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Is Suburban Sprawl Inherently Family Friendly?

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No.

That’s the point Jeff Turrentine makes in critiquing the new Joel Kotkin book. Suburban sprawl is about a serious of structural choices made by American policymakers that have failed the cities, both in the allowing them to go to seed in postwar period and by allowing them to turn into playgrounds for the wealthy today.

But to defend sprawl by asserting that city life “ultimately offers little for the vast majority” is almost certainly to mistake resignation for motivation. Suburbia itself is not the primary draw for many families on the move. As one of Kotkin’s critics, the writer and urban planner Josh Stephens, puts it: “In truth, a suburban preference doesn’t necessarily connote a preference for suburbs; it connotes a preference for things that suburbs tend to offer.” Everybody—from wealthy, single millennials to middle-class parents to the working poor—likes the idea of living someplace with safe streets, decently sized homes, good schools, public green spaces, and affordable rents or mortgages. The best urban planning, of course, endeavors to nurture or provide these to as many city dwellers as possible, irrespective of race or class or socioeconomic status—all while acknowledging the oversize role that cities necessarily play in our ongoing battles against pollution and climate change.

It’s no mystery as to why people want safety, beauty, quality, and affordability in a place to live. These things can be found in a suburb or an exurb, to be sure. But out there, they carry with them social and environmental costs that many people—lots more of them, I suspect, than Kotkin has estimated—simply don’t want to pay. I know that I’m not willing to pay them; nor are the thousands of middle-class families in my safe, beautiful, kid-friendly, dense—and, yes, expensive—Brooklyn neighborhood.

Kotkin is right to warn us that we mustn’t allow our cities to become culturally stratified zones: one-half playground for the rich, one-half prison for the poor. And he’s right to point out that cities, especially those undergoing revivals or renewals, need to do a better job of addressing the needs of all families, including the middle-class ones.

But he’s wrong to think that sprawl somehow represents the fulfilled desires of “the vast majority.” What sprawl represents, instead, is an eerie distortion of the things that people typically say they want from a city. That so many families are willing to settle for that distortion by moving farther and farther out—constantly redefining our urban periphery and pushing our resources, not to mention our sense of shared civic life, to the breaking point—isn’t something to be celebrated. For planners and policymakers, it’s a challenge to be met.

Cities can provide much of what suburbs do. It’s true enough that they don’t, but that’s not some inevitably. Like with, say, trade policy, what becomes naturalized in the minds of lazy pundits and the general population is actually a series of policy choices that don’t have to be made.

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  • BiloSagdiyev

    That picture makes me wanna puke!

    I guess it depends on where you grew up, but I look at that pic and think it’s very sad, and I want to know why that doesn’t count as living in a city, with that kind of density. Car ownership? Purely residential zoning? Homogeneity? Those are suburban traits, but… that looks dense to me.

    (And lacking in public transport, which is also suburban, and…)

    Not sure what the difference is between that and living in an apartment building tower, other than not THAT dense.

    Also, cities offer nothing for the vast majority? I’d say they offer a little bit of everything to everybody. Except Ted Kackzynski.

    • TribalistMeathead

      Not sure what the difference is between that and living in an apartment building tower, other than not THAT dense.

      Spoken like someone who’s never had an upstairs neighbor with hardwood floors, or carpeting that absolutely HAD to be vacuumed at 11 pm every night…

      • Hogan

        The guy upstairs is such a freak.
        For five years now I’ve had a leak.
        What does he do up there?
        All day long he “sleeps all day,”
        Then he goes out and comes home
        In the most intoxicated way.
        As far as I can tell, he juggles bowling balls
        But he’s not good at it.
        He moves his furniture then at six am
        He pulls out the vacuum cleaner
        To suck his room.

      • Tyro

        This is one of those things where I understand, in theory, that people are highly bothered by noise from upstairs neighbors, but I cannot empathize directly with the feeling.

        Like, yes, a person lives upstairs from me and I will hear them walking through my ceiling. Of all the tradeoffs inherent in living in one place over another, it seems like the one least worth worrying about.

        And yet for so many people it is a HUGE issue

        • so-in-so

          You’ve had better neighbors than many people?

          • Origami Isopod

            This. Not to mention that some of us are more sensitive to noise than others.

        • cleek

          everyone’s upstairs neighbors:
          https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4IRB0sxw-YU

        • TribalistMeathead

          Any home that allows me less privacy than living in, say, a lighthouse is a HUGE issue.

        • Linnaeus

          It really depends. I’ve lived in apartments for the last twenty years or so (not counting dormitory living) and I accept that I will hear the usual sounds of living, e.g, people walking around, talking, children playing, music sometimes, etc. There is a point where it can get excessive and I can understand people not wanting to deal with that.

          I wonder if this could be addressed, in part, by better construction. There are several new multi-family buildings going up in my neighborhood and while I’m no structural engineer like our honored and respected N_B, they just don’t look built well at all.

          • Steppanhammer

            Oh, it absolutely can be.

            Though, “better” translates more or less directly into “more expensive,” and after a certain point, you need to start designing explicitly with sound deadening in mind. Sound isolation in buildings is all about controlling vibrations, which are super easy to transfer through walls/floors/ceilings, and it gets complicated and expensive very quickly to go past a normal level of deadening. Both from decibels being logarithmic and needing deadening wall compositions and sound rated door frames and all that jiggery-pokery.

            Most of these kinds of things are being built for profit, so of course they’re going to be hitting the bare minimum necessary for structural purposes, more or less…

            • Linnaeus

              I figured as much.

            • N__B

              You want less sound? Add weight, since mass damps out the vibrations. Every part of the structure gets more expensive.

            • erick

              Yeah, I used to live in a condo in a classic brick building from 1911, you heard everything.

              Now I live in a high end condo that was built in 2009, it is silent.

      • njorl

        I never had a problem with an upstairs neighbor being noisy. I did have to ask my next door neighbor to move her bed frame an inch or two away from the wall. It took me two weeks to work up the nerve to ask. She was very amused about how awkward I was about it, but there was no problem after that.

        Living in close quarters means you have to let go of your hang-ups. A lot of people don’t believe in letting go of your hang-ups.

        • so-in-so

          A co-worker once related the story of staying the night at a relatives while traveling. He got the guest room which shared a wall with the neighbors. During the night, the sounds of the a bed frame rhythmically thumping the wall woke him. Not wanting to interrupt what he assumed was going on, he waited for it stop. It did, but started again shortly after. On the third startup, he’d had enough and pounded on the wall, and silence followed for the rest of night. Some time later when the subject came up, the relatives said “oh yeah, their six year old jumps on the bed sometimes.”

        • Ahuitzotl

          I always hated our upstairs neighbour shouting and jumping up and down on the floor at 2 a.m.
          It always interrupted the third round of karaoke.

    • DAS

      A backyard you can monitor while you cook/wash dishes in the kitchen or otherwise do something useful around the house. If you live in an apartment tower, if your kid wants to play with a friend, even a friend who lives in walking distance, the kids are either underfoot inside or you have to go outside with them to monitor them when they play in the local park/playground, in which case you can’t also get done what you need to get done around the house.

      And yes, there are single family homes with backyards within the “city” (or at least “closes” with common back yards), but if you want to have dense enough population for mass transit to be truly feasible, you aren’t gonna get it with even attached single family dwellings.

      Heck, where I live, it’s “quasi-urban” (mixture of attached single family homes, unattached homes and apartment buildings) and not really dense enough to support good enough mass transit, but dense enough that you can’t find parking.

      • sonamib

        but if you want to have dense enough population for mass transit to be truly feasible, you aren’t gonna get it with even attached single family dwellings.

        I beg to differ, I live in just that kind of neighborhood. Well, it’s actually a mix of apartments and rowhouses, but it’s dense enough to support a metro station. Actually, “dense enough” is not the right word, the neighborhood is very dense, 20k people per square km, or 50k per square mile.

        • DAS

          We have a subway station and an LIRR station in our “neighborhood”. The problem is that both are over 1 mile away. And the bus to get to them is 0.25 miles away and not exactly reliable. And I don’t think it pays to expand bus service in our area unless they can get a lot more people taking said expanded bus service. But there are simply not enough people in our immediate area for that level of increase in ridership to happen.

          • sonamib

            What I meant to say is that it’s not impossible for, say, half the people in a given neighborhood to live in rowhouses while still getting high enough densities for mass transit. Places like that do exist!

            • L2P

              Maybe not impossible, but it’s pretty hard. You end up with a bunch of huge buildings towering over tiny SFR-ish stuff. That’s not something most people want.

              • Hogan

                I live near two commuter rail lines in Philadelphia. The neighborhood is pretty much all row houses and doubles with clusters of 4-5-story apartment buildings around the stations. Nothing feels out of scale.

                • sonamib

                  Yeah, the math does work out.

      • njorl

        but if you want to have dense enough population for mass transit to be truly feasible, you aren’t gonna get it with even attached single family dwellings.

        The 6th most heavily ridden mass transit system in the US is in Philadelphia. If you ride from the Bridge-Pratt station to the point where it goes underground, you have an unending vista of rowhouses.

    • I want to know why that doesn’t count as living in a city, with that kind of density.

      For the same reason a banana plantation isn’t a jungle, despite having tropical vegetation at the density of a tropic rain forest: because the key isn’t the density per se, but a mix of certain diverse elements that interact and operate in conjunction to produce an urban/tropical rain forest system.

      It isn’t the density qua density that makes a city. The density fosters that interaction.

  • TribalistMeathead

    I know that I’m not willing to pay them; nor are the thousands of middle-class families in my safe, beautiful, kid-friendly, dense—and, yes, expensive—Brooklyn neighborhood.

    The answer is in there somewhere, I just don’t know where.

    • wca

      I think there’s quite a few people who would not mind living in a city at all, but whose middle-class salaries could probably buy a portion of a cardboard box in an alley in said cities.

      Like that Brooklyn neighborhood mentioned in the article…

      According to the brokerage firm Douglas Elliman, the borough has broken records with its year-to-date average ($739,610, up from $674,272 in 2013) and median ($570,220, jumping from $550,000) prices.

      Oh, and just in case you were thinking of renting an apartment …

      The average Manhattan apartment in December was $3,381 a month. (The overall average for 2014 was a record $3,438.)

