in NYU faculty housing. His mom worked at the Times and his dad was on NYU faculty. The apartment was two bedroom/one-bathroom. The parents put up a divider wall so my friend and his younger sister could have spaces of their own. Is this how middle-class families are going to need to live in cities? How do you get larger apartments? I think most people would consider it insane to live like that when you can have a nice suburban house.

    • I’d say an urbanist vision for family housing would look towards 2-4 bedroom row houses with either small individual yards or larger common spaces behind, in the center of the block, and front porches. The very large, multiple living rooms/family rooms would probably be out, but in a city as opposed to a suburb, you do more of your living in the city, as opposed to in your house.

      • DAS

        But is that enough population density to sustain mass transportation? That sounds very much like my nabe in Queens: we are dense enough that there is not nearly enough parking, but not dense enough that there is truly frequent, reliable and nearby mass transit.

        You can’t do your living in the city if it takes almost an hour to get to a city center (and that requiring a combination of bus and subway), a half an hour walk (or half an hour waiting for then taking mass transit) to get to your nearest “happening” area or a 10 minute walk to get to the nearest area with food and other shopping (and then you have to lug whatever you purchased on an equally long walk home) … unless you have a car. And once you have a car, why not move to the suburbs?

        Well, why not? To get back to NewishLawyer’s comment … while “cities and urban planners have a hard time making cities affordable or attractive to middle class families with children” is undoubtedly a true statement, it is now increasingly true that so-called middle class suburbs are increasingly only affordable for the wealthy.

        • NewishLawyer

          Which neighborhood in Queens? Are we talking a Jackson Heights or Hollis type of neighborhood? Corona or something more like Douglaston and Little Neck which might as well be part of Nassau County.

          • KadeKo

            Jackson Heights? Hey, it’s famous! From 1922, and the first radio ad:

            Friend, you owe it to yourself and your family to leave the congested city and enjoy what nature intended you to enjoy. Visit our new apartment homes in Hawthorne Court, Jackson Heights, where you may enjoy community life in a friendly environment.

        • Atrios

          Remove parking requirements and setbacks and you can get a lot of density with 3 story buildings (3 bedrooms, 1500 sq ft or so) and a smallish backyard. This is basically most of Philly. If I ran the zoo I’d upzone a bit more around major transit lines to allow taller buildings, but you don’t need tiny apartments to have sufficient density. You just need to remove the land use requirements for mostly pointless empty space.

        • NewishLawyer

          I think a big issue here is that the boomers bought a lot of the low-hanging inner-suburb fruit and they are not moving. Many of them are still working. There are some Generation Xers that manage to get the inner-ring suburban fruit. A lot of my college friends who are buying suburban homes seem to move to areas like the Hudson Valley or Pacifica and Daly City on the West Coast. Pacifica and Daly City used to be lower-middle class or even working class suburbs and now more professionals are moving in.

        • But is that enough population density to sustain mass transportation?

          It’s not meant to be the only housing style in a city, but the least-dense end of the spectrum. It’s enough population density to sustain mass transportation in that role, in combination with high-rise apartment buildings, low-rise apartment houses, mid-rise condos, mercantile buildings with residential units above storefronts, etc. Having a chunk of your residential units take that form won’t preclude economically-viable mass transit, even it won’t by itself be enough to support it.

          It’s meant to be mixed in with denser styles on housing (and, of course, commercial uses) on granularities ranging from the block to the neighborhood level.

          • sonamib

            Yes! You just described the neighborhood I live in. I can walk to 3 different metro stations in 10 minutes, so : dense enough for mass transit.

        • LeeEsq

          Transit is workable at about 5000 people per square mile. Many of the big German cities actually have population densities bellow 10,000 per square mile or at best slightly above it but still due transit much better than the Americans.

        • djw

          But is that enough population density to sustain mass transportation?

          Yes. (What Atrios said, esp. re parking requirements. See Philly, lots of European cities, etc)

      • NewishLawyer

        But there are a lot of people who don’t want that. A lot of Americans seemingly want private spaces. They want private backyards, not crowded public parks where you have to deal with the other families. The families blast music that you really dislike.

        To a certain extent, I think urbanists are trying to sell something that a lot of people don’t want. What if people don’t want to live in the city as opposed to their homes? How do you change this? By force? By coercion?

        I say this as someone who loves cities. Houses represent privacy. Living in the city as you mention it does not. I am a big fan of going to the cinema and going to the theatre and museums but I am a childless single guy who doesn’t need to deal with opportunity costs. There are seemingly a lot more people who think “Why should I deal with the hassle of going to a movie, dealing with rude people talking, when I can watch a movie in the comfort of my own home and on a big 40-inch screen?”

        • Matt McIrvin

          Yes. But I also know the main reason I live in a suburb now is not that; it’s price.

