Sunday, April 02, 2006

Suburbs: Good or Bad? The Debate Continues

The growing debate about whether suburbs are good or bad (or maybe they just are, with some good and bad) continues with a couple reports in the last couple of weeks.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a story on March 24 called "A New Wave of Scholars Challenges Common Assumptions about Sprawl and Urban Growth." Several different recent books and authors are reviewed, including Bruegmann's Sprawl: A Compact History, and a book about African-Americans in suburbia by Anrew Wiese.

The debate is summed up well in a passage from the article, which says, "Academic and popular attitudes have, on this subject, fed off one another. Since the 1970's and the rise of the environmental movement, a coalition of forces -- not just environmentalists but also planners and preservationists and concerned citizens -- has taken (Lewis) Mumford's image of American Beauty uniformity and linked it to the worst kind of sprawl in a powerful negative-spin campaign. ... Only a developer could love a landscape the (anti-suburbia) authors describe as 'soulless subdivisions, residential communities utterly lacking in communal life; strip shopping centers, big box chain stores, and artificially festive malls set within barren seas of parking; antiseptic office parks, ghost towns after 6 p.m., and mile upon mile of clogged collector roads, the only fabric tying our disassociated lives back together."

Bruegmann criticizes these suburban critics, saying, "To me, that's the problem with most writing about cities. People go out and say, 'Here's what I like.' And the corollary to that is usually, 'This is what cities ought to be.' Urban historians, he feels, have tended to share certain tastes common to a Northeastern city-dwelling elite, and so have been too hasty to dismiss vernacular aesthetics and choices."

"Critics like Yale's Ms. Hayden argue that Mr. Bruegmann places too much weight on the market and on individual choices while ignoring the impact of federal subsidies for highways and development and the role of so-called growth machines, lobbies made up of financiers and builders. She emphasizes that 'it's very important to know that there have been many subsidies for green-field development, ... which have subsidized one set of consumer choices and constrained others.'

"Mr. Bruegmann shrugs off those objections: 'I don't need to find great conspiracies or greedy developers to explain why suburbia happened. It happened in the United States, as it is happening around the globe, because many people, when offered a choice, have chosen to live at low densities, often in single-family houses.' Complaints like Ms. Hayden's, he says, are 'an excellent example of the kind of New Urban history practiced by Kenneth Jackson and other that I am trying to overturn.'"

Some interesting stuff, important because it helps to give a framework to the kind of planning we may be trying to do -- urban centered or suburban oriented. It's hard for some planners to plan to make suburbs better places if, in their hearts, they believe the "truth" is that we should be aiming to put most people back into the urban core. Given the levels of growth we are currrently experiencing and that are projected for the future, how could that ever be?

Another story in The Slatin Report on March 24, aptly named "The Sprawl Brawl," continues the discussion. More speifically, I was struck by this passage in the story:

"This comes as no surprise to Robert Bruegmann, in whose view urban dispersal is a natural and inevitable phenomenon as society become more affluent. Sprawl, he says, is largely the result of people in the middle class and, more recently, even the working class and immigrants getting what once was only available to the wealthy: a single family house in a neighborhood that is cleaner, greener and safer. What is more, this desire is universal. 'Polls consistently confirm that most Europeans, like most Americans, and indeed most people worldwide, would prefer to live in a single family house on their own piece of land rather than in apartment buildings,' Bruegmann wrote in his book. ... As Europeans became more affluent in the last decades of the twentieth century, the consequences of this desire became even more visible. European cities experiences a precipitous decline in population densities in the historic core, a quickening of the pace of suburban and exurban development, a sharp rise in automobile ownership and use, and the proliferation of subdivisions of single-family houses and surburban shopping centers. American tourists (including visiting planners) spend most of their time in historic city centers and are unaware that most Europeans, just like Americans, live in low-density auto-oriented suburbs and shop in shopping malls and big box stores."

This is pretty much true to my own experience. I was born in Germany not long after the end of World War II. My parents, who had joined the LDS Church, desired to leave the old homeland and come to Utah. They did so when I was only 6 months old. My mother had grown up in an apartment building in a medium-sized German city, while my father's home (and the place where I had been born) was more rural, on the outskirts of a small city. After living in a couple of small apartments near downtown Salt Lake, when their economic circumstances allowed, they bought a small home on a small lot in a tight, dense neighborhood just north of Liberty Park in Salt Lake City. Many of our families friends did the same or lived in the old brownstone apartments scattered around near downtown Salt Lake City.

Shortly after I graduated from high school, my parents had saved enough and improved enough that they then moved to their ideal -- a house on a one-acre lot in South Jordan. Here they had room to garden to their hearts content, and have room to build a large barn and workshop for my Dad. Interestingly enough, as our family friends also improved their economic condition, they took similar actions. It's hard for me to believe that this movement out of the city center to the suburbs was due to a "conspiracy" of developers and government officials to subsidize this kind of growth. For them, it was always their desire.