      In the meantime, Brooklyn’s not too far off, either, with the average at $3,139 a month, per Elliman’s survey. Queens has friendlier rents, but not by much, with an average monthly rent at $3,015.

      • NewishLawyer

        Again, I have to say that these articles are somewhat misleading. What is happening is that in SOME neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens, rents and housing prices are soaring through the roofs and show no sign of abating anytime soon.

        These neighborhoods are the usual suspects of already gentrified Brooklyn: Williamsburg, Greenepoint, Fort Greene, Cobble Hill/Carrol Gardens, Park Slope, and now spreading to Windsor-Terrace and Clinton Hill.

        There are neighborhoods in Brooklyn and Queens where rent and property prices have remained constant and/or declined. Unsurprisingly these areas tend not to be served well by mass transit and/or are far from Manhattan and/or are the few remaining white ethnic strongholds or perpetually poor areas like Brownsville and East New York. Bay Ridge might be as far from Manhattan as you can get and have gentrification.

        https://danielkayhertz.com/2014/05/03/more-on-the-limits-of-anti-gentrification-politics-brooklyn-is-getting-poorer/

        Look at the map of where housing prices have increased. There are a few neighborhoods with huge increases and a lot of neighborhoods with stagnant or declining prices. Now the interesting question is what it takes to get people to be enterprising enough to tread deeper. Williamsburg was obviously low-hanging fruit for gentrification because of its closeness to Manhattan and abandoned factories.

      • DAS

        Speaking as a middle class person, I find the opposite to be the case: we have enough money that we were able to buy a co-op apartment in a fancy zip code in Queens (albeit at the ass edge of the zip code). OTOH, if I were to try and buy a single family home near where I work, my choices would be (a) flood zone, (b) house that’s about twice as much as I could afford or (c) house in a high crime area or area with crappy schools. And why, other than my commute, should I live in a condo in a suburb for the same price that I can get a co-op in a city? Or more to the point, how do I convince my city-raised wife to move to the suburbs if all she’s gonna end up being able to live in is a condo?

        tl;dr: your comment assumes decent suburbs are affordable and that all city areas are Brooklyn or Manhattan

  • Dilan Esper

    If you could get people to pay all the externalities, suburbs would be less worth it to people.

    But good luck.

  • djw

    Christ, Kotkin’s a hack.

  • Brett

    I’m glad Kotkin is constricting himself to praising sprawl these days, and has learned to stop talking about how oil-and-gas extraction will allow states to drill their way to prosperity (seriously, go look at his Forbes posts – that used to be what he’d couple his posts on urban density with before about a year ago).

    One thing I will give suburban living is that it’s pretty quiet. It’s nice being able to go out and walk on a quiet street at night, with low enough artificial illumination around such that you can see the stars and constellations.

    • It’s funny you mention that. I’ve only been in one suburb where it was dark enough to see the stars, that was in Tuscon and I felt like I was stumbling around in the dark, It seemed like there was only one streetlight per block. Every other suburb that I’ve been to there were enough streetlights that only the brightest stars were visible.

      • postmodulator

        Tucson suburbs are lovely that way. Clear skies, not much light pollution, stargazing. To my mind it’s the best part of Arizona.

        • Linnaeus

          I hear good things about Tuscon and I’d be happy to visit it someday. Probably wouldn’t live there, though; not that there’s anything wrong with Tuscon, it’s just that I’m not a desert person.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      Not arguing with you, but I just moved to a not-cheap area of DC near the Metro and I’m amazed at how quiet it is … such that I’m not going to hang the wind chimes that I brought from Alexandria. Obviously the more night-lifey areas are louder.

      On the other hand the light pollution is bad and the neighbor out my back window leaves his security light on all night.

      • AlanInSF

        I live in the geographic center of San Francisco, a ten-minute walk from a subway stop, and my neighborhood is stunningly quiet, except for all the damn birds tweeting. People have this weird stereotype that every part of every city is like its densest, noisiest part.

        • My father used to complain that the suburb I grew up in was too quiet at night. “You can hear the clocks tick,” was his line.

  • emjb

    I guess the question I always have when people agitate against sprawl is, what exactly do we want our country to look like? Vast wild spaces with a few scattered cities? The US is not Europe and we have a whole lot of land. Do any of the writers who discuss this talk about what their ideal America (not just east or west coast) would look like?

    • Srsly Dad Y

      That would be my choice, with big green spaces in the cities, yes.

    • I would argue for what I saw in South Korea, where in 1997 you had 44 million people in a nation the size of West Virginia and vast amounts of green space, much of it rice farms, but also a surprising amount of forest land.

      • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

        That’s because they are willing to live like this. Somehow, I don’t see that catching on in most of America. Although, almost the entire population of the small town of Whittier, Alaska lives in one giant apartment building, so it can happen.

    • Murc

      The US is not Europe and we have a whole lot of land.

      The problem with sprawl isn’t that we’re going to use up all the land. The problem with sprawl is we’re going to use up all the energy that makes it possible while generating massive amounts of pollution.

      If limitless clean free energy became a thing tomorrow, I would be all “shit yeah, sprawl away” because at that point I stop actually caring.

      • Vance Maverick

        Yes, though there would still be advantages to some concentration, because of savings on human time and overall size of infrastructure.

        • DrDick

          One of the things I have never understood about suburbanites is the horrific commutes they have to endure. I have lived in both small towns and big cities, and the ‘burbs strike me as the worst of both worlds.

          • DAS

            How are suburban-urban commutes that much worse than intra-urban commutes, for example? If you live in the NJ suburbs and commute to the city, you can probably drive to a park-and-ride and take a nice train into the city (maybe even get a brief nap in or some work done during your commute). OTOH, if you live in a vaguely affordable part of, say, Queens, and commute to lower Manhattan to work, you can expect to spend well over an hour between taking a bus to the subway and then take a subway — both bus and subway being standing room only, so you won’t be able to get any work done (some people are able to nap standing, though).

            And many people work in the suburbs too: commutes between suburbs are not that much worse than intra-urban commutes, are they?

            • Denverite

              For about a year many years ago, we lived in the South Loop in Chicago. I was working in one of the Indiana suburbs. My spouse was working in Old Town (a neighborhood in the near North Side). I would commute by car. She would commute by foot and train. It would frequently take me less time to commute the 27 miles than it would take her to commute the three miles. (We were JUST off of the highway, and it was a reverse commute, so I could drive 75 pretty much the whole way.)

              • erick

                Yeah but on the train you can read or work so at least the time isn’t totally wasted

            • AlanInSF

              Many, many people commute from distant suburbs on vast freeways that are crammed to capacity, so the easy train into the city isn’t an option for everyone (though it should be!). Everything else, it depends — if you live on the BART spine in SF, you can get from the affordable fringe to downtown in 15 minutes. My daughter lived in affordable Brooklyn and commuted by subway to lower Manhattan in 20-25 minutes. Going from one suburb of D.C. or L.A. or Phoenix to another could take two hours at rush hour. You’d be hard-pressed to duplicate that in a city.

          • erick

            I switched from going to an office everyday to telecommuting about 8 years ago and I still can’t believe I spent 20 years losing an hour to an hour and a half of every day. Time that was completely wasted.

            • sonamib

              Hmm, I do think that there is a sweet time for commutes, not too long but also not too short. The commute offers a nice buffer between work and home activities. When I work from home I have a hard time getting started.

              I don’t really know what my ideal commute time is. I was fine when I had a 15 minute commute, and I think I wouldn’t be bothered if I ever managed to get a 5 or 10 minute commute. But I do know that a 0 minute commute is too short. YMMV.

              • Ronan

                But just pretend youre commuting. When working from home Go for a walk around the neighbourhood before starting into it

                • sonamib

                  That’s a great idea, actually! I’m afraid I would get bored of doing the same walk every day but then again I don’t get bored of my commute. It might just work, especially because I don’t work that often at home.

                • Ronan

                  I’m glad u took it seriously , because I meant it seriously (but it could have sounded a little facetious)
                  I’m like u re working from home . I like it in theory , but am too easily distracted

                • BobBobNewhartNewhartSpecial

                  But just pretend youre commuting.

                  And to make it more realistic, coordinate with all of your telecommuting neighbors to drive around the block at the exact same time each day. And then all try to park on the same side of the same street somewhere in the neighborhood.

      • Brian

        I disagree that the problem with sprawl isn’t that we use up all the land.

        Habitat loss, is a bad thing. And building a shit-ton of cul-de-sacs, swimming pools, and manicured parks does exactly that.

        Animals like to live in the same place people do, quiet places with fresh water.

        • Right–habitat loss is a huge deal. The whole east coast flyway is turning into cities with real negative effects for migratory birds, not to mention all the other critters and plants.

          • DrDick

            Not to mention the destruction of millions of acres of prime farm land.

            • Moondog

              We’re losing some 50 acres per hour.

              I see shoddy developments in the exurbs marketed to lower incomes (some with somewhat predatory lending — these people are going to remain poor while spending half their lives commuting). Future country slums.

        • Murc

          Well, this is of course true. I mean, we wouldn’t want to pave over the planet.

          But it become about a million times less fraught with the resource problem, is my point. You of course don’t want to destroy some vital watersheds, but that’s just common sense.

          I am sort of taking it for granted in this particular discussion that none of us are affirmatively in favor of wanton environmental destruction, but also that merely living in homes with modern infrastructure does in fact necessitate some degree of environmental impact. May larger point on top of that was “sprawling out to use up more land would be a lot less destructive if we somehow magically got limitless free clean energy.” Which is of course something that’s not gonna happen.

          • Brian

            Fair enough, and I agree that the energy required to maintain suburbs is inexcusable.

            Being from the west, I think that water consumption to keep all those swimming pools and lawns so idyllic is a comparable problem.

            • JustRuss

              I know in California, swimming pools and lawns are a drop in the bucket compared to agriculture. Not sure how that plays in Arizona.

              • Brian

                Yes, but agricultural water consumption doesn’t change whether people live in suburbs or cities does it?

                • It does if farmland is being eaten up for sprawl.

      • bender

        Yes, wasteful energy use is one problem.