        • Rob in CT

          Isn’t this where djw comes in and points to survey data suggesting the breakdown is 1/3 wants to live in dense city, 1/3 wants no part of it and 1/3 is fairly neutral?

          I’m in the 1/3 wants no part of it… except maybe not. I do like walkability, but living in a dense place would take some serious getting used to, partly for reasons you mention and partly for ones you don’t. When I visit NYC I’m always kind of relieved when I get back. NYC is great, but it stresses me out!

          But here’s the thing: a lot of my desire to live out in the boonies is founded on a whole lot of nothing other than “it’s where I grew up.” (Largely unexamined) opportunity costs abound.

          • LeeEsq

            This isn’t really remarked about a lot. Most people from the younger baby boomers onward where raised in the suburbs. Few have the experience of growing up in the city and moving in the suburbs when they had kids anymore. They might have had an urban experience when they were in their twenties and without kids but maybe not either. Although, the idea of being a single young person in the suburbs seems strange to me.

            • Rob in CT

              Although, the idea of being a single young person in the suburbs seems strange to me.

              Well, Connecticut, you know?

              There are some signs of life here in Hartford. We’ll see.

              • LeeEsq

                I mentally separate suburbs in the North East from suburbs in other parts of the country. They just feel different and more urban even though they can get just as car centric. A lot of them are based on older villages and towns and have pre-car features. They also tend to be incorporated more.

          • djw

            Isn’t this where djw comes in and points to survey data suggesting the breakdown is 1/3 wants to live in dense city, 1/3 wants no part of it and 1/3 is fairly neutral?

            Yes, indeed it is. And that breakdown from Leinberger is nearly 20 years old at this point; the breakdown now is almost surely more tilted toward urbanism, based on what we know about younger people’s preferences. (The mix of available housing is probably slightly more urban, but the preferences are changing a lot faster than the housing stock.)

        • And there are a lot of people who do. Why do you imagine that there must only be one housing style, such that some ephemeral “lot of people” who’d rather live in a different one would render it unviable?

          This is a country of, what, 320 million people? You don’t need a lot of people for it to be a lot of people. There are a lot of people who don’t want to live in the Brady Bunch house, too.

          • Cheerful

            Exactly. I’ve read a number of urbanist threads where any praise of city life, or dense city life is immediately met with a response of “But I don’t want to do that, don’t make me”. Providing an option is not compulsion. And if urbanists get a little enthused about their option, and preachy, it’s in part because of a long history where practically no one was making the case for urban living.

            • At this point, we are so far behind on meeting demand for urban-style housing, it’s difficult to say just what the ceiling is. The right amount is going to be “more” for quite some time.

            • KadeKo

              But the feefees of the don’tmakemes are precious!

              It’s funny to hear them insist that (place they commute or shop thru now) needs to be turned into a “spit (sic) though the chute” raceway, and anything less is simply fascism. People in Town X have no right to decide what that Town works like, because auto thruput is the one tangible measure.

              • I think the concept of privilege, and declining privilege, comes into play here.

                Anti-urbanists/suburbanists are so used to dictating the paradigm that merely not believing in it, stating the merits of an alternative vision, and objecting to the enforcement of the suburbanist vision through state power is enough to engender those fee-fees of persecution and powerlessness.

                If they can’t ram a road-widening project through someone else’s neighborhood, it feels like they’re losing power. Which they are.

        • Roberta

          I find a lot more privacy in the city than in the suburbs. Living in an apartment building offers more in the way of privacy and anonymity and freedom than in the suburbs, where I felt trapped and under surveillance. Nobody was walking, and if I walked anywhere, I’d stand out (and also wouldn’t get anywhere because there were so few sidewalks and nowhere to walk to). In the city, if I walk, I’m one of a crowd and no one is paying attention to me. For solitude, I could stay in my apartment, or else find a secluded nook of a large park, and there are many of those.

          I’m also single and childless, and this probably contributes to it. I might feel differently if I had to shepherd a bunch of kids around a public park rather than a private backyard.

        • so-in-so

          Is this true, or is this the way people are because of the way our urban landscape is?

          If our cities are either too expensive or dirt poor (with schools that match), then the whole living environment gets colored by that. If you had good schools in reasonably priced neighborhoods you could have the choice of walking to the movie theater or watching on your 40 inch TV.

        • djw

          But there are a lot of people who don’t want that.

          Yes, of course, but as I’ve pointed out many times, the current housing stock in the country over-provides suburban housing and under-provides walkable urban housing relative to the clear preferences of Americans (whether we measure preferences by what people say they are, or what they’re evidently willing to pay for), which goes a long way to explaining why the latter is expensive and people are priced out of it.

      • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

        That’s exactly right. Philadelphia (where I live now) has almost by accident become of the most family-friendly cities because there are a lot of 2- & 3-story row houses built ca 1900 (pre-car, so you see hitching posts and boot scrapers on the sidewalks), small parks spread out all over the place, and intimidatingly narrow streets the kids can play on because it’s almost impossible to drive down them fast. The biggest problems families have is the row houses are almost too small (the plots are ~70-75% as wide as in say Brooklyn, with 7′ ceilings – it can be quite cramped…and I’m 5’8″), and many 2-story houses are too small for families with more than 1 kid. Oh, and the Republicans in Harrisburg keep trying the starve our schools of funding…

        • witlesschum

          My wife and I took a vacation to Philly where we rented a pretty fancy three-story three bedroom, two bath row house not too far off Broad Street for a week with her sister and sister’s husband. It was very nice and certainly had plenty of room indoors. Maybe I’d want a bit more of a yard in the back, but not that much. Some of the other houses appeared to be laid out the same, but with a one-car garage jammed into the basement, which would seem about perfect.

          There were certainly people living on the street who had kids.

          • Atrios

            I don’t have kids, but the little rugrats are everywhere these days. Gotta dodge the strollers and the playgrounds are always full when the weather is decent. It’s long been conventional wisdom that people (of a certain class who could afford to) would move to the burbs when they had kids, and then when the kids got older, … but it doesn’t seem to be happening en masse. Schools are an issue, not because urban schools are all bad, but because the state has been trying to destroy the school district for 15 years, but parents are managing.

            • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

              The pattern in my neighborhood has been:
              * Couple moves into row house
              * Couple has child
              * Couple lives happily for 4-5 years
              * Couple moves away because:
              –they have a 2nd kid and suddenly the house is too small
              –they can’t afford private school and are too scared of the big bad Philly public school in their neighborhood
              –they decide they have to move to the catchment of one of the “acceptable” public schools

              It’s a vexing pattern.

      • As the mother of a smallish child, incidentally, (and as a reader married to a TV watcher) I can appreciate the appeal of multiple living spaces. Without a separate play space, at least, and especially if bedrooms are small, you lose the ability (for one thing) to have a space that’s clean and neat for visitors as well as for residents looking for a peaceful setting that’s still more or less in the group space, Or else the group space is set aside for grownup things like cooking and sewing and the kids don’t have a space.

        • I’m also the parent of a young child.

          The presence of shared urban amenities makes up for a reduction in private amenities in individual homes. There are definitely trade-offs. The important thing is to realize that an urban residence isn’t just a smaller suburban residence. There are things you gain in exchange for the things you give up.

          • You’re also not a stay at home parent, or a woman who might feel required to choose between being judged for not maintaining that clean visitor space or becoming an insane housewife who cleans all the time and yells at her kids for leaving a jigsaw puzzle out overnight.

            • Really? I’m not a stay-at-home parent?

              Someone should tell my wife and kids.

              What a presumptuous ass!

              You don’t know a single thing about this topic that I also don’t know. On the other hand, because of my professional and educational background as an urban planner, I know quite a bit that you don’t. So don’t presume to lecture me from a position of authority. That is quite obnoxious.

              • Okay, you’ve now informed me of your arrangements. Oh. No. You haven’t. You just yelled insanely because I didn’t guess them.

                I assume you work from home in your one living space, while your kids are playing in it?

                • You didn’t merely fail to guess them. You lectured me about my ignorance, and you had no basis to do so.

                  I assume…

                  An intelligent person would, at this point, have stopped doing that, bianca.

                  ETA – Oh, and I see you’ve done the good little anti-urbanist thing, and leapt from the topic of the mid-density, multiple-bedroom row house I described, to “single living space.”

                  So reliable: an anti-urbanist starts losing an debate, and they leap to mid-town Manhattan or Tokyo-Yokohama.

                • I leapt from “multiple living rooms/family rooms would probably be out,” to multiple living spaces would probably be be out. An enormous leap, to be sure.

                • Murc

                  Oh, and I see you’ve done the good little anti-urbanist thing, and leapt from the topic of the mid-density, multiple-bedroom row house I described, to “single living space.”

                  Not for nothing, joe, but earlier in the thread you were saying in reference to a mid-density, multiple-bedroom row house that “The very large, multiple living rooms/family rooms would probably be out.”? That sounds a lot like “single living space” to me.

                  So reliable: an anti-urbanist starts losing an debate, and they leap to mid-town Manhattan or Tokyo-Yokohama.

                  I’ve been meaning to ask you this for ages; you keep saying “not every city has to be as dense as Manhattan” and I’m always scratching my head over why you consider that to be a selling point.

                  Because, well, maybe I’m just weird, but if I had to live in a city, I’d want Manhattan. Or London. Or the core of Toronto. Someplace where there are subway or train stops everywhere and an enormous cornucopia of of jobs, food, shopping, entertainment and culture no further than fifteen minutes out your front door, no car required.

                  Failing that, suburbs all the way.

