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.

Inversion v. Migration

I just finished reading Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion, about the mass gentrification of American inner cities over the last generation or so. It’s got a lot of interesting tidbits, including – as an aside – an incredible pessimism about Philadelphia that I would love to be able to examine with either someone who knows the city better than I do, or a visit there myself, or better yet both. 

As far as Contributions to the Discipline go, my favorite is probably how the book navigates in an elegant and eminently sensible way past the dumb Atlantic Cities v. New Geography debate over whether cities or suburbs are “winning the future.” Ehrenhalt concedes that there is no “mass migration” towards the city center – that, for the moment at least, the balance of population in pretty much every metropolitan area continues to move farther and farther from traditional downtowns. But he points out that there is, undeniably, a “demographic inversion”: the professional classes are moving to inner city neighborhoods that, 30 years ago, were either slums or totally uninhabited, and suburbs are seeing faster growth in traditionally “urban” populations of immigrants and low-income people. Neither of these points is exactly breaking news, but it’s still refreshing to see it laid out with a clarity that the partisans on both sides tend to muddle.

But I finished the book wondering whether “inversions” and “migrations” are, in fact, as independent of each other as Ehrenhalt implies. Think about the many-decade-long period when overall population and wealth were both headed in the same direction, i.e., to the suburbs. There were many reasons to want to move out of the city in, say, 1960: preferential mortgage treatments, more space, less crime, better schools. (Also, if you were white, fewer black people. Not a good reason to want to move, but an influential one.) By the 1970s and 80s, as commercial and office functions started decentralizing wildly, you could add convenience to shopping and work to that list as well. And, of course, the suburbs had cache: that’s where you went if you were a successful, mainstream adult, especially with a family.

But look at that list: with the exception of space, none of suburbia’s benefits are inherent to a particular style of development or geographic location. Suburbs had better schools, safer streets, and better access to retail and jobs because that’s where the middle and professional classes lived. As the Great Inversion proceeds, those class-based amenities are going to shift to a greater and greater extent to central cities. In many cases, it’s already happened: the North Side of Chicago and Manhattan, two of the most intensely urban areas in the country, aren’t too far from Toronto-level crime levels. For the first time in history, San Jose is recording more homicides than San Francisco. Companies who want to attract young workers are moving their offices back downtown. Retailers and restaurateurs are moving to gentrifying neighborhoods. Elementary schools in Chicago, New York and elsewhere are being colonized – there really is no other word – by middle-class families, whose children are bringing up test scores dramatically.* Since pretty much no one sees the tide of inner-city gentrification turning back, these trends are only going to become more and more pronounced.

All of which changes the math for a generic American household – one that, like the vast majority of households, is unswayed by romantic notions of “urban authenticity,” or “hipness,” or whatever – considerably. If the prosaic quality-of-life measures by which most people decide where to live are a wash between any number of suburbs and the central city, and maybe even tilted towards the city in some places, you would expect to see many, many more people begin choosing to live in the city.

In other words, it seems like the logic of demographic inversion leads, eventually, to mass migration, as the broader part of the population chases the amenities that the wealthy have accumulated in their corner of the metropolis.

I can think of two obvious roadblocks to this process: space and housing costs.

As to space: There will, of course, be a good number of people who prefer a larger house to a smaller condo, who want their kids to have a yard, and for whom, as a result, living in the country’s densest neighborhoods is out of the question. But even on this count, the suburban advantage is much less pronounced than one might think. The vast majority of American cities have plenty of single-family-home neighborhoods in close proximity to downtown. Most American inner cities never looked like Manhattan, or even Brooklyn. Space may have been an issue, but it wasn’t like middle-class people in mid-century Kansas City or Cleveland or Dallas were fleeing airless tenements. The issue was crime; it was schools; it was economic and racial status.

Housing costs seem to me like a much more serious problem. Unlike low-density suburbs, where even within a “favored quarter” there can be plenty of room to continue building housing supply within reasonable driving distance of existing malls and job centers, American central cities tend not to have an enormous amount of easily-buildable vacant land, and also tend to have ferocious controls on densification of existing neighborhoods. In other words, once a neighborhood becomes desirable, demand can very quickly outpace supply and make it unaffordable to a large range of people. Now we’re in Ryan Avent’s “Gated City” territory, where the spoils of America’s mass affluence are hoarded by those who can afford to live in the wealthy central city, and everyone else has to contend with inferior schools, retail choices, and higher crime.