        The other problem with sprawl is that it destroys habitat for all the living species that don’t do well right next to humans, and what habitat remains is broken up into islands without travel corridors between them so the members of those species will have a choice of mates.

        Besides the obvious mild weather, high employment and cultural amenities, one of the reasons why so many people want to live in the San Francisco Bay Area is that large parts of it have kept suburban sprawl in check. There are semi-wild regional parks or beaches within ten or twenty miles of the most densely populated areas, and even if you can’t get to them, you can at least see the bay, the ocean, or hills that are covered with grass and oak trees instead of houses. This is what most medieval cities (other than the capital cities of nations) must have been like; you could stand in the city center and see the surrounding countryside.

      • Michael Cain

        The next 20-30 years will be interesting as the suburbs have to adapt. We’re already at the point where adding enough rooftop (or backyard) PV to make my suburban house net-zero on electricity is cheaper than the difference in housing costs of moving to one of the desirable parts of the city. Yeah, there’s lots of systems problems to deal with like intermittency and such, but I think they could be solved (at least in this region).

    • TribalistMeathead

      The US is not Europe and we have a whole lot of land.

      And a whole lot of that land has far more people living there than the land ever intended to support (see, e.g., Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Los Angeles)

      • JustRuss

        Not sure what that means. No city is self-supporting.

        • erick

          Water, not that they can’t grow food close by, the places he listed are all arid or outright deserts

  • Murc

    Everybody—from wealthy, single millennials to middle-class parents to the working poor—likes the idea of living someplace with safe streets, decently sized homes, good schools, public green spaces, and affordable rents or mortgages.

    Emphasis mine, because I think this misses something.

    Do suburbanites, of which I have been one all my life, really want public green spaces?

    Or do they want private ones?

    Because those are two very, very different things.

    I also think… hrrm. It’s hard to describe, but I’ve always felt like you need to dig a little to get at some of the more fundamental reasons people who like suburbs like suburbs, because some of them are hidden even from suburbanites.

    One of the big ones, I think, is that there seem to be non-trivial numbers of people who want to hop in a private conveyance with a great deal of storage space, drive through excellent traffic to a variety of entertainment and commercial options in well under half an hour, at flexible times of the day and night.

    They don’t just want safe streets, they want safe and uncrowded streets; they want to walk the dog or go on a run without being surrounded by a madding crowd.

    They don’t just want a decently sized home; they want a decently sized home that’s freestanding and that they own and can do what they like with, on a plot of land that separates them from their neighbors.

    None of those are things a city will ever be able to give the people who want them, because they basically flat-out depend on there not being a lot of people around.

    This isn’t to render a moral judgment or policy prescription. It’s just to point out that a lot of suburban living isn’t some sort of weird false consciousness, or a by-product of cities not being able to fill the same needs, although of course both those things are true for many people.

    But a lot of suburbanites have wants, which they’d characterize as “needs,” that straight can’t be met by a city. The massive fleeing of people from the cities mid-century was not purely a product of racism, or public policy incentives, although, again, both those things were massively relevant. It was a product of millions of people really wanting to live in car-culture Levittowns.

    • djw

      They don’t just want a decently sized home; they want a decently sized home that’s freestanding and that they own and can do what they like with

      This doesn’t seem accurate at all. The politics of land use and zoning in a lot of surburban communities (and, even more disastrously, cities with single family neighborhoods) strongly suggests that a good many suburbanites really don’t want this at all, at least as far as it means their neighbors could also “do what they like”. The suburban mindset really does involve telling your neighbors what they can and can’t do with their property, something that seems to be well worth sacrificing one’s own freedom over property to retain.

      • Murc

        The politics of land use and zoning in a lot of surburban communities (and, even more disastrously, cities with single family neighborhoods) strongly suggests that a good many suburbanites really don’t want this at all, at least as far as it means their neighbors could also “do what they like”.

        Well, leaving aside that “freedom for me but not for thee” is a pretty common human trait, I could have been clearer.

        By “do what they like with” I mean things like “knock out a wall to extend the family room, re-do the entire kitchen in steel and granite, re-model the bathroom to my liking, but in whatever paint colors and wallpaper and crown molding I like.” Typically speaking, even places with the most draconian, insanely vigilant HOA’s don’t strongly control what you can do to the inside of your home.

        To a lesser extent, I also mean things like “maybe put a pool in” or “get a concrete driveway instead of an asphalt one” or “put in a bed of hydrangeas.”

        Those are things you cannot really do in a rental property, or one without a yard you also own.

        You are absolutely correct there are a lot of land use and zoning laws that straight-up restrict people just doing anything they want to their homes and yards. I would submit that a privately-held home on a privately-held lot still gives you a lot more freedom to customize it to your specific tastes than a rental properly or even an apartment or condo you own outright.

        Basically, your neighbors or your HOA probably don’t care what sort of flowerbed you have or the size of the grill in your backyard. (I know that some HOA’s do.) They probably do care if you have three cars up on blocks in the front yard or have converted your backyard to grow nothing but corn, but that’s because you’ve deviated from what they consider to be acceptable use; those same people would get all het up if someone told them to rip out their prize-winning tulips, because they didn’t buy a house with a nice yard and spend years carefully prepping the soil to get told that.

        • djw

          Typically speaking, even places with the most draconian, insanely vigilant HOA’s don’t strongly control what you can do to the inside of your home.

          Not true at all. In many suburban and even urban communities (including Seattle) converting a large home into 3-4 apartments with no changes to the outside structure of the building is illegal.

          • Murc

            Yes. Because, of course, deciding to become a landlord and building a bunch of apartments is precisely the same as remodeling the home you’re living in to your tastes.

            I would submit that not being allowed to turn a single-family dwelling into apartments does not constitute a strong control over what you can do to the inside of your home, because you’re trying to not make it your home anymore.

            You’re also not allowed to convert it into a machinists shop or server farm with no changes to the outside structure of the building either.

      • AttorneyAtPaw

        Precisely, djw. And it’s not just their own property — that’s just the tip of the iceberg in an overall mentality of absolute control. Property, de usque ad coelum ad limitum urbi. Joe and Susan want absolute peace and quiet… and so do 60,000 other people in those 30 square miles. They want to be able to drive everywhere, as do the 60,000 other people… but everyone else who drives down their street is a threat to our kids!!1!!1! who will be mercilessly screamed at to slow down, even if she really is going only 20 mph. Ditto all the Everyone Elses who want to drive to a local restaurant, but end up having to park on Joe and Susan’s (public) side street because the lot is full. How DARE they?

        Transit, even as a mere adjunct to the complete automobility already present in the community? Workforce housing, so that all those folks filling the rapidly proliferating service-industry jobs can have an affordable, nearby place to live? Hell no, that will just bring in “undesirables” (the actual word recently used in opposition to a proposal in Savage, MN, near my suburban hometown). Of course, let’s not forget that the fact these are the only jobs our economy creates anymore owes to the very same Reaganite policies these suburbanites voted in droves to implement, and that they’d have just as severe a shit-fit if their fast-food tacos were to rise from $1.09 to $1.29 in order to pay the employees something a little closer to a livable wage.

        And yeah, they really do dog-whistle to the ends of the earth about “crime” and “moral decay”. As a gay guy myself, maybe I was just hyper-attuned to this (particularly the latter). But even correcting for that subjectivity, I think the depiction of suburban culture (at least the 1990s Midwestern variety) as latently racist and homophobic is no mere Coastal Liberal Fever Dream. Those who move to these designed-to-be-homogeneous (cla$$, directly; race and lifestyle, secondarily as an offshoot of the former) places tend to select more reliably for having accepted in the first place the Sartrean dictum that “hell is other people”. Which is why it shouldn’t be too terribly surprising that they then turn their hypersensitivity on each other.

    • Lost Left Coaster

      they want to walk the dog or go on a run without being surrounded by a madding crowd.

      I’m sure a lot of people feel that way, so I’m not saying this against you. But it is amazing to me how many people in North America really, truly, have no clue whatsoever what living within a city is really like.

      I live in the central part of a large city. I can walk my dogs on the street any time I would like without dealing with huge crowds. That’s not so unusual…but what I have encountered in a lot of suburbs is that they don’t even have sidewalks in the neighbourhoods, or once you leave your particularly set of blocks, you’re bounded by massive, multi-lane high speed suburban roads with few protected crossings that make walking the dog very inconvenient, uncomfortable, and at times unsafe.

      • MyNameIsZweig

        Yeah, I agree. I live and work in San Francisco, and the only times I ever experience huge crowds of people on the sidewalks are when I am walking to or from work, or when I happen to be out and about when there’s a Giants game about to start or letting out (I’m a few blocks from the stadium). My girlfriend lives in the Inner Richmond, and whenever I’m out there the sidewalks have, at most, suburb-level foot traffic pretty much no matter what time of day it is.

        I think a non-trivial number of people in the burbs and exurbs see those stock shots of jam-packed New York City sidewalks on TV and assume that’s what city living is always like, all the time. It ain’t.

  • Shygetz

    Everybody—from wealthy, single millennials to middle-class parents to the working poor—likes the idea of living someplace with safe streets, decently sized homes, good schools, public green spaces, and affordable rents or mortgages.

    What he leaves out, and what is a driving force behind sprawl among people I know, are private green spaces. The people I know, especially those with kids, like having their own yard and/or garden plot. That seems like something that is directly at odds with high density urban living, and I don’t know how you address that.

    Edit: Dammit, Murc, you type too fast.

    • Murc

      This is one of my bugaboos.

      I might delude myself on this issue, but I’m one of those rare birds who both loves, and I mean loves, him some suburban living and car culture, and thinks we need a concerted policy war on both.

      And I think there’s a marked tendency on this issue to really downplay what suburbanites actually love about the suburbs. At a certain point, you can’t trick and stunt your way past the people who will give up their SUV’s and 2,000 square foot homes on half-acre plots in housing developments a ten-minute drive from a grocery store and a mall only on the day hell freezes over. There’s nothing you can offer them in a city they literally won’t recoil from because they hate it. They love their way of life and will fight for it, no matter how many walkable neighborhoods with superb mass transit and wonderful modern townhomes/apartments you dangle in front of them.

      Those people are going to need to be crushed. There’s not a carrot you can give them.

