The End of One Thing or Another

Based on the interviews and excerpts I’ve read, the title of Leigh Gallagher’s new book seems to be one of those cases of publishers thinking a book isn’t catchy enough unless the cover oversells its thesis:

Whatever things look like in ten years—or twenty, or fifty, or more—there’s one thing everyone agrees on: there will be more options. The government in the past created one American Dream at the expense of almost all others: the dream of a house, a lawn, a picket fence, two or more children, and a car. But there is no single American Dream anymore; there are multiple American Dreams, and multiple American Dreamers. The good news is that the entrepreneurs, academics, planners, home builders and thinkers who plan and build the places we live in are hard at work trying to find space for all of them.

In other words, the suburbs aren’t “ending”; they’re just becoming less hegemonically desirable. Even the most aggressive line in her Washington Post interview (“Yes, absolutely [there will be some winning suburbs]. But it’s the end of a certain kind of suburb. I stand by that.”) really just suggests that the growth of non-walkable exurban areas may stall out, and they may become inhabited by people of modest economic means. (As opposed to, you know, actually ending, i.e., ceasing to exist.) But “The Slow, Relative Physical And Economic Decline of Many Recently-Built Exurban Areas” isn’t a catchy title. I get that.

Still, I think this points to a major problem with the communication of urbanist ideas to the general public, viz. the “urban”/”suburb” terminology. As has been pointed out by people like Alex Block, the words obscure more than they clarify, mostly because they refer both to political entities and styles of development. You can have unwalkable development within a central city (most of, say, Dallas), and walkable development in a suburb (say, Cambridge, MA). When Gallagher says “the suburbs,” she means unwalkable development. When Thomas Sugrue writes about the effects of white flight to the suburbs on the financial viability of Detroit, he’s talking about political boundaries. Different things. They need different words. (I, for example, have decided to use “walkable” and “unwalkable” here to describe the different styles of development. “Sprawl” is also common, but that’s more subjective and, I feel, inherently judgmental, whereas “unwalkable” is a simple description, even if it’s obviously on a sliding scale.)

Conversely, people like Joel Kotkin use the same terminological ambiguity to score points by describing absolute population growth in suburbs and core cities, downplaying or leaving out entirely the distinction between walkable and unwalkable suburbs. Or, for example, in his recent Forbes article (delightfully entitled “How Can We Be So Dense?”*) he points out that polls show about 80% of Americans would prefer a single family home over living in an apartment or condo. He leaves out that 60% of Americans would rather have a smaller single family home in exchange for being able to walk to local businesses and friends’ homes.

A cousin of the terminology problem – one that’s encouraged, I think, by the night-and-day implications of the fictional urban/suburban divide – is the idea that one either has to live in exurbs or a very dense, East Coast-style city. Which is of course fraught not only with all sorts of implications about lifestyle changes you would have to make in order to live in a big apartment building in a huge city, and inconveniences you would have to accept, but also with a kind of elitism and snobbery, since those things are associated with big, wealthy, liberal bastions like Boston and New York and DC and San Francisco and (to a lesser extent) Chicago.

In fact, in her Washington Post interview, Gallagher’s questioner asks:

This is a conversation between somebody who lives in a very nice portion of Manhattan and a person who lives in a pretty nice part of the District. Is it possible that the rest of the country likes driving around in cars and living in houses that are not that expensive?

Which rests on the assumption that A) walkable areas cannot also be driveable, B) dense neighborhoods have to be more expensive, like New York and DC, and C) an American who enjoys living in dense cities is probably a little odd, which, despite being on the surface a self-deprecating thing for a DCer or Manhattanite to say, is also an idea that is frequently expressed by such people and which I tend to believe is actually a form of self-congratulation and, indeed, elitism, and which in fact suggests that the very terminology problem I’ve been discussing is partially fed by the ego of urbanites who would like to consider themselves an enlightened minority, but which beyond that is probably beyond the scope of this post.

So let’s stick with A) and B).

A) is belied by evidence to the contrary from most outlying neighborhoods developed between, say, 1900 and 1940. QED.

B) is more complicated, since dense areas in the U.S. do tend to be more expensive, but suffice it to say that very few people I am aware of who study the economics of urban housing believe that density is inherently more expensive per unit. In fact, it’s usually cheaper, since you’re using less land and building smaller living spaces. This is why, for example, Houston is estimating the average cost of a new home will fall from $400,000 to around $300,000 with the doubling of density caps in its Inner Loop.

To the extent that dense central cities are more expensive, it’s usually because they’re not dense enough, or at least not dense enough to have enough supply to meet demand. This is well-worn territory represented by various smart people with a range of ideologies, like Ed Glaeser, Ryan Avent, Paul Krugman and Matt Yglesias. A large part of the solution to the problem of urban housing affordability, then, is in lifting government restrictions on supply and allowing the market to actually build more places for people to live, where they want to live.

Finally, the problems of terminology and either-or-ism also associate walkable areas with non-elite issues, such as child-unfriendliness. This is, in fact, Kotkin’s third and final attack on walkability in his Forbes article. But, as discussed previously, cities are mostly considered child-unfriendly because of bad schools and crime, and neither of those are inherent to a particular style of development.

EDIT: Plus it occurs to me that the urbanist focus on the walkable-unwalkable meaning of “urban” and “suburban,” which is important enough, obscures the fact that the political divide between urban and suburban municipalities (and, indeed, between wealthy and less-wealthy suburbs) is a terrible miscarriage of justice.

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