So even in the event of mass demand for living in central cities, it’s not clear that American cities are prepared to construct the housing necessary to accommodate a major increase in inner-city populations, and, as a byproduct, make living in the inner city affordable to a broad swath of Americans. We’re certainly a long way from facing that problem in most neighborhoods in most cities. But people who would cheer a mass migration back from the suburbs for reasons economic, environmental, social, whatever, should be looking to the places where it already exists – New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco – and trying to figure out how to fix it.

* This reminds me of something an urban planner friend told me recently. The common belief that the middle class won’t return to cities until the schools improve, he said, gets it exactly backwards. The schools will be the last part of the neighborhood to improve. The middle class will move in, tempted by proximity to jobs, shopping and restaurants; many won’t want to give those things up after they have children; and so, sooner or later, a critical mass of them will send their children to public schools, whereupon the schools will become “better.” We forget, he pointed out, that despite all the talk about teacher quality, charter schools, and new curricula, by far the greatest influence on a school’s test scores is the economic profile of its students. Urban schools are now “bad” because they are overwhelmingly made up of poor students. They will stop being “bad” when that is no longer the case.

Livability urbanism v. general welfare urbanism

I think this piece by Richey Piiparinen at New Geography (via The Urbanophile) is mostly on point, although he commits the sloppy journalistic sin of declaring that Chicago is suffering from “record levels of violence,” which is not true by any metric and which is, in fact, so unsupported by any evidence that it makes you wonder whether anything in the entire piece was fact-checked.

Still, the backlash to what Piiparinen calls “livability urbanism” is a real thing, and on the whole a force for good, and plus it’s nice to see New Geography publishing something thoughtful. (When I read New Geography, which is less often than I used to, it frequently reminds me of Lionel Trilling’s quote about conservatism, which was that it was not really a coherent body of thought but rather an “irritable mental gesture.”)

I also think that part of the phenomenon that Piiparinen finds so frustrating – and which I’ve been turning over in my head recently – is the tendency of urbanists to conflate ways in which their preferred urban policies promote the general welfare, broadly defined (improved safety, reduced time commuting, reduced commuting costs, better access to jobs, fewer carbon emissions), and ways in which their preferred urban policies promote the creation of neighborhoods they think it would be fun to live in.  These are not the same thing. For example, the general welfare is promoted if a postwar suburb decides to make sure all its streets have sidewalks, and that buses come at least every 15 minutes on major routes during the day, and that denser apartment buildings will be allowed near major intersections. However, it has failed to create an environment, in all likelihood, that twentysomething liberal arts graduates will want to live in. On the other side, if Chicago declares Uptown an entertainment district, and gives subsidies to venues there and makes Broadway more attractive, he has probably increased the amount of fun that young educated people will have in the area (and increased the profits of those music venues), but the general quality of life of the people who live in the neighborhood is unlikely to change a tremendous amount.

What makes this conflation more devious is that many cities have decided that, in fact, they will improve the general welfare by making themselves fun places for educated twentysomethings, and thus sparking economic development. But it’s worth noting that this strategy has, as its end goal, something very different than just a direct application of urbanist principles to improve people’s lives. Where this kind of economic development is successful, the tendency is for zoning-restricted housing supply to cause a huge surge in housing prices, which leads to a rise in the area’s average income and quality of life – but with the downside that those benefits accrue to only the upper end of the class spectrum. Or, you know, gentrification. The economic and ethical problems with this approach are well explored.

But moreover, conflating urbanism with places twentysomethings think are fun ignores the fact that not everyone has the same ideal living arrangement. Some people – hell, most people, at least in this country – would like to live in a primarily single-family neighborhood where they can drive on wide, fast-moving streets and find parking easily. When we pretend that those things are incompatible with basic urbanist principles – because they’re the opposite of what’s considered hip – we, as urbanists, are telling the vast majority of Americans that we have nothing to offer them. If we kept in mind the distinction between “livability” urbanism and general welfare urbanism, that would be much less of a problem.