                  I would loathe some sort of middle ground, because it seems like the middle ground is “dense enough to make driving very inconvenient, not quite dense enough to provide all the amenities of a truly dense city.” Worst of both worlds! Why would I want that?

                • Ronan

                  My preferences are the complete opposite of yours here Murc. I find high density cities pretty boring after the initial excitement of discovering all the things that are worth discovering. I’m middle ground all the way. Give me enough to do within walking or cycling distance , a nice canal to sit and think great thoughts by, and access to outlying regions where you can spend some time in pastoral bliss. High density cities where you’re reliant on public transport, in my experience, encourage cliquesness and in group segregation to the same extent as the caricatured parochial small town. The middle ground is the way to the future dude.

                • Mid-town Manhattan is only one, geographically-small portion of the urbanized part of metro-NYC. You can be near a subway station and 15 minutes from all of those urban assets, and still live in a mid-rise neighborhood that isn’t a destination for commuters, with packed sidewalks and giant HD screens screaming at you.

                  I like living in a mid-size city instead of big city because of neighborhood amenities, as distinguished from big-city amenities. I value sitting on my front porch with a beer and watching just enough activity on my street to keep my interest, or sitting at a table on the sidewalk at a downtown restaurant and watching the street life. I like taking walk, a walk to an actual destination like a diner or a school, and not feeling like a target for a kid throwing a beer can and yelling “faggot!” because I’m the only pedestrian walking in front of some strip malls for 3/4 of a mile.

                  I’m not looking for opera houses and museums as part of my daily or even monthly life. I’m looking to live in a neighborhood and a city that fits a human being walking on a sidewalk for a reasonable distance. It’s cozy here.

                • And I read “single living space” as “tiny one-room apartment,” not “one living room.” In a 3- or 4-bedroom row house, why would you put your home office in the living room instead of one of the bedrooms?

                  And working from home is mostly a suburban/exurban phenomenon.

                • Murc

                  Mid-town Manhattan is only one, geographically-small portion of the urbanized part of metro-NYC. You can be near a subway station and 15 minutes from all of those urban assets,

                  Which would fulfill my listed requirements nicely, but most mid-sized cities don’t actually have an urban core with all those assets, or a nicely convenient spiderweb of grade-separated (or at the very least dedicated-lane; I hate buses if they have to move with regular traffic and love them if they have their own dedicated lanes) mass transit for reaching them.

          • Rob in CT

            I hear stories about/from parents of older kids (say, 12ish) who go through what I can only consider a circle of hell driving their kids around to all these activities (travel hockey appears to be punishment for particularly egregious sin). My kids are 6 and almost 3 and we’re already driving them around to activities on weekends (swim class, tennis class, etc). No pool in town. Tennis courts one town over at the HS, but the lessons aren’t there, and so on.

            I do love my house out in the woods, though.

            Tradeoffs for damn sure.

            • Murc

              (travel hockey appears to be punishment for particularly egregious sin)

              Both my and my brother did travel hockey as children. I’ve apologized to my parents for this on more than one occasion. We would often have to stay in hotels, not for something like a full weekend-long tournament, but for a single game. That’s madness.

      • NewishLawyer

        Also there are a lot of houses in San Francisco and/or Brooklyn that meet this description. 2-4 bedroom rowhouses with small backyards. I would love to buy one of these but they are way out of my price zone and probably will be for the foreseeable future unless there is a huge tech market crash combined with a reversal of fortune on my career.

        • The reason it’s so easy for you and Dr. Ronnie to think of actually-existing examples of this type of housing is that this isn’t some novel, theoretical vision I’m describing here. It’s an old, traditional style that has proven itself over the millennia.

          • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

            What’s weird to me is that I don’t see it being done much with new housing, despite the fact it clearly works better for urban families than other models being tried.

            • Hogan

              The big money isn’t in building housing that works for urban families. Luxury condos in the city and McMansions in the suburbs/exurbs.

            • It’s still the case that families with children are the least likely to choose to live in dense cities. It’s mostly singles, young couples, and retired couples who choose that from among a range of options.

              But it’s growing, especially as those young couples start having kids. The market will catch up.

              • Dr. Ronnie James, DO

                I hope so – the problem I’m seeing in Philly now is the young families move out after 5 years because they can’t live with their [small house / “scary” public school / private school that costs as much as liberal arts college].

            • NewishLawyer

              There are attempts to do the townhome thing but they always end up looking odd and inorganic in my opinion.

              • I know what you mean. A lot of the time, the developers are working out of standardized plan books that were designed for large-scale townhouse campuses in the suburbs, and stringing together a few to put on a city lot. They just look awful when you’re walking past on the sidewalk across the street.

                We’ve had some done very well in Lowell. The City has taken the lead in doing some attached housing in affordable housing projects, and in developing a design book. It’s not all that hard to do it well and build urban-appropriate townhouses; it’s just that most developers aren’t familiar with them.