      • sonamib

        Well, they don’t need to be crushed per se. They just need to pay for the actual cost of living in a high-amenity, low-density area. But as Dilan said, good luck with that.

      • mikeSchilling

        djw: The suburban mindset really does involve telling your neighbors what they can and can’t do with their property,

        Murc : Those people are going to need to be crushed.

        No cognitive dissonance there.

        • Murc

          All land-use planning involves telling your neighbors what they can and can’t do with their property. Let’s not kid ourselves here.

      • djw

        At a certain point, you can’t trick and stunt your way past the people who will give up their SUV’s and 2,000 square foot homes on half-acre plots in housing developments a ten-minute drive from a grocery store and a mall only on the day hell freezes over. There’s nothing you can offer them in a city they literally won’t recoil from because they hate it.

        I keep having to say this over and over again, because this sort of thing keeps coming up:

        In Christopher Leingruber’s excellent book, The Option of Urbanism, he demonstrates that the preferences of Americans break down into three roughly equally sized groups: those who prefer suburban, car-centric living, those who prefer dense urban walkability, and those with no strong preference. The housing stock available is around 80% suburban/car-centric.

        What I’m asking–what many of us our asking–is not “give up your suburban lifestyle.” It’s not even “pay your fucking externalities.” It’s “stop using the law to force development patterns all around to conform to your preferred land use patterns.”

        The notion that urbanists are coming to force suburban residents to live a completely different way is projection–the use of highly restrictive land use and zoning policies to ensure the oversupply of suburban/car-centric housing and undersupply or walkable density prices people who want the latter into the former.

        • Murc

          What I’m asking–what many of us our asking–is not “give up your suburban lifestyle.” It’s not even “pay your fucking externalities.”

          … why the hell aren’t you?

          The suburban lifestyle is environmentally unsustainable. It needs to be broken.

          And generally speaking, people should pay for their externalities without a very good reason for socializing that cost.

          • djw

            One reason I wouldn’t immediately enact a “pay your fucking externalities” plan for suburban living is that depending on how externalities are measured, it would utterly crush a good portion of the middle/working class in a way that they don’t really deserve–the didn’t do anything wrong in choosing their home; they were just responding to incentives.

            They’d need to be eased into to avoid mass disruption and chaos. This is precisely why relaxing zoning restrictions on things like subdivisions, stacked flats, and so on should be such a no-brainer. It doesn’t immediately screw over the middle class family with a 3000 square foot home on 1/4 acre. But when they sell it, we’ll find out if the next buyer really values that lifestyle enough to outbid three buyers who’d prefer to buy 1000 square foot unit with a shared yard. It doesn’t complete the “pay for your externalities” project but it helps us get closer in a way that minimizes immediate disruption. Suburbanites would have to give up some modicum of control over how their neighbors live, but not give up their own home/lifestyle. Seems like a reasonable, humane compromise to me.

            • Murc

              I disagree with none of this, but it is rather different from “we’re not saying you should pay for externalities.”

              • djw

                I just meant the request, which amounts to “stop criminalizing denser living in your general vicinity” is a much more modest and less threatening ask.

                • Murc

                  This is very true.

        • JustRuss

          I understand Murc’s point, but you go for the low-hanging fruit first. And the low hanging fruit in this case are the people who want to live in urban areas but it’s too expensive because we’ve artificially constrained supply in favor of suburbia. So let’s start by making more urban housing available for those who want it.

          • djw

            These conversations often remind me of John Stuart Mill’s account of his discussions with defenders of Victorian patriarchy. On the one hand, they go on and on about how it’s just natural, it’s reflective of the real interests and preferences of men and women, etc. etc. On the other hand, they vigorously defend legal limits on women’s freedom, to make sure we’ll never actually find out. Mill’s response (to paraphrase, “maybe you’re right and maybe I am, but how about we give people some freedom so we can actually find out”) seems appropriate, but seems to penetrate the defenders of suburbanism’s minds about as effectively as Mill’s obversations did for his fellow Victorian patriarchs.

            • Murc

              Is… is anyone here defending suburbanism?

              • I don’t think anyone in this thread is defending suburbanism. When DJW says “these conversations,” I think he’s referring to the people who conclude from your nuanced and thoughtful explanation of what people like about suburbs that all other patterns of development should be illegal. I don’t know whether they’re numerous, but they’re certainly loud.

                • djw

                  Yeah, I was speaking somewhat generally, although the line that ‘urbanists don’t get that suburbs are what people *really want*’ without addressing the laws and subsidies that ensure the over-provision of suburban homes relative to urban ones has popped up in this thread (LeeEsq for example)

    • witlesschum

      I certainly know those people, too, but just judging by behavior the majority of people on my 50s-vintage suburban street don’t really use their yards, like me, and don’t do much with them.

      • Srsly Dad Y

        It was just a fucking mowing competition where I lived.

        • cackalacka

          I spent an inordinate amount of my youth mowing the 1/2 acre surrounding my bachelor pad.

          I downsized the lot and moved in town. I can mow my turf now with a pair of well oiled scissors. My neighbor who has about 8 1/2″ x 11″ more lawn than I do has, I shit you not, a riding mower.

          Lawns are stupid.

    • SamChevre

      I agree. It’s not the fully private green spaces, but “somewhere I can send a 6-year-old to play outside without needing to go with him” is very high-value.

      I’m in a city, but my area feels like an old-fashioned suburb–single-family homes on 50×100 lots. We like that, but would not like something where any time an under-10 kid is outside a parent has to be with them.

      • djw

        “somewhere I can send a 6-year-old to play outside without needing to go with him”

        Of course, it’s rampant society-wide irrational stranger-danger and unsafe streets (both products of the suburbanization era) that prevent neighborhood parks from serving that function.

        • SamChevre

          I don’t think so–at least not entirely. My whole neighborhood was built in the 1920’s, and there’s a nice city park 3 blocks away. I don’t think that preschoolers would have been sent to the park by themselves even in 1930.

          What the neighborhood children have always played in is the median–it’s a divided street. And yes, a median and a rowhouse backyard would be plenty.

          • Origami Isopod

            I don’t think that preschoolers would have been sent to the park by themselves even in 1930.

            They’d have been sent with their older siblings, usually sisters, who’d have kept an eye on them. Once they were a little older, they’d have gone to the park in groups of kids.

            • Denverite

              They’d have been sent with their older siblings, usually sisters, who’d have kept an eye on them.

              The more things change…

            • SamChevre

              That’s certainly what happened in the 60’s. (The former owners of our house raised their children there, and I’ve heard their stories.)

              For me, though, there’s a big difference between “the kids can go to the park after school” and “I can send the pre-schooler out to play in the yard while doing the dishes. When I’ve walked in NYC, it’s the second that looked impossible.

    • djw

      Rowhouse development can include private backyards, albeit smaller than most suburban versions. They’re a good medium-density form that’s illegal to build in the vast majority of suburbs and single-family zoned neighborhoods in much of the country.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        as someone who has to go at least a quarter mile to get to another house, something like that, with some decent parks etc within walking distance, would be vastly preferable to the thing in the photo. that just looks like hell to me

      • efc

        In Atlanta the rowhouse/townhouse is the main form of development I see intown. I could live in something like that with a small back yard. And good insulation between my house and my neighbors!

        In Melbourne, Australia where I grew up the semi-detached houses were very common. Especially in older suburbs. I don’t know if that style of housing is dense enough but it is better than the .25 acre lot style of single family homes.

    • AttorneyAtPaw

      It also depends on precisely what kind of “suburbia” you’re talking about. 1930s-1950s suburbs (like many first- and second-ring ones in Minneapolis) do deliver larger yards, with meaningful amounts of green space for the kids to play, all without deviating too far from walkable and fiscally sustainable urban morphologies (i.e., some degree of “gridding” with periodic commercial and office areas, rather than having to drive through four miles of hierarchical residential streets and arterials when you want a snack).

  • LWA

    The preference isn’t for the suburbs over the city; the preference is for having your workplace in the bustling city, and your bedroom in the quiet suburb.

    Most suburbs are almost entirely dependent on a city nearby for jobs and thereby tax revenue in the form of property taxes on the suburban homes.

    This goes unmentioned by people like Kotkin, eager to drum up antipathy between city and suburb.

    • NewishLawyer

      How true or untrue this is might depend on the area and how you define suburb. Your observation would be true in NYC-Metro where most people seem to commute to NYC for their jobs whether they live in Westchester, Long Island, Rockland, New Jersey, or Connecticut. There are even people who commute from Pennslyvania! It is also probably true allover the Bos-Wash corridor.

      I am not sure how true it is out west. There are lots of people who commute to San Francisco and Oakland from the burbs but there is also a lot of industry and jobs outside of San Francisco and SF. Besides Silicon Valley, there are some major law firms in Marin. GlassDoor is located in Marin. East Bay also has lots of businesses. Lots of people who live in San Mateo and Santa Clara also work in those counties.

      LA is weird. The greater Seattle and Portland areas seem to have major employers in what are essentially the suburbs.

      • LWA

        There are also “edge cities” which are neither urban nor suburban strictly speaking, but whether these will be anything other than a brief symptom of 20th century auto-oriented development, or something more sustainable is up for debate.

        • NewishLawyer

          True. I would say that what is interesting about the Bay Area is that a lot of places are on the suburb/Bay City edge. Walnut Creek is both a suburb where people use BART (or drive) to commute to jobs in SF and Oakland but there is also a fair amount of non-retail/restaurant businesses located in and around Walnut Creek.

    • efc

      In Atlanta it’s not uncommon for it to be the opposite. A lot of people live inside the perimeter or intown and commute up north to jobs in office plazas outside of the perimeter in north fulton or cobb county.

  • efgoldman

    Anybody mention race? Because that’s how the Levittowns of the world were first established post WW2, and an awful lot of effort has been, and is still being, expended to keep them segregated.

    • LWA

      This is worth emphasizing.
      A big part of the Modern architecture and city planning movements were based on anti-city views, portraying them as crowded, dirty, unlovely spaces.

      Although this criticism was race-blind, it also lead very easily into the view of cities as dangerous slums, places to be escaped rather than embraced.

    • DrDick

      Indeed. Not an accident that most suburbs have historically been lily white.