Things I have not had time to note

1. Speaking of elitist urbanism: This article from DNAInfo fairly dumbfounded me when I first read it. An independent grocery store in Ukrainian Village – Ashland just south of Division – wants to start selling liquor. The local neighborhood association is concerned, however, that alcohol might bring around unsavory characters. Or, well, not all alcohol:

A local grocer has been offered a liquor license with a twist: no mass market beers like Bud or Old Style and no cheap wines, either. [T]he deal that would allow him to sell only craft beers and higher-end wines….The restrictions are designed to ease fears by neighbors that the market could create alcohol-related problems.

so the government is mandating that the store only sell products that are too expensive for “problem” customers. I.e., poor people.

If this doesn’t strike you as obviously ridiculous, imagine if the shoe were on the other foot: if some community organization somewhere, like Uptown or UKRAINIAN VILLAGE TEN YEARS AGO, decided to fight gentrification by telling a liquor store that they could only sell cheap, mass-produced beer – no crafts, no local stuff, nothing small-batch or artisanal. (Of course, there would also have to be a ban on PBR.) If that happened, we would all shake our heads and say something like, “No, that’s just not how it works.” But when it comes to government-mandated class exclusivity, I guess it is!

More broadly, this is also an example of “local control” favoring a small set of provincial interests rather than a wider constituency of everyone who is affected by the decision. Let’s imagine, for a moment, that a majority of residents of this area are in favor of this policy, which I doubt. (The impetus for the special license was the East Village Association, which, if it is anything like every other neighborhood association ever, is not a representative sample of the people they ostensibly represent.) What about the people who work in the many service-sector jobs in Ukrainian Village, who may want to pick up a six pack of beer on their way home for $6.99 instead of $12.99? Or people whose commutes take them through the area? Or potential future residents? Why do none of them get a say? I’m a reasonably community-minded person, who believes that collective attachment to a place, and a collective culture, should matter in policy. But what deep spiritual attachment do the residents of the East Village have to craft beer and expensive wines that would justify this? Or – if we want to be credulous and take the crime angle seriously – exactly how much crime do the local police officials expect to be produced from a single liquor store at Ashland and Division? Have they walked around Division recently? Are they expecting drunk yuppies to start attacking innocent bystanders with their strollers?

It is certainly the EVA’s right to make requests of a neighborhood business, or to ask that there not be any liquor licenses in their area at all. It is also, of course, a business’ right to target their products to whatever slice of the income ladder they choose. But a compromise that involves making it illegal to sell products that are affordable to low-income people is pretty awful.

2. Yay suburban express buses! This article about the success of Pace’s BRT-ish highway-shoulder-riding express buses to downtown Chicago is pretty cool. The ridership is still pretty low – it’s quoted at 550 for the two routes – but they’re doubling the number of runs, so it sounds like it’ll probably keep rising. Plus, what a great way to give people who don’t live near Metra transit access to downtown! No wasting years in studies and trying to find hundreds of millions of dollars to construct new rail lines – just send those buses down the highway! Now the question is – or my question is – whether this (or BRT more broadly) could be a model for suburb-to-suburb transit as well. Cheap, easily changeable to meet new job clusters/transit demand, relatively fast. Might this be a pilot/replacement idea for Metra’s proposed suburb-to-suburb STAR line? Do other cities do this?




Yuppie Urbanism v. Egalitarian Urbanism

Via Whet Moser, an Urbanophile piece that asks: “Is Urbanism the New Trickle-Down Economics?”

That depends, it seems to me, on what we mean by the question. If we mean, “Do elites in the government use urbanist policies primarily for the benefit of other elites?”, then I think the answer is a clear yes. As Aaron Renn points out, much of the time politicians aren’t even pretending otherwise; investments in transit, bike lanes, or walkable design are explicitly pitched as bait for young people with college degrees and cultural and economic power. (Witness the incredibly stupid fight between Rahm Emanuel and the mayor of Seattle over whose bike lanes will poach the other’s tech workers.)