                • erick

                  There are some nice newer brick row houses in NW Portland (19th or 20th and Overton I think if anyone local is reading). Well laid out with alleys garages in the rear so they aren’t the 3 stories with the garage as ground floor being the only thing you see on the street that you usually see with newer ones. But they are pretty expensive.

          • NewishLawyer

            A lot of urban advocates/pundits are tsking tsking Brooklyn and SF for keeping the Brownstones and Edwardians because the argument is that all these charming little houses lead to the unaffordability crisis. The argument is that we should let developers buy the old housing at whole stock, tear it down, and replace it with upzoned apartment towers which are much denser and allow for more building. Basically Manhattanization.

            • Sometimes they’re right, though. But not if they’re talking about the wholesale clearing of a neighborhood. In line with what I was saying here, cities with growing populations probably should up zone for a couple of blocks around subway stations, for example.

            • Ronan

              I agree with you.(assuming the first line of your comment is accurate) The replacement of aesthetically pleasing though impractical housing with vulgar though useful alternatives is a problem. There’s surely a compromise where you can have the best of both worlds.

    • LeeEsq

      At the same time, you can do suburbs better even if they are inevitable. You can design them to be more like traditional towns with a commercial and public center that people can walk to. You can connect them to the cities like the suburbs of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and San Francisco are. They don’t need to sprawling car-oriented places.

      • People who live near the edges of Philadelphia, and I would guess Boston too, would disagree that those cities aren’t sprawling and car-oriented,

        • LeeEsq

          Compared to a European city sure. Compared to the rest of the United States, they are less sprawling and car-oriented. My Long Island suburb or really most of Nassau County would be urban in most of America because you could actually walk places and we had a town center rather than strip malls. Nassau County is denser than a lot of American cities outside the North East.

          • There are very large areas in Philadelphia where the bus stops and local shops are all but unreachable by foot, and the bus service that does exist provides cumbersome access to the closest big shopping center and to Center City and almost nothing else. These aren’t suburbs in any normal sense (except the expansion of residential-only space so that commercial sites are far away), they have almost no green space, small semi-detached houses or row homes, small backyards or in some cases alleys instead of backyards, and they go on for miles in that way. They were largely built after WWII.

            • Hogan

              Just about everything past Oxford Circle looks more like Levittown than like anything else in Philadelphia.

              • Only in the imaginations of the people who live there.

                There are small enclaves with single family homes, but not many.

              • It’s actually possibly worse the farther out you go, Last time I spent time on Zillow looking at construction dates. After the war, there were some pleasant looking neighborhoods built, moving north, and older villages developed a little. Then around 1960 the whole rest of the city was overrun with identical units at a higher density (with one half of it evidently designated okay for Jews and the other half not).

        • West

          I live in Newton, one of the so-called “streetcar suburbs” of Boston. I commute by train, we only own one car because of how well we can live with just one, despite being in the ‘burbs (and we can afford more than one car).

          I have seen New Urbanist marketing videos that filmed in Newton Center and Newton Highlands and used them as the ideal. There are other similar inner ring suburbs around Boston of a similar type; straddling suburban / urban form.

          However, even in Newton, there’s a hell of a lot of post-WWII infill between the traditional village centers, and it is pure sprawl in its layout. Many of those folks are way too far away from the train stops to walk to them, so of course they don’t. And when you get out past the inner ring suburbs, we have as much sprawl as anywhere else in the USofA (with some very nice town centers sprinkled in here and there that got swallowed up in the sprawling). I’ve seen some assertions that New England in general scores worse on the sprawl indices than other parts of America.

          • LeeEsq

            I was in Newton last weekend for an event at the Marriot. It seems nice as long as you live within walking distance of one of the Green line stops. Otherwise, its very sprawl like.

            • And the rest of eastern Massachusetts is mostly like that, except the little walkable areas around commuter rail stations are even farther apart, and the sprawl-suburb belts between them larger.

              Except for the second-city communities like Lowell, Lawrence, Worcester, Brockton, etc.

    • This isn’t acknowledged as much as it should be. A NYU professor can raise kids in a bohemian kind of atmosphere and will appear to be doing something normal. A family where both parents are office workers who choose to live in a crowded or rundown neighborhood, and can’t give their son and daughter each their own room, will feel a lot of pressure to find more space.

      • NewishLawyer

        Right. My friend’s parents were super-nice but they did have that snobby “suburbs are evil wastelands” attitude a bit. This inadvertently rubbed off on my friend. I knew a lot of people in college who grew up in cities. Some were first-generation Americans. Others had more bohemian parents.

        Right now my friends who are staying in the children with cities tend to be really wealthy or really poor. Nothing inbetween. They are either living in houses/condos in choicest Brooklyn neighborhoods or living in small walk-up apartments in nowhere Queens because it is all they can afford.