  • NewishLawyer

    I think suburb is a rather broad term. I grew up in a suburb of New York but it was a bedroom town since the 1920s at least and there was an old-school central town. LeeEsq and I used to walk to town for a slice of pizza or just to walk around. Later to take the train to the city which was a half-hour away.

    I will say this again even though I am a broken record on the matter and my experience is skewed by mainly knowing about NYC, SF, and comparable cities but I think it is the decent sized home issue which prevents cities and urbanists from really taking off. I am not talking about everyone needing a McMansion that is 4000 square feet. My experience is that unless you have a lot of money, there are always some weird compromises that need to be done in order to live in cities. One house I walked into had no yard, three bedrooms, and two bathrooms. The problem is that one of the bathrooms was on the ground floor and off the kitchen. So either everyone uses the top bathroom or the adults orkids need to go downstairs in order to shower/bathe/pee. Storage/Closet space was also an issue (and always seems to be an issue in city apartments and homes.) The house was on the market for 1.7 million.

    Out of curiosity, I did a google search for homes in Marin. I found homes for much less but with no real downside except being 20-30 minutes out of SF. The bedrooms and bathrooms were plentiful. There was living space and privacy space. Plenty of storage, and a decent sized yard.

    So from a rational and economic prospective it simply makes a lot more sense to move to the suburbs for most people. A friend of mine from college grew up in NYC. His parents were middle-class professionals who could have easily afforded a suburban home but had the “suburbs are hellholes” snobbery about them (despite being pretty cool otherwise). He and his sister were raised in a small two-bedroom apartment. Most people are not going to want to raise their families in such small quarters if they can avoid it.

    The United States is a pretty big country with plenty of space. Urbanists have a hard time grappling with this fact because of their zeal for density uber allies. I think the most important thing for urbanists to work on is larger apartments that can actually entice families.

    • Vance Maverick

      What follows, really, from the fact that the US is a big country with lots of space?

      It does mean that one class of argument for crowding together doesn’t work. But maybe there are others.

      • NewishLawyer

        I am generally sympathetic to the urbanist argument from an environmental standpoint. What urbanists don’t seem to grasp is the living space argument. They talk about townhomes and high-rises without wondering about whether a family with two or three kids is really going to want to live in a high-rise apartment.

        Being an effective advocate for a cause means looking at the benefits of what you oppose and trying to replicate them as much as possible. If families want a decent amount of living space, they want a decent amount of living space. You are not going to attract them to the city by offering a small amount of living space.

        • sonamib

          High-rise apartments are a red herring. When you look at cities, even actual megalopolises, you find plenty of houses. That’s true in New York, São Paulo, Tokyo et al. True, they’re often not as close to the center as the apartement blocks, but they’re there nonetheless.

        • Tyro

          Lots of people outside of the most die hard ideological suburbanist wants things close by and easy commutes and would love a nice Main Street area within “my child can walk/bicycle there” distance.

          The problem is that these neighborhoods are uncommon and expensive. Bay Ridge Brooklyn is a suburb, but it’s also a city. So are Riverdale and Forest Hills. The development patterns of what we consider suburbs changed– walkable/transit density doesn’t necessarily require high rises and townhomes and in fact traditionally hasn’t, outside of center cities and low cost housing.

          • erick

            Yeah I think what most people want is a small town, either in the heart of the city (in the livable cities what you really have is a bunch of small towns right next to each other) or close enough to the city to make it easily reached by transit or car when you want to access it.

            But that option isn’t available in most of the country. Which is why the few cities that offer it are so expensive.

            • NewishLawyer

              I would concur with this. What I loved about living in Brooklyn and now SF is that I have my own neighborhood and it feels like a small unit in a large organism.

              The UES did not feel like this.

          • DAS

            I live in Forest Hills. Not all of it is exactly as walk-able as you’d like an urban area to be (although it has the parking problems you’d expect from an urban area). Where I live is well over a mile from Austin Street. It is not exactly walk-able. Even to get to our nearest shopping area on 108th street is about a third of a mile (to get to the nearest bus stop is a quarter mile): not something you want to do lugging groceries back home on a rainy, cold or hot day.

            • Crusty

              Once upon a time I lived in Forest Hills and I loved it, because in many ways it seemed to offer the best of all worlds. I had a car that I didn’t use during the week. I took mass transit to work and some other places. I walked to much of my shopping and leisure. I used the car if I had to go somewhere further away, or not served by mass transit, or if I was buying something that I couldn’t carry home. For me, it was the perfect combination of neighborhood, walkability, amenities, etc. I now live in a very nice town in New Jersey with a great town that sort of feels a little like Forest Hills. The problem is, most of the residences (or at least mine) are too far away from the downtown, such that if you use the downtown area, which is itself walkable, you’re still using your car to get there.

          • NewishLawyer

            NYC and SF are not the only cities facing unaffordability crisis issues. As far as I can tell from complaints and news stories this is a country wide problem. Portland, Seattle, Boston, and many other cities are seeing significant increases in housing and rental prices. The only cities that seems to be on the outs for this is Chicago and Philadelphia or places with really horrible job markets.

            The solution I always hear for solving the affordability crisis is building more and higher up and more densly. So townhomes and high-rises. The advocates for increasing residential opportunities in towns with good school districts also go for the upzoning and townhome advocacy.

    • Origami Isopod

      The problem is that one of the bathrooms was on the ground floor and off the kitchen. So either everyone uses the top bathroom or the adults orkids need to go downstairs in order to shower/bathe/pee.

      …And?

      • Ronan

        Yeah I’m a little lost by that. Perhaps the problem is proximity to the kitchen …..?

        • tsam

          I dream of being able to grab a beer and pee on the same trip.

          • Ronan

            Oldest trick in the book, keep a few in the cistern

          • N__B

            You can already do that. You dream of doing it without making a mess.

      • Lost Left Coaster

        I know, I know. I guess maybe a lot of people really, truly are this lazy, but I would just add that there are always compromises to be made when you’re choosing where to live, and I wouldn’t trade a neighbourhood with personality and lots of close amenities for having all the bathrooms on the same floor, or whatever.

        • Ruviana

          If you’re elderly and/or disabled you might very much want all the bathrooms, or rooms generally, on the same floor.

          • Origami Isopod

            Sure, but NL didn’t specify that this was the case. It sounded like the usual young-ish able-bodied parents with able-bodied kids.

            (FWIW I grew up with one bathroom upstairs, one bathroom downstairs, and the latter was off the kitchen.)

  • Denverite

    Cities can provide much of what suburbs do. It’s true enough that they don’t, but that’s not some inevitably.

    Grrr. Pet peeve. Not all cities are northeastern ones. There are plenty of cities like Denver or Portland or Austin or Minneapolis or Seattle or on and on and on where the single family home is the most common sort of housing, many neighborhoods offer good schools, there are lots of parks, etc.

    • MattT

      And a big part of the reason almost all of those cities are having major affordability crises is that they are trying to be too much like suburbs and force everyone to have a single family home with a yard. And it’s not like there would have to be giant towers. If people were more willing to let there be duplexes on smaller lots/3-4 plexes on slightly larger lots, you could add a lot of density to support transit/reduce sprawl while still preserving all those parks.

  • Tyro

    This is so consistent with Joel Kotkin’s mindless advocacy of suburban development patterns that he has been hammering on with endlessly that it collapses within its own banality.

  • royko

    I’d say that the walkability and public transportation aspects of cities are much more kid-friendly than what suburbs provide, where cars are required for everything you want to do.

    Cities have their problems, but suburbs are actually pretty badly designed for family life. People have just bought into suburban flaws as “part of life.”

    • Denverite

      I’d say that the walkability and public transportation aspects of cities are much more kid-friendly than what suburbs provide, where cars are required for everything you want to do.

      You don’t have kids, do you?

      If you have children under 10, using public transportation with them can be a nightmare. Your schedule is dictated by the public transportation, and not your kids’, which is a huge pain. If your six year-old needs to take a nap RIGHT NOW, and the bus is still 20 minutes off, you’re kind of screwed. And as for walkability, your radius is significantly reduced if you’re limited to how far that six year-old can make it.

      Not to mention that grocery shopping for a family is much easier with a car’s carrying capacity, school transportation is a lot easier (i.e., we leave for school at 8:15 and it takes 5-10 minutes to do the multiple drops; if we walked, it would probably be a 45 minute walk — and that’s if they could make it the 1.5 hilly miles).

      I’m not the biggest fan of car culture, but cars make things MUCH easier if you have small(ish) kids.

      • Murc

        And then the kids stop being small, but start having friends and doing school activities that can require a vehicle that can accommodate four hockey bags with accompanying teens.

        • erick

          I think the ideal is hard to actually manage unless you get really lucky timing the real estate markets.

          When you don’t have kids the city is best. When you have kids until,they are old enough to ride the bus etc by themselves the suburbs are best, then once the kids are old enough to go places and ride mass transit on their own the city is best again.

        • sonamib

          Or the kids stop being small and you can stop driving them around and let them use public transit by themselves.

          Edit : If the transit is good enough, that lifestyle can be done in rural areas too. I spent two weeks in an exchange program in a tiny German town on the Swiss border. Every kid who was at least 7 walked to the station and took the train to school by themselves.

          • Denverite

            Or the kids stop being small and you can stop driving them around and let them use public transit by themselves.

            Yeah, but if you have multiple kids, that can be the better part of two decades. Using an age cutoff of say eleven before the kids can ride public transportation by themselves, we would have too-young-too-ride kids from 2006 until 2021. Plus, once the oldest kid is able to drive, that opens up all sorts of conveniences.

            • erick

              Yeah like I said really hard to manage.unless you only have a couple kids within a couple years of each other and get lucky timing the real estate market.

            • djw

              I was using (small town) public transit by myself well before 11. Depends on the kid, obviously, but that seems awfully old. My understanding is that plenty of kids in NYC use it to get to and from school a good deal younger than that.

              Certainly, you can’t make a safety argument for most, say, 8-10 year olds, if the alternative is being driven in a car.

              • Denverite

                Erg, I disagree. Our eldest is 9.5 and responsible, and there’s no way I’d let her ride public by herself unless it was something where an adult was dropping her off and picking her up directly at both ends. It’s not the transit itself — it’s the mile walk to the train stop and then however long walk to wherever she’s going at the other end. Or the 15 minute wait in a not-super-nice part of town for the connecting bus that goes into downtown.

