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Is Suburban Sprawl Inherently Family Friendly?




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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