      • A family where both parents are office workers who choose to live in a crowded or rundown neighborhood,

        Now that’s some quality question-begging right there.

        • Oh FFS. You’re making it a moral question, as if people can choose how much they can afford or what the available houses are like, and whether or not their lives are going to be affected by the opinions of other people.

          • No, I’m noting your question-begging – your assumption that a city neighborhood must be crowded or rundown.

            The only moral judgement I’ve made on this thread was about your gender-stereotyped put-down of my knowledge. Otherwise, I’m calling you out for factual inaccuracies about cities.

            • Where did I say a city must be run down? It’s okay to use complex sentences if you have to.

              • A NYU professor can raise kids in a bohemian kind of atmosphere and will appear to be doing something normal. A family where both parents are office workers who choose to live in a crowded or rundown neighborhood,

                Did you forget that?

                When you limit your descriptions of the options to one, you’re saying that’s the only option.

                And don’t write pissy little “I’m smarter than you” shots like that. It comes off as desperate and bitter, especially when it’s so blatantly obvious you have no grounds for thinking of yourself as smarter or more knowledgable.

                • jim, some guy in iowa

                  if you’re going to parade yourself as one of the adults in the room, act like it

                • You have never made a thread better with your shots at me, and that makes up almost all of your recent “contribution.”

                • Thirtyish

                  Speak for yourself, Joe. I appreciate Jim’s contributions quite a bit. And I say this as someone who generally likes your contributions as well.

                • There’s a whole universe of possibilities out there. I wrote about two situations. I didn’t say there weren’t any others. Someone who doesn’t get subsidized housing guaranteed to be in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in America is more likely to have to choose crowded or rundown if they want urban (thus there are more of them who’ll have to make this choice). And putting a boy and a girl in the same room isn’t just inconvenient for them but is frowned upon so severely by society that it would require them to have the attitude–and social status–to look down on anyone who disapproves of them.

                  But I suppose you feel they would find a neighborhood that’s kind of close enough and simply believe it’s all ideal, because they’re ethically committed to urbanism and can’t accept half measures.

                • I didn’t say there weren’t any others.

                  You discussed the question by establishing an artificial limit on the possibilities.

                  Someone who doesn’t get subsidized housing guaranteed to be in one of the most desirable neighborhoods in America, is more likely to have to choose crowded or rundown if they want urban (thus there are more of them who’ll have to make this choice).

                  More question-begging.

                  But I suppose you feel they would find a neighborhood that’s kind of close enough and simply believe it’s all ideal, because they’re ethically committed to urbanism and can’t accept half measures.

                  Um, no, you’re the one assuming that they must live in “one of the most desirable neighborhoods in America,” in the most expensive part of Manhattan, if they work in the city, while I’m the one arguing for mid-sized cities, outer-borough-type neighborhoods, and row houses.

                • Speak for yourself, Joe. I appreciate Jim’s contributions quite a bit.

                  I did, back when he made some.

                  Look up and down the thread. Find something he’s written that wasn’t a shot at me.

                  He’s been like this for weeks.

                • You discussed the question by establishing an artificial limit on the possibilities.

                  No. That would be you.

                • Um, no, you’re the one assuming that they must live in “one of the most desirable neighborhoods in America,” in the most expensive part of Manhattan, if they work in the city, while I’m the one arguing for mid-sized cities, outer-borough-type neighborhoods, and row houses.

                  That was you, Bianca. Not me. You decided they had to live in that neighborhood, and couldn’t live elsewhere in the city. You even, accurately, predicted that I’d talk about them living in a nearby area, and sneered at me for such a horrible heresy – thus demonstrating that you were putting the artificial “must live in the same neighborhood” limit into your argument.

                  So stop pretending you didn’t. You’re even contradicting yourself.

                • And when did I ever describe anything as “ideal?”

                  I’m the one who introduced you to the concept of tradeoffs.

                • Two families. One lives near NYU, in university-owned housing. The other has ordinary office jobs. The NYU couple made certain sacrifices to be urbanists. According to you, the other couple ought to make at least as many sacrifices, or feel guilty because they’re supposedly anti-urbanists.

                • I’m the one who introduced you to the concept of tradeoffs.

                  Uh….

                  Do you really think you’re making me look stupid because I keep replying to you while pretending what you’re saying is totally normal?

                • But Bianca, I don’t think of you. I don’t think of your image any more than I think of my own.

                  I’m still having the substantive discussion about the allegedly limited options of that family, and showing why they’re not as narrow as you defined.

                  I think – in fact, am pretty sure – that I’m making your argument look wrong, by doing things like quoting you contradicting yourself and assigning exactly the opposite position to me of what I’ve argued. It shows that your claims can’t even stand on their own.

                  You know, like this:

                  According to you, the other couple ought to make at least as many sacrifices, or feel guilty because they’re supposedly anti-urbanists.

