Americans Prefer Sprawl-Light

NYT columnist David Brooks compares the dreams for a more compact, less car-dependent lifestyle of many urban planners with the findings of a Pew Research poll on the types of communities Americans want to live in, and they are not like Amsterdam.

"One dream many (urban planners) share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living."

Brooks notes that the "economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption."

"Some (urban) writers are predicting that Americans will move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, they will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes

America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam."

"The Pew Research Center just finished a study about where Americans would like to live and what sort of lifestyle they would like to have.

Americans still want to move outward. City dwellers are least happy with where they live, and cities are one of the least popular places to live. Only 52 percent of urbanites rate their communities "excellent" or "very good," compared with 68 percent of suburbanites and 71 percent of the people who live in rural America.

The folks at Pew asked one other interesting question: Would you rather live in a community with a McDonald's or a Starbucks? McDonald's won."

Thanks to Allen Tacy

Full Story: I Dream of Denver



Three Things

1) The concept of the bandwagon effect: to some extent, demand for the burbs is caused by the fact that almost everybody else lives in the burbs, not by the burbs themselves.

2) Moving to a city doesn't necessarily mean moving into a smaller place. True, you give up the yard (and trade it for public parks). What you get in return is a vibrant, interesting place, where you don't have to travel as far to get to the things you need to do, which means driving is not obligatory (but you can still have a car). As more and more middle class people move to cities, you see more and more housing built to accommodate them (i.e. large condos and apartments 3 bedrooms and up).

3) Advocates of auto-dependent living have utterly failed to come up with a realistic plan to make driving environmentally sustainable. The clock is ticking on climate change and planners are working furiously to present a workable solution. Is the public?

Streetcar Suburbs vs. Sprawl

Brooks defends sprawl, but streetcar suburbs would give people the benefits of the suburbs (including a garage that they can fill with outdoor equipment) without the worst costs of sprawl. Brooks doesn't seem to know enough about current city planning to realize that New Urbanists are building streetcar suburbs again and that they don't expect everyone to live in cities like Amsterdam.

The current housing crisis proves that people don't want the most extreme sprawl: they are forced to live there because they cannot afford alternatives. Foreclosures are worst in the most remote suburbs, places like Stockton, which shows that the people who moved to these suburbs were the people who were most economically shaky and could not afford to live in closer-in suburbs.

Americans may dream of Denver, as Brooks says, but they certainly do not dream of Stockton.

Charles Siegel

Michael Lewyn's picture

Maybe we are all in violent agreement

I suspect that Brooks and Mr. Siegel are closer together than Siegel thinks. Brooks has a vague idea that people want a middle ground between Manhattan and Stockton. And the streetcar suburbs are, as Siegel points out, that middle ground (though they may seem like sprawl to Brooks, since he is probably comparing everything to Manhattan!).

Some Agreement

Some agreement, but some fundamental differences.

Brooks says: "Americans still want to move outward." I think our densities are already too low and we should be rebuilding some existing suburbs to make them denser and more livable, and we should not be building any more sprawl on the fringes.

As I say above, I think the problem is that Brooks just doesn't know very much about city planning - eg, that he doesn't know New Urbanists are building streetcar suburbs again - so he thinks the only alternatives are Amsterdam and Stockton.

Charles Siegel

David Brooks is an idiot

One of my favorite recent floggers of David Brooks has been Jim Sleeper, who's been going after Brooks with a vengeance at the TPMCafe.

The problem with Mr. Brooks is that he often doesn't know what he's talking about. Oftentimes his opinions are based on shoddy research (Applebee's salad bar and his whole trip through the VA suburbs from a few years back) and faulty extrapolations of his own pre-conceived notions to the people who's views he purports to explain.

He may be a clever writer and a liberal's favorite conservative, but he is still a hack.

This is Classic Right-Wing Twisted Rhetoric

Wrote this in an email yesterday responding to the same article, and figure it is worth it to put it up here as well.

Brooks is hysterical. In reading this thing, one begins to understand how a disconnect occurs within our public dialogue through rhetorical absurdity. This one is fun for me, though, because knowing what I know about demographic preferences around place gives me this special insight: He is totally, entirely, and completely full of crap.

Classic form:

1.Describe the laughable motivations of some hopelessly idealistic and naive liberal subset (in this case, the scary urban planners)

2.Cite “a recent study” with zero context

3.Twist outcomes of said study ("City dwellers are least happy with where they live"– does that mean they want to move to the burbs, or to a nicer city? We don’t know. Total intellectual dishonesty)

4.Use Red Herrings (NYC, Los Angeles)

5.Conclude using an arbitrary and unrelated black and white question (um, what about a cool non-chain place that actually serves as an