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Religion & Liberty: Volume 30, Number 2

In praise of suburban sprawl

City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present

Alex Krieger | Belknap Press | 2019 | 464 pages


In the catalog of things that are getting a hard rethink in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we must include the disparagement of suburban sprawl and the virtues of urban densification. Yes, much of this critique can be dismissed as elite snobbery. But now it is looking increasingly like sprawl is very good indeed, while the global coronavirus pandemic has set people fleeing the nation’s packed, vertical cities.

“New York’s wealthy are moving their money—and often their families—into surrounding suburbs and exurbs as they look to escape the coronavirus hotspot and a crowded lifestyle,” CNBC reported in May. “It’s too early to tell how many New Yorkers will leave the city, or if the mass exodus that many are predicting will come true. Yet sales activity and interest, especially at the high end, is already shifting from New York City to the surrounding areas.”

The network spoke with real estate brokers reporting “a rush of buyers and renters from the city who are asking for the same thing: more space and more distance from neighbors and crowds.” Some of the wealthy are looking to rent, and “others are checking out second homes a short drive from the city and still others want more permanent primary homes for their families.” New York’s status as the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak only intensified these yearnings.

At the other end of the country, demographer Joel Kotkin reported that “our much-maligned dispersed urban pattern has proven a major asset.” Los Angeles and its surrounding suburbs, he wrote, “have had a considerable number of cases, but overall this highly diverse, globally engaged region has managed to keep rates of infection well below that of dense, transit-dependent New York City.”

Kotkin explained that, by its nature, the “sprawling, multi-polar urban form” of Los Angeles “results in far less ‘exposure density’ to the contagion than more densely packed urban areas, particularly those where large, crowded workplaces are common and workers are mass-transit-dependent.” The history of that form “emerged early in the last century as civic leaders such as Dana Bartlett, a Protestant minister, envisioned Los Angeles as ‘a better city,’ an alternative to the congestion and squalor so common in the big cities of the time. Developers and the public embraced this vision of single-family homes, as Los Angeles became among the fastest-growing big cities in the country.”

Kotkin notes that the dispersed model for city development, which some pejoratively describe as sprawl, has “been increasingly disparaged by politicians, the media and people in academia who tend to favor the New York model of density and mass transit. Yet even before COVID-19 most Angelenos rejected their advice, preferring to live and work in dispersed patterns and traveling by car. This bit of passive civic resistance may have saved lives in this pandemic.”

Every good urban snob has a totem for his or her revulsion for suburban living: the automobile. In 2018, a writer for Outside Magazine bemoaned what he saw as a besetting problem: “[P]eople in private vehicles run roughshod over the city.” This malady “causes crushing traffic jams, delays public transit, pollutes the air, creates noise, wastes public resources, and takes up an obscene amount of space in a city that doesn’t have enough of it. Oh, and there’s also all the people these automobiles kill.” He asked for leaders to design a “bold car-free policy” for urban life.

This antipathy for chrome and sheet metal welded into personal transportation also explains the current enthusiasm for a utopian vision of driverless cars. At the same time, urban planners scrawl wretched bike lanes across city streets. This policy seems designed to make downtown driving so miserable that people will abandon their sedans and minivans for mass transit. 

As with all utopian fancies, this vision cannot withstand reality. Experts tell the urban planners, in effect, “Not so fast.” In 2016, the Wall Street Journal asked Robert McDonald, lead scientist for the Global Cities Program at the Nature Conservancy, how autonomous systems would affect city traffic. He responded, “The faster humans move, the bigger and more sprawling our cities become.” Researchers from New York University and the University of Connecticut examined a global sample of 30 cities and found that population density has been declining between 1% and 1.5% each year since 1890. “Not coincidentally, this is the era when electric street cars were introduced in major cities,” technology writer Christopher Mims wrote.

But don’t millennials prefer to live in cities? “That is widely believed, but not true, according to Jed Kolko, former chief economist at real-estate site Trulia,” Mims reported. “Not only do 66% of millennials tell pollsters they want to live in the suburbs, they are moving there, as population growth in suburbs outstrips growth in cities.”

“This points to an important fact often overlooked by the people—primarily in dense coastal cities—who write about the impact of self-driving cars,” Mims concluded. “About half of Americans live in, and are perfectly fine with, suburbs.”

Kotkin points to a 2012 Slate article predicting that Los Angeles would become the nation’s “next great mass-transit city.” But the number of commuter trips has increased by 770,000 each day, while transit commuting declined by 75,000. “Indeed, the Los Angeles Metro system carried approximately 120 million fewer riders in 2019 than in 1985, even including transfers, despite subsequently opening a huge rail system, with six lines radiating from downtown,” Kotkin writes.

In his new book City on a Hill: Urban Idealism in America from the Puritans to the Present (Belknap Press, 2019), Alex Krieger looked at the “case against suburbia” that is prosecuted by proponents of urban densification. Krieger noted that “most critics assailed the physical environments produced by low-density settlement because they were untidy, generic, boring, and ugly. Some conjured up images of the human body sprawling across and disfiguring nature.” 

There was another common element to the indictment of suburbia, Krieger notes. Suburban life was assailed as “conformist, drab, and isolationist.” What’s more, the criticism deepened over time “to suggest correlations between suburbanization and deepening social apathy and intolerance of neighbors of different classes, races or political views.” The more people own their own property and form bonds with their neighbors, the more conservative they become.

Environmentalists have also piled on, although Krieger is careful to frame their critique by saying that sprawl is more about affluence than any pattern of development. That said, environmentalist “concerns about the waste of land, resources, and attention spent negotiating dispersed patterns of settlement have done more to arouse opposition than any complaints about the lifestyles that suburbs allegedly promote.” In this view, “the low-density subdivision will be seen less and less as a form of smart growth.”

But Krieger is not buying in. “The appeal of a house and a yard will not dramatically diminish,” Krieger concludes. “It embodies too many attributes, especially for those simultaneously working and raising families, even if it is becoming a less universal ideal. … Yes, the suburb remains a paradise for more than a few.”

Let the workers have their paradise.

Featured image by Marshall Astor. (CC BY-SA 2.0). Image cropped.

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John Couretas is Editor-at-Large for the Acton Institute. John holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in the Humanities from Michigan State University and a Master of Science Degree in Journalism from Northwestern University.