                  Umwut? Where did I call anyone except you an anti-urbanist? Where did I say anyone should feel guilty? Where did I even comment on what anyone “should” do at all? I started this entire discussion off by describing a type of housing extremely different from the faculty housing near NYU as an appropriate urbanist vision.

                  This is just another example of the bizarre habit of anti-urbanists to define themselves as victims of people who have different opinions than theirs. Especially bizarre, since those anti-urban preferences are imposed with such a profoundly heavy hand through restrictive suburban zoning – and yet it’s the people who would like fewer such restrictions who are subjected to this “stop ramming it down my throat!” language.

                • We are discussing this, from NewishLawyer (I know it’s hard to scroll that far):

                  A friend of mine in college grew up in NYU faculty housing. His mom worked at the Times and his dad was on NYU faculty. The apartment was two bedroom/one-bathroom. The parents put up a divider wall so my friend and his younger sister could have spaces of their own. Is this how middle-class families are going to need to live in cities? How do you get larger apartments? I think most people would consider it insane to live like that when you can have a nice suburban house.

                  I do not think it is absurd to believe that your answers to those questions are Yes, You don’t, and Most people are asses.

                • wjts

                  Is this how middle-class families are going to need to live in cities?

                  No, because not every American city is Manhattan. In point of fact, only part of one of them is. So, to pick an example entirely at random, a couple consisting of a professor at Point Park University and an employee of the Post-Gazette will not actually have to subdivide a single room in a two-bedroom apartment for their two children in order to live in Pittsburgh.

                • Given your performance so far, Bianca, perhaps you should stop believing things about me and limit yourself to what I actually write. Especially when what I actually write, such as lauding a very different type of housing than that and saying that families could choose a different neighborhood where it is more available, directly contradicts what you’ve decided to believe.

                • Is this how middle-class families are going to need to live in cities? How do you get larger apartments? I think most people would consider it insane to live like that when you can have a nice suburban house.

                  I’d say an urbanist vision for family housing would look towards 2-4 bedroom row houses with either small individual yards or larger common spaces behind, in the center of the block, and front porches. The very large, multiple living rooms/family rooms would probably be out, but in a city as opposed to a suburb, you do more of your living in the city, as opposed to in your house.

                  You have no basis beyond the ordinary paranoia of anti-urbanists and a grudge to attribute any of those answers to me.

                • Joe, the sum total of your objections seem to be

                  1. When I replied to NewishLawyer, I got your position wrong.

                  2. I persisted in thinking I was talking about what I was talking about, not what you preferred me to be talking about. Therefore I failed to admit that I was talking about your preferred topic incorrectly,

                  Who’s the one who’s paranoid?

                • I’m amazed that your list of objections doesn’t contain a single word about anything of substance, but is entirely about your being persecuted by me saying things about urban residential options that contradict you. The one being paranoid is the one driven by a sense of persecution.

                  My biggest objection, since you asked, is that you are simply flat-out wrong about urban residential options. Your position makes no sense. It’s entirely wrong on the facts. You haven’t just misstated what I’ve had to say, but you’ve misstated the substantive facts of the issue. The bit about why you, plural, so consistently do this is secondary.

                • Joe, you have this weird habit of turning neutral statements into extremely emotional ones. I say multiple times that you’re getting what I said wrong, and you say I claimed you were persecuting me. I say there are considerations that have to be considered before some families can consider living in a city, and you call me a passionate anti-urbanist. I would say this is a pattern, but you would say I’m paranoid.

                  I have said nothing about “urban residential options,” yet you say I’m “flat-out wrong” about them. This is peculiar.

                  You are a peculiar sort of maybe troll, all things considered.

                • Joe, you have this weird habit of turning neutral statements into extremely emotional ones.

                  That is a remarkable bit of projection from someone who invented for me an entire denunciation of people who live in certain types of housing out of thin air. You told me I call people who don’t live in tiny apartments “asses.” You told me I look down on people who don’t make “sacrifices.” And then you lob this accusation at me?

                  I say multiple times that you’re getting what I said wrong

                  And again. You wrongly attribute to me argument after argument, and then after I show you doing it, you turn around and accuse me of the same thing.

                  I have said nothing about “urban residential options,”

                  Gaping-mouthed awe at what is either incredible delusion, or incredible dishonesty. Is it possible for this person to actually believe she hasn’t said anything about different urban residential options on this thread? The entirety of her commentary has been about urban residential options…and then she writes this.

                  Is this some kind of performance art? I just can’t even…

      • NewishLawyer

        There is also the fact that my friend got into Bronx Science. His sister failed to get into one of the fancy NYC public schools and her parents needed to bust tail to find a private school at the last minute.

        There are lots of couples that can afford to live in cities but they can’t afford huge private school tuition bills and a lot of cities still lag on decent public schools as was mentioned below.