When I finally went back to Germany to visit the old "Vaterland" in 1990, I expected to see mostly a situation where most people lived in those wonderful urban neighborhoods in the old cities, with lots of public transit and neighborhood market places that my parents had told me about and I had read about. It was a very different situation I found.

My uncle, who had been living in the old family homestead where I had been born, had sold the house as suburbanization grew out to meet him. The house was to be removed because the city needed to build an overpass over the rail tracks at that location because of the increasing frequency of trains carrying commuters into Frankfurt. My uncle took his share of the money from the sale of the homestead, and built himself a wonderful new house in a new subdivision in a small community now a suburb of Frankfurt. There was a rail station a few blocks away, but everyone in the subdivision generally had two or three cars. The autobahns leading into Frankfurt were jammed with commuters every morning and evening, despite the fact that those frequent commuter trains were readily available at nearby stations.

I thought, "This looks just like back home! But they don't have the home mortgage subsidies and highway building programs that we have back home. In fact, transit is still big here. Why is this happening?" The conclusion I drew? Affluence and desire. As soon as people have the money, regardless of whether they live in Europe or America or wherever, they like the lifestyle offered in typical suburban neighborhoods.

I've rambled on long enough. I guess the point of all this is, we as planners need to recognize what people desire and how they want to live, not what we think or other "experts" think about how they ought to live, and make those situations as good as possible. Instead of constantly castigating suburban living (there is plenty about urban living that is not great, either), we should find ways to make it better.


At 7:09 AM, Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

After reading both of your linked articles I searched them for the words "oil, energy, fuel, gasoline, heat, water, electricity". Not one of these words appear in either article.
Whether people really like suburbia or not or whether it provides a healthy satisfactory lifestyle or not is beside the point.
What is important is the tremendous per capita resource costs of suburban living and the auto dependency it creates. As these costs rise, a smaller fraction of the population will be able to continue paying them.

There is plenty of built suburbia already. There will be more than enough of it for the shrinking portion of the population who will be able to bear the growing costs of the lifestyle. Everyone else will be needing affordable places to live with much more modest utility and transportation costs. It frightens me that such places are not being planned and built.

At 8:04 AM, Blogger James said...

There's no question that most people want to live a lifestyle that suburbia provides. Such a "conspiracy" won't somehow brainwash people into on these preferences (but more on this later).

That said, I wouldn't be shocked to learn (as I don't really know out of first hand knowledge) that special interests, whether it be home builders, automakers, the oil industry, or whoever, would back policies supporting the "drive to sprawl." Conspiracy? Maybe. Predictable...of course!

I doubt such special intersts would have addressed (or even cared about) many of the negative consequences many anti-suburbanites decry. Many of these "negative externalities" (in economist-speak) are difficult to quantify or define.

Back to my "brainwashing" comment. Though I recognize the desire of most people to live on a 1 acre paradise like the one you descirbed, I can't help but wonder about whether people prefer suburbia because that's all many have ever seen? If an attractive alternative to suburbia were to be more available, or even a "good" version on the blandest kind that critics point to ("evil" versions), how would "evil" suburbia really fare? New Urbanists point to the high rates of appreciation within New Urbanist communities (many of them suburban in nature) as evidence that the market desires this type of development.

There's a lot more I could say on this topic, but I will end here.

On an unrelated note, I appreciate many of your recent posts that haven't sparked as much discussion (from me others). I'm sure I speak for many when I say thanks for your updates and thoughts!

At 9:28 AM, Blogger Wilf said...

One of the quirks I have to live with in my personality is that once I've finished expressing an opinion, I immediately think about how it can be criticised. One thing I thought right after I finished this blog entry is what you've pointed out, Euclid. While everyone looks at the "dream" suburban lifestyle, there may just not be very many good urban projects that would be more desireable for some. They are happening, though, just not as many. Look at some of the places on South Temple near downtown that have sprung up recently, or the plans that are currently underway for the LDS church-owned property downtown. These should provide some alternatives.

Still, even given these better urban living alternatives, I think most people are going for the suburban life. That's not good or bad in my mind, just something we have to take into account as we plan for the future of our region.

At 10:20 AM, Blogger James said...

I agree completely. Here's a question, though. I find that anytime I share my viewpoints planning with friends or family(who have rarely if ever considered the issues I deal with all day), they seem to start thinking about things in a "new light." I don't know if they react that way to flatter me just to get me to shut up, but I do think that in general, their reactions are genuine and interested. In my opinion, as things stand now, the real estate sales people have dumbed things down to the point that people don't question what they're being sold...which in my opinion is very often junk. But to reclarify, I don't think suburbia is inherently junky. Just the way it's evolved is troubling to me.

Along these lines, in some ways I wonder if planners couldn't accomplish more if they educated more than they regulated.

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