But that’s hardly a surprise. We could delete the word “urbanist” from the question and get the same answer. It is a given, here and nearly everywhere else, that governments are under outsized influence from the rich and powerful, defined broadly, and even policies that are ostensibly egalitarian or redistributionist rarely get enacted without partial or total cooptation. This is true in health care, this is true in taxes, this is true in urban policy. Our last great era of rethinking what cities should be – against which this one is often explicitly compared – involved even more blatant pro-elite bias (with elite, during the midcentury, having a more open racial component). Look at the history of the Chicago Housing Authority, which started as a basically socialist, redistributionist program and quickly devolved into government-enforced relocation and segregation of blacks, a story repeated in dozens of cities around the country; or the reign of Robert Moses in New York, and his exclusionary public works.

A better question, I think, is whether the current flavor of urbanism is inherently elitist – that is, whether the kind of urbanist policies promoted at The Atlantic Cities, or Streetsblog, are unprogressive even before being perverted by the political process. That’s a harder question, but I think the answer is no. Certainly, the aspects of urbanism that are most potentially redistributionist – radical liberalization of zoning laws, provision of city services, etc. – are not the ones with the greatest grassroots excitement. And a lot of urbanist causes célèbres, like bike lanes and urban farming, are fairly tangential to social justice.

But I think it’s hard to conclude that the standard basket of urbanist policies, taken as a whole, doesn’t have a strongly redistributionist bent. Two of its main effects – to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and lower the burden of transportation costs, especially on low-income households – are clearly progressive. (See the Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Affordability Index for details on the latter.)

The more interesting debate, which Renn sort of brushes up against without taking on directly, is whether the fact that urbanists tend to be culturally elite college-degree-holding types means that, inevitably, the more redistributionist parts of the policy basket won’t ever get enacted. It’s absolutely true, as he writes, that “with some notable exceptions, you don’t see social justice and equity issues front and center in the urbanists discussions outside of old-school community organizing/activism circles, groups that are almost totally distinct from Atlantic Cities style urbanism.” So we’re not getting any great political movement with the aim of urban economic justice.

But whether that fact dooms egalitarian urbanism depends in large part, it seems to me, on how successful yuppie urbanism is. If, on the one hand, the new urban ideology is applied in a limited, targeted way – if public transit investment goes mainly to pretty-looking but functionally useless streetcars in gentrifying downtown districts, rather than improving regional bus networks (and maybe trains in some metro areas); if politicians’ commitment to urban design is limited to sexy mixed-use development only in those same central areas they want to gentrify, rather than a complete overhaul of zoning and design standards across the region; if a few center-city bike lanes aren’t accompanied by a broader change in road construction guidelines to make walking and accessing public transit viable and safe; then early 21st century urbanism will have the same anti-egalitarian legacy as mid-20th century urbanism.

But if, instead, urbanists – out of pure self-righteous self-interest – win a kind of total ideological victory and manage to change the urban planning paradigm as fundamentally (or even half as fundamentally) as it was changed in the years after World War Two, and we get those improved regional bus networks, the liberalized zoning, the better design that allows for decreased dependence on cars and lower transportation costs, then the legacy will be quite different. The real challenge, of course, will be in those areas not where yuppie urbanism and egalitarian urbanism happen to coincide, but where they clash. Regional bus systems, and improved design guidelines in the ungentrified, and ungentrifiable, suburbs, may not get most urbanists to throw a party, but they’re clearly aligned with their ideological interests and don’t pose any kind of threat.

What does pose a clear threat to the professional class are policies more explicitly aimed at economically integrating neighborhoods: the dismantling of exclusionary zoning codes, the loosening of historic preservation districts, scattered-site public housing in non-poor neighborhoods, and so on. Those are the policies whose chances I would worry about most – and, unfortunately, they also seem to me to be the ones of greatest importance: reducing the burden of transportation costs on poor households is important, but economic segregation is the root of a number of cities’ most intractable problems, including crime and education.

Finally, I think it’s worth noting that I’m not totally convinced that a broad political movement that did explicitly promote egalitarian urbanism would do much good, at least on the economic integration front. The lines of self-interest would basically pit the lower half of the economic spectrum against the upper half, and it doesn’t take a genius to put odds on that battle.