    • wjts

      My general observation is that cities and urban planners have a hard time making cities affordable or attractive to middle class families with children. This gives the impression (accurate or not) that cities are for the very wealthy, the very poor, and childless professionals especially young, childless professionals.

      This may be true of New York and San Francisco, but there are, incredibly, many, many cities in the United States that are not those cities.

      • LeeEsq

        Many cities in the United States are also collections of suburbs under one urban government. Houston, Dallas, Phoenix, San Antonio, Charlotte, Raleigh, Atlanta, and others register like that in large swaths.

    • Hogan

      My general observation is that cities and urban planners have a hard time making cities affordable or attractive to middle class families with children.

      There’s only so much you can do with planning. It won’t, for example, get more money for the schools.

    • Murc

      Also too: as you start to scale up the number of kids moving to the suburbs and having a garage and a car starts to look attractive logistically.

      You can strap the kids into a car and not have to keep one eye on them to make sure they’re getting on and off public transit with you and not hassling or disrupting the other riders, or feeling guilty when your sick three year old is making life unbearable for everyone else on the half-hour subway or bus ride. You can throw all their activity stuff (hockey bags, football gear, lacross sticks, etc.) into the trunk and cart it around no problem. Ditto for shopping; when your weekly grocery bill is four hundred bucks worth of food that overflows the cart, that trunk, likewise, starts looking mighty attractive.

      That’s all way easier to do in a suburb with a car than in a city without. I can’t imagine how my own parents would have managed; three kids, with a three-year gap and then a seven-year gap, all with a lot of friends and reciprocal child social obligations to the parents of those friends. They’d have gone mad without the ability to load us into the minivan and just go.

      • AttorneyAtPaw

        Fair point — though large families certainly existed prior to the rise of modern-style suburbia. Indeed, hasn’t average family size actually been declining over the past few decades? I’m not a demographer, but I assume at least some of those large families would have to have hailed from denser urban areas — so one wonders how they managed.

        Could we be looking at a chicken-and-egg thing here? Does something about suburban land-use patterns give rise to changes in the way people socialize — including the proportion of youth activities that are highly structured and formalized (such as traveling sports leagues)? In other words, are all those hockey bags and lacrosse sticks (indeed a pain to haul everywhere) more effect than cause?

        • Indeed, hasn’t average family size actually been declining over the past few decades?

          It has indeed, with many different implications. For one thing, when you read about the decline in population in Boston since its peak, that is more than 100% attributable to the decline in the number of children per family. There are more households in Boston today than there were during its population peak; they’re just smaller.

        • LeeEsq

          Modern youth group activities started with things like the Boy Scouts and Little League. Both of these happened before suburbanization occurred en mass. I’d say that highly structured youth activities are more a result of increased wealth than suburban land use. Since fewer kids need to go off to work, things that used to be the provenance of the upper classes like music lessons, sports, or athletics get more widespread.

    • djw

      My general observation is that cities and urban planners have a hard time making cities affordable or attractive to middle class families with children.

      Those two difficulties really shouldn’t be folded together. Or if you’re mentioning both of them, they should be connected with an “and” not an “or”–in plenty of cities it’s the attractiveness of urban living that often makes it unaffordable, and in others (Dayton!) the continued affordability is a product of unattractiveness.

      • NewishLawyer

        Fair point.

    • sonamib

      Lee brings up a good point. The United States is simply a very big country. There might be good reasons for urbanization and urban living but it is hard sell in a country with a lot of space.

      Country size is a red herring. Belgium is a lot more suburban than France, despite its tiny size. The kind of transportation infrastructure the government builds is a much more important factor. Belgium neglected its railways and mass transit, and invested in highways reaching into the heart of the cities. Non-tolled highways, of course.

  • NewishLawyer

    How are we defining anti-urban? Are they people who hate going into the city no matter what? My recent job was in the burbs. I was one of around three people who commuted from SF. There were others that commuted from Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond but the majority lived in Marin and Sonoma. Some people lived in Solano. A surprising number of the 20-something employees disliked the city and loved the burbs.

    How about someone like my mom who loves visiting SF and NYC but finds living here too noisy and too crowded. She can come in for a day, love it, and then go back to her nice suburban home.

    • The post is about public policy, and views of what types of development to promote and discourage, both within and outside of cities.

  • Nick Conway

    Really interesting stuff. Seems like most cities in America have fallen decades behind on urbanist investments like public transportation because of these movements.

    For example, a big transportation ballot initiative was just announced for Seattle and the surrounding area, but even if this bill passes we won’t have a full subway system completed until 2041. Given the crazy rise in population in this city, and the urgent need for good public transit, it’s just really depressing that this timetable is the best we can hope for.

    http://seattletransitblog.com/2016/03/24/st3-draft-plan-overview/

    • djw

      I have a enraged post about this, but I’m waiting to calm down to actually post it.

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