                And the car bit is clever and all, but the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is about 500 to 1. It’s 37,000 to 1 on an annual basis. Car fatalities are a societal problem, but in terms of an individual’s risk, it’s sufficiently remote that it shouldn’t factor in to how you want to get your kids to school.

                • And the car bit is clever and all, but the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident is about 500 to 1. It’s 37,000 to 1 on an annual basis. Car fatalities are a societal problem, but in terms of an individual’s risk, it’s sufficiently remote that it shouldn’t factor in to how you want to get your kids to school.

                  But…the question is whether it’s more or less risky than letting them travel by PT, right? I mean, if you’re making a safety argument.

                  Not the best organised source and obviously strongly biased but:

                  Abductions in perspective:

                  Number of children age 2 – 14 killed in car accidents, as passengers: 1300
                  Number of children killed each year by their family members and acquaintances: About 1000
                  Number of children abducted in “stereotypical kidnappings” (kidnapped by a stranger for ransom or for sexual purposes and/or transported away) in 1999, the most recent year for which we have statistics: 115.
                  Number of children killed by their abductor: About 50.

                  Now, given these statistics (for the sake of argument), it’s accurate to say that if leaving your kid unattended or to wander the neighbourhood is dangerous enough to warrant sanction or removal, then putting them in a car should be similarly treated.

                  The illusion of control plays a big role here.

                  (You can, of course, reasonably argue that none of these activities are risky enough to warrant any state intervention. I would so argue!)

                • djw

                  Obviously transit in your kid’s case isn’t sufficiently convenient to make sense, but assuming there are good sidewalks/safe for pedestrian roads (which I acknowledge may not be the case) I’m pretty skeptical that our best effort to account for the risk of death and injury via a transit commute would be any worse than for a car.

                • JustRuss

                  Let’s not forget that most accidents don’t result in fatalities, serious and minor injuries are more common. I broke my leg in a car wreck, and several of my wife’s siblings have chronic back issues from being in a collision when they were children.

                • efgoldman

                  Number of children age 2 – 14 killed in car accidents, as passengers: 1300

                  Notably missing: Number of kids killed by improperly secured/used firearms.

          • erick

            Yeah the European model is much better IMHO. Grids of small towns connected to central cities with mass transit.

            • DAS

              The Midwest/Plains already has a grid structure you can see on any map or from a plane. All they need is better mass transit to connect the small towns with the central cities. And also more jobs.

          • NewishLawyer

            When I was around nine, my parents started going out for a few hours at night on the weekends and leaving us without babysitters.

            I understand you can’t do this now. There seem to be conflicting schools of thought in the United States about when kids can be independent and/or be on public transportation unsupervised.

            • Linnaeus

              I’ve noticed this, too. For most of my childhood and adolescence, I grew up in a single-parent household, which necessitated me and my brother being left unattended much of the time.

              • Denverite

                We will leave our kids unsupervised for up to about thirty minutes to go to the store or whatnot. The eldest is 9.5 and VERY responsible, and she has a phone and can call us if anything is up.

                Nonetheless, we would NEVER admit that to someone we knew for fear they’d report us.

                • Linnaeus

                  Which is interesting, because when I was growing up, there was certainly some anxiety about “latchkey kids” and whatnot, but the idea that you’d report parents for leaving kids alone (after a certain age, at least) still seemed odd.

                • Murc

                  This is weird to me, as I was being let out to run wild and free among the neighborhood at the age of seven. Completely unsupervised. If I wanted to go play in the woods behind our house or ride my back just wherever, that was cool, just be home for dinner.

                  I mean. It was a boring subdivision. But it didn’t seem at all unusual. Still doesn’t.

                • djw

                  Murc, me too. I was given a permitted “range” (about a mile in any direction). So were all the neighborhood kids. There was very little traffic (a bunch of col-de-sac dead-ends). I’m 40, so this was the 80’s.

                  That said, my parents were pretty serious about not leaving me home alone until I was 12, which they understood to be the law, even though it was pretty obvious to them I’d have been fine for a few hours by the time I was 10 or so.

                • bender

                  I grew up in Arlington, VA in the 1950s. I walked to and from my elementary school unaccompanied (I guess it was about one half a mile to a mile away) from the first grade on. I walked home alone and did not get in trouble if I dawdled on the way. There was a school bus but it was a nice walk and being an introvert, I preferred walking.

                  Some days I played indoors with neighbor girls (all our moms were stay at homes) and other days I played in neighborhood vacant lots with whatever kids were around, or walked back to school and played in the playground or the woods next to the school by myself or with whatever kids were around.

                  I was expected to be home in time for dinner. This was normal life for a white suburban child in the 1950s.

                  Some aspects of US culture have improved since the 1950s, but the expectation that parents will drive their children to school and pick them up afterward and never leave them alone to play unsupervised by adults isn’t one of them. This is a recipe for producing a generation of crazy adults with no inner life.

                • MyNameIsZweig

                  Yeah, my experience is much more in line with Linnnaeus and Murc in this regard. I was being left in charge of my brother (three years younger) by the time I was 10 – for literally hours on end.

                  I don’t have kids now, so I can’t speak in an informed manner as to why this has changed so dramatically since the early 1980s.

                • Murc

                  That said, my parents were pretty serious about not leaving me home alone until I was 12, which they understood to be the law, even though it was pretty obvious to them I’d have been fine for a few hours by the time I was 10 or so.

                  … you know now that I think about it, that’s so weird. Because this was true for me as well, and when I consider it… Mom was fine with me walking out the door at ten in the morning and not seeing me again until five, six in the evening, but leave me alone in the house? She never did that until I was at least eleven or twelve.

            • LeeEsq

              In a poll, the residents of Tokyo said that they let the kids ride the trains alone because it is Japan. This means that it is a high-trust society and they could be reasonably certain if the kids get in trouble, any adult would be useful and helpful. They said that if they lived in London and New York than they would not do this.

              • sonamib

                Yeah, achieving that kind of high trust society is hard. But I do think it’s good to know that those good examples exist, and that we could do better!

                • LeeEsq

                  Japan’s high trust society exists because nearly everybody is ethnically Japanese. the big advantage of homogeneous societies is that they tend to be very high trust because most people see themselves as members of the same tribe obligated to look out for each other. There are homogenous societies that aren’t high trust, like both Koreas, but it does seem something of a necessary ingredient.

                • sonamib

                  Actually, kids going to school by themselves by public transit also happens in Brazil. It’s true that only poor families that have no other choice do this, but the kids do ride the buses by themselves and the drivers and other passengers are used to it. It doesn’t seem particularly dangerous but middle class people are afraid to do it.

                • LeeEsq

                  Its unclear if you are referring to middle class people in Brazil or the United States but in transit heavy places like NYC or walkable places, it isn’t uncommon in the United States either. Kids in Japan are given much freer and wider range though because of the high trust.

                • sonamib

                  I meant in Brazil. I’m not really with familiar with the US.

                • Ronan

                  I wouldn’t overstate how important ethnic homogeneity is to high trust societies, also bear in mind that high trust communities (at the micro level) can exist in low trust societies( at the macro ), and vice versa.
                  Also don’t mistake causation here. Ethnicity is to a considerable extent contingent and constructed. High trust societies in part developed this trust by creating this homogeneity. High trust can as much be a result of specific policies/practices that create community cohesion, rather than simply an outgrowth of ethnic homogeneity

                • Ronan

                  Anyway, I don’t think this is the important factor deciding whether kids go to school on their own

                • LeeEsq

                  Ronan, its seems to be a chicken and egg thing to me. You can have a homogeneous society that is low-trust. You can also have a heterogeneous society that is high trust with the high trust created by public policies. The countries that enacted the policies that support high trust were medium to high trust in the first place though rather than low trust societies enacted policies that would lead to high trust.

                • Ronan

                  Tangentially, what is the actual technical, scientific answer to the chicken and egg question? We must have one at this stage ? Surely we’re not still claiming it’s unknowable?

                • sonamib

                  Technically, eggs came before chicken. There were eggs looong before birds were even a thing.

                  If you mean specifically “chicken eggs”, then the question is kind of stupid, since in evolutive history there isn’t a sharp transition between non-chicken eggs and chicken eggs, just as there is no sharp transition between non-chicken and chicken.

                • Ronan

                  What I mean is, At the transition point, had the creature which became a chicken already become a chicken before it laid the egg, or did the chicken come from the egg, was the egg laid by the creature prior to the chicken.
                  Ie did the chicken lay the egg, or did its prior evolutionary form lay it. When did the transition technically occur. From the egg or mid life for the pre chicken beast

                  Edit: though I guess science hasn’t answered this yet

          • efgoldman

            Every kid who was at least 7 walked to the station and took the train to school by themselves.

            Last time we were in Manhattan (some years ago, but i don’t think it’s changed very much) there were flocks of kids going home from school by themselves or in small groups. Anecdata, sure, but it all depends what you’re used to and what you, as a parent, grew up with. We live in a total car burb now, but we didn’t move there until kid was away at college. I don’t love it. We raised her in a close-in suburb West of Boston, in an area of mostly multi-family homes (twos and threes) but few apartment buildings and no high-rises, walkable and accessible, with bus a short walk away that was ten minutes to the subway. Parents walked kindergarten and first graders to the school bus stop, and met them after; by second grade, the kids walked themselves; by third or fourth grade, most of them “cheated” and walked to and from school (ubiquitous crossing guards). No hassles, no drama.
            BUT those close in burbs are more the functional equivalent of the trendy Brooklyn neighborhoods. Not QUITE as expensive, but still unaffordable. These are the houses where the cops and firefighters and Edison workers used to live and raise families. Not any more.

      • NewishLawyer

        As a 35 year old unmarried person without kids, I will say that it is very interesting seeing which friends with kids are staying (or trying to stay) in ciities and which ones are buying burbs. There seem to be several schools of thought:

        1. Admit that your kids are going to school eventually and move to the suburbs before the kids are one.

        2. Hold off as long as possible until the kids are about to start kindergarten. Others wait until middle school.

        The people I know who stay in the city with their kids tend to have a lot of money or not much money at all.

        • Denverite

          In Denver, it’s middle school where the decision gets made. There are a number of fairly sizable pockets around the city with excellent elementary schools (pretty much all of south central Denver, the newish Stapleton community, etc.). But the non-magnet middle schools are all pretty blah. It’s about 50-50 whether your kid gets into a magnet, so people will apply in fifth grade, if they get in great, and if not they’ll either move the ‘burbs (if they have multiple kids) or fork out private school tuition (if they just have one kid).

          The high schools flip back to being pretty OK, for some odd reason.

          • NewishLawyer

            NYC (and SF) seem pretty good at having good elementary schools but it is middle and high school where the good ones become few and far between and there is more demand than supply.

        • cackalacka

          Not too much older, and we’ve made the cross-generational foray of late.

          There were two schools of thought concerning our cultural and leisure capacities.

          My exurban parent friends were warning us that our lives were about to end.

          My urban parent friends continue to share cocktail recipes and suggest toddler-friendly restaurants that have al fresco seating.

          • NewishLawyer

            I still am not sure about parents taking their very young children into bars. Restaurants seem more okay.

            I think there are also different attitudes towards parenting. I am too American and probably too middle class to accept the British attitude that it is acceptable to outsource the more unpleasant parts of child-rearing to nannies/other sources. I am also generally shocked when I hear about parents who seem to go away with some frequency when their children are under one and they leave their children with other supervision. I think grandparents or aunts/uncles are great babysitters for a once in a while night out but something about doing it every weekend shocks my conscious. I’ve known couples who do it with such frequency (along with their work) that I question how much parenting they are actually doing. This has included four-day trips.

            • efgoldman

              I think grandparents or aunts/uncles are great babysitters for a once in a while night out but something about doing it every weekend shocks my conscious.

              Come into the 21st century, kid. In many areas grandparents provide day care, every damned day, so both parents can work. Hell, we would and gladly so, but we can’t do it from 400 miles away. Do you know what paid day care costs in an area like, say, Watertown MA or Arligton VA? “Shocking” and “scary” doesn’t begin to cover it.
              Oh, and BTW as a musician (mrs efg) and a broadcaster (me) we spent many evenings out. Our daughter is one of the most well-adjusted young adults on the planet. She and her husband booth have careers, and granddaughter is in an excellent preschool. Doesn’t seem to be hurting her any, she’s learning like crazy and getting super-socialized.

              • Denverite

                Do you know what paid day care costs in an area like, say, Watertown MA or Arligton VA? “Shocking” and “scary” doesn’t begin to cover it.

                I’d guess $1800-$2000 per month per kid.

                • efgoldman

                  I’d guess $1800-$2000 per month per kid.

                  A little less, but not much

                • Gordon Freeman

                  This is pretty much spot on for DC proper, although a high-end daycare center in central DC can run up to 2300/month.

            • cackalacka

              Curiously, when it comes to children at public houses, the opinions of my childless and unmarried friends are identical to those held by my exurban parent friends.

              Better to plop the entire family in seclusion and plug our minds into something produced by Viacomm or ABC/Disney.

      • tsam

        I’m not the biggest fan of car culture, but cars make things MUCH easier if you have small(ish) kids.

        Fuck yes they do. I live in a city that has very little of the northeastern style apartments in walkable neighborhoods–essentially the whole town is one big suburb for the moment.

        You pretty much NEED a car here. It’s not that I like car culture, it’s just pretty much how you have to live here. It’s been set up that way since the 1950s. Unfortunately it’s just the way it is for the moment.

        Also, whether it’s true or not, parents have an instinctive feeling that their kids are safer in suburbs/exurbs than in the cities.

  • mikeSchilling

    Cities can provide much of what suburbs do.

    Of course, the parts of them that do are extremely desirable and thus unaffordable, but we’ll ignore that for now.

    • erick

      I think the point is we don’t build enough of those desirable locations.

      Not everyone can live in Brooklyn or San Francisco or wherever. But suburbs can be designed as smaller towns or villages with mixed use neighborhoods, straight grids of streets, combinations of businesses, single family houses, medium rise multi family homes and row houses. They don’t need to be isolated groups of nothing but houses on winding streets with only 1 entry point per neighborhood with all the stores and businesses isolated into other groupings reachable by car only.

      • DAS

        The layout you mention is a feature not a bug: I grew up in such a suburb, and the idea is that by having winding streets, no business within the neighborhood, etc., there would not be a lot of traffic or random people going through the neighborhood, which would make it safer.

        FWIW, the neighborhood I grew up in was too big to be truly walk-able (e.g. it would be too far to walk from the middle of the neighborhood to the nearest store), but it was eminently bike-able. And because of the lower traffic, it was safe to bike to the store, get a few groceries and bike back. I wouldn’t feel comfortable riding on our crowded streets with a pannier full of groceries.

        • sonamib

          Oh, I hate those kinds of winding streets. Recently I tried to bike to a nice park out in the suburbs, I didn’t quite remember the way, but I did know that there was a light rail line going right there. But once I got out of the city, the light rail got off road and there were no parallel streets to the rail line. None! Just winding roads, randomly drifting left or right, it was hell to navigate through.

        • AttorneyAtPaw

          But doesn’t that rest, at least in part, on the warrant that “random people” are likely, in some statistically appreciable sense, to be Dangerous Criminals? “Worry until proven otherwise” as a default assumption about any given human being is sad enough as an abstract philosophy — much less as an organizing principle for the physical layout of entire communities. And that’s without even getting into the potentially discriminatory definition of “random”: viz. anyone who’s not sufficiently well-heeled to purchase in that subdivision; who chooses to prioritize his funds in some other fashion than on a large debt-financed home; or who appears not to satisfy local perceptions about who can/should purchase in that subdivision (think race, family status, etc.)

          (N.b. that I’m speaking only of the thought processes underlying planning and development, without intending to read ideas into your head that you may not espouse personally).

    • Of course, the parts of them that do are extremely desirable and thus unaffordable, but we’ll ignore that for now.

      A consequence of scarcity, itself produced by public policy.

      Looking strictly at the inputs – especially the much-more efficient use of land – such neighborhoods would be cheaper than sprawling suburbs, all else being equal.

  • DAS

    “In truth, a suburban preference doesn’t necessarily connote a preference for suburbs; it connotes a preference for things that suburbs tend to offer” — like decent kitchens. Why do builders of urban apartments place sinks such that when you are washing dishes you have a cabinet directly in your face and place stoves by the window such that there’s too much sun glare for you to see whether or not your gas flame has blown out because you were a bit too aggressive in turning your flame down to simmer? And what is the deal with those stoves where the burners are too close together to actually have multiple pots/pans on the stove comfortably?

    Our apartment is not small and neither is our kitchen. But the way the kitchen is laid out (square … but not quite big enough to have an island in the middle), there is simply not enough counter space to be comfortable cooking. The only time our square layout was useful was when my parents were visiting (my mom has mobility issues): my mom was able to sit in the middle of the kitchen and chat with whomever was preparing food as there was just enough space for her there.

    I’ve lived in apartments in the suburbs as well. Generally they are laid out better!

    • efgoldman

      Why do builders of urban apartments place sinks such that when you are washing dishes you have a cabinet directly in your face

      You’re too tall.

      place stoves by the window such that there’s too much sun glare

      No blinds?

      And what is the deal with those stoves where the burners are too close together to actually have multiple pots/pans on the stove comfortably?

      Much cheaper for the landlord to buy.

      I’ve lived in apartments in the suburbs as well. Generally they are laid out better!

      Because square footage costs more in the city.

      Obvious answers to first world questions. Life is a series of trade offs.

  • MPAVictoria

    So last year my partner and I were recently forced out of our rented two bedroom apartment in a nice, walkable, neighborhood in downtown Ottawa by a 40% rent increase. I was very sad to go as I loved our area and it was within easy walking distance of my work. This meant I could walk home at lunch to check on my partner who has been dealing with long term mental health issues. Unfortunately we just couldn’t justify/afford paying that amount in rent. So we started to search for a new place.

    We ended up buying (both of our parents were nice enough to help out with a down payment. We are very grateful to them) a nice condo just outside of the downtown in a good but not as walkable area. I now drive to work instead of walk and I don’t have to time at lunch to go home anymore. So that sucks. Now to bring this back to the topic, 4 other couples we know decided to buy at the same time. And all 4 bought detached single family homes in the suburbs for around what we paid for our condo. Not one of them even looked at a place inside the city proper. We were the only ones willing to sacrifice living space and quiet for a city location. And the area we could afford doesn’t even offer everything that our last rental did before we were shoved out by rent hikes. It is interesting the choices people make regarding housing.

    /In other news my partner is back working again after almost 2 years off and is doing much better. I am desperately hoping they remain healthy.

    //Sigh. This is mostly of interest only to me. Sorry.

    • sonamib

      Oh wow, a 40% rent hike really sucks. I’m sorry you were forced out of your home in this way.

      • MPAVictoria

        Thank you.

        It is why attacks on rent control regulations always piss me off.

    • Linnaeus

      I feel as if I’ve been very lucky in that my rent has only gone up a total of 10% in the five years or so that I’ve lived in this building, given that affordable housing has become a significant issue in my city in recent years.

      At the same time, I often wonder when the other shoe is going to drop and I’ll see a larger increase or the landlord/landlord’s heir decides to sell the building and move us all out.

      • efgoldman

        I often wonder when the other shoe is going to drop

        My kids live in Arlington VA in a smallish but nice and very well-maintained apartment. Bus stop in front to downtown DC (if it runs), walkable to Metro (if it hasn’t blown up and killed anybody this week); great highway access (to highways with terrible congested traffic). They’d love to stay here – good schools, good services, everything’s handy. But they know the next rent increase is going to force them out. Any houses in the neighborhood that sell for under $800k are teardowns. The house just up the hill sold for $1.65mil recently. Real estate prices have an obvious and unfortunate effect on rental prices.

      • GFW

        I think this is another reason that people like to own! Doesn’t necessarily influence *what* they want to own in terms of private yard, shared yard, etc., but if you hate the idea of rent increases forever, then you want to buy … and you choose to buy from what is available to buy.

    • JustRuss

      Too bad about getting pushed out of your apartment, glad your partner’s doing better. I can’t help notice you used the rather awkward pronoun “they” to refer to…them. Habit or conscious choice? Feel free to tell me it’s none of my business, I’m just nosy sometimes.

      • MPAVictoria

        Choice. I try to retain anonymity for professional reasons. :-)

      • I can’t help notice you used the rather awkward pronoun “they” to refer to…them.

        I dispute the awkwardness. Singular “they” was good enough for Jane Austen!

        I routinely use it even if I know the gender id of a person. It is most excellent and elegant and should be encouraged!

        • sonamib

          +1

          When people complain about the awkwardness of the singular “they”, they’re only showing their anglophone privilege ;)

          I just wish there was such a convenient gender-neutral pronoun in French and/or Portuguese.

        • JustRuss

          Excellent and elegant? Sorry no. “They” is unambiguously plural, but it’s the kludge we have to live with. Honestly, I’d almost vote for Trump if he’d promise us a gender-neutral third-person singular pronoun AND a second-person plural (gender neutral) pronoun that didn’t make me sound like Jed Clampett.

    • /In other news my partner is back working again after almost 2 years off and is doing much better. I am desperately hoping they remain healthy.

      Yay! I so hope as well!

      • MPAVictoria

        Thanks! Things have been much better over the past month and I am hoping this trend continues. :-)

    • bender

      Castle in the air, but if your family and the other four had pooled your money, you could have bought a small apartment building in a slightly better neighborhood and remodeled it to suit. Price per square foot for low rise apartment buildings is lower than for a single condominium. As a group you could probably have afforded a six unit building and used the spare for rental income or temporary beds for visitors.

      This happens to be on my mind, because it’s what I would like to do (buy a small urban apartment building with a shared back yard) but finding compatible partners who have the necessary capital and are ready to move when I am is difficult.

      • JustRuss

        We did that when we bought our first house, but with just one other party. It worked out, but was pretty damn scary when we parted ways, I don’t think I’d do it again.

      • efgoldman

        used the spare for rental income

        Depending on local/state laws, being a landlord can be a hideous experience. Even under the best of circumstances it can be trying.

        you could have bought a small apartment building in a slightly better neighborhood and remodeled it to suit.

        In lots of areas close to Boston, the low-rise buildings have already been converted to condos. I don’t see aimai here today but I know she can tell you lots of stories about Cambridge and environs.

  • djw

    I’d venture to say suburban living is distinctly family unfriendly, as it traps families in death machines called cars, which kill families far more efficiently than anything urban living can offer up.

    • tsam

      You won’t be saying that when the lamestream media actually publishes the number of deaths from ISIS in our cities.

    • LeeEsq

      Good luck with trying to convince Americans about this.

      • Lost Left Coaster

        It is amazing the absolute bloodbath that people are willing to put up with. I wonder what percentage of Americans either know someone who was killed or seriously injured in a car crash or have been in a serious wreck themselves?

        • LeeEsq

          Cars do give people a lot of mobility though. Americans perceive themselves as free wheeling and dealing people who like to go where they please when they please. Cars provide at least an illusion of this better than other modes of transport.

          • Lost Left Coaster

            Some Americans do perceive themselves this way. But a lot of Americans use cars because there are not really any viable transportation alternatives in the places that they can afford to live. Commuters stuck in heavy traffic on freeways during rush hour probably do not see themselves as free wheeling and dealing, no matter how the rest of us feel about the Great American Road Trip as a trope of freedom.

          • Cars do give people a lot of mobility though.

            Until everyone is using them, and then the traffic barely moves.

  • tsam

    Is the photo of Phoenix? That’s a familiar looking hellscape–like the maze at the end of The Shining.

    • Michael Cain

      Clark County, Nevada.

  • Something very important that gets missed in talk about suburban sprawl: it’s literally not financially sustainable. Most suburbs can’t pay for their own infrastructure. They survive by population growth, enormous amounts of debt, or massive transfer payments from state and federal governments.

    Over the next couple decades, most of the suburban infrastructure built in the 1950s and 60s will reach its end-of-life, and will have to be replaced. The money to pay for it doesn’t exist—the ratio of infrastructure to tax base is so out-of-wack. A staggering number of towns will turn to the state and federal governments for a bailout. Flint is not the exception, it’s the rule. It got hit hardest and first because it was black, poor, and its population had drastically shrunk. This didn’t cause financial problems, it merely accelerated them.

    To name a specific example: between 1949 and 2015, the city of Lafayette, Illinois saw its population increase by 3.5x and its median household income grown by 1.6x. And in that same time period, the amount of water pipe built per capita multiplied by 10x. See the problem here? To name another, the city of Rockford, Il doubled its physical size over the last 45 years while its total population stagnated. Suburbia effectively redistributed its population over a wider area. It currently can’t pay for its own water mains.

    Suburbs could afford their infrastructure in the 1950s because it was boom times and in the 1960s because their populations—their tax base—was exploding thanks to white flight. By the nineties, the first wave of infrastructure was reaching its end-of-life. Reconstruction was enabled mostly by assuming massive amounts of debt, both directly via municipal bonds and indirectly via the housing boom.

    The boom times are gone. Towns can only assume so much debt. They can put off replacing aging infrastructure for a while, but at a certain point it just starts physically crumbling. Suburbia is fucked, and the only thing that can be done is pick which fraction of it state and federal governments bail out while the remainder is left to rot. (You are left to guess which fraction that will be. Probably the richest and whitest suburbs.)

    • efgoldman

      Most suburbs can’t pay for their own infrastructure.

      The could, but they won’t, because at some level it involves the scary and dreaded T-word.
      Taxes have to go up at the local level, or the state has to share revenue (and raise it first) or congress can get off its lard ass and put taxes back to what they were, say, 20 years ago. But it’s a political question, not a fiscal one.

      • Technically true, though you’re drastically underestimating just how much deadweight suburbia produces.

        Lafayette, Il, which I cited earlier, has a median household income of $41,000 a year. Simply to maintain their current physical infrastructure (meaning zero expansion—unlikely considering how most suburban cities go about “growth”), the city would need to increase its per-household tax revenue by about $8,000 per year.

        That’s effectively an additional 20% median income tax, on top of all other taxes a household would pay, just to tread water. Have you ever heard of a city with a 20% income tax?

        Now, I have no objections to high tax rate, say 50% effective, to pay for an amazing system of healthcare, education, housing, transit, and a regulatory state that actually has the resources it needs. I don’t think most commenters here would mind, either.

        The issue is that suburbs are the residential equivalent of sports stadiums: a phenomenally poor investment and a staggering drain of resources that could be better spent. So you’re damned right it’s a political question: a political question of whether to continue pouring endless amounts of money into a housing and transit system that drains wealth rather than producing it.

  • LeeEsq

    Even assuming that suburbia was a result of policy makers rather than the people or the market doesn’t mean that the choice was not popular. People went for the suburbs for a variety of reasons. The ideal American home was a single family house with a yard since the 19th century. Modern suburbia is what you get when you combine this preference with the range afforded by the car. The decision to favor the car over the tram and train was another top down decision that people liked.

    • efgoldman

      The decision to favor the car over the tram and train was another top down decision that people liked.

      You mean people actually liked it when GM colluded with politicians in Southern California to kill the excellent trolley system after WW2?

      • LeeEsq

        Besides being a myth, transit usage was in steep decline since 1910 until the Great Recession with a blip upwards for World War II because of oil rationing. Los Angeles and other cities became car-dominated decades before the trolley lines were ripped up, a process that took until the 1960s to complete with the Pacific Electric in Los Angeles. Trolleys without a separate right of way ground to a halt once a fairly low percentage of people started to drive rather than talk transit to work.

        • I’m sure the decision by the WPA in the 1930s to pour billions of dollars into hundreds of thousands of miles worth of car-only roads, followed by the federal government pouring another half a trillion dollars into the interstate highway system in the 1950s had nothing to do with the popularity of cars. Making a particular transit system comprehensive, accessible, free-to-use, and useful has nothing to do with its popularity.

          • BiloSagdiyev

            Always keep in mind that cars kept getting better, more comfortable, more reliable, lower maintenance, decade after decade.

          • UserGoogol

            Things can have multiple causes, and usually do. As automobiles became more popular, they ran into the problem that automobiles and streetcars really don’t play well together. So rather than build up the infrastructure of streetcars by separating them from traffic or whatever, they embraced cars. Also, automobile companies used their increased money to bribe politicians. Also, racism encouraged population densities less suitable to mass transit. Also, people like Le Corbusier had bad ideas about urban planning which were able to be fostered by the rise of modernist technology. And so on.

            • bender

              I’ve also read that Ike supported the Interstate Highway System and suburb building for the purpose of dispersing the population away from urban centers, so that the USA would be less vulnerable to a nuclear first strike.

              I don’t know whether this is actually true or not, but Eisenhower had seen first hand what cities look like after they have been bombed intensively.

              • BiloSagdiyev

                Er, what he had seen was the autobahn system in Germany and is usefulness in national defense, moving men & material to & fro, firstest with the mostest.

                That it turned out to be one helluva Keynesian project and everybody was fat & happy (compared to ever sine) economically during that construction boom, er, I never heard that said.

            • LeeEsq

              Nearly everybody had bad ideas about urban planning in the period between 1920 and Jana Jacobs. The capitalists, communists, and fascists were going for this terrible modernity. Anything right that happened was mostly an accident.

    • erick

      Sure, but see the thread just above this, would they have liked it as much if they were paying what it actually cost?

      • LeeEsq

        Most likely no.

    • Modern suburbia is what you get when you combine this preference with the range afforded by the car.

      No, actually. 1920s-1940s suburbs are what you get when you combine this preference with the range afforded by a car. Find a neighborhood with those dual-concrete-strip driveways at the width of a Model T’s wheels. You’ll find houses, mostly but not exclusively single-family, on lots of mostly 4000-8000 square feet, with corner stores and neighborhood commercial centers. That’s what the culture + technology produces.

      To get to sprawl, you need a heck of a lot of public policy.

  • BiloSagdiyev

    Sasquatch habitat is being destroyed, too. Will no one think of the apes?

    http://www.bfro.net/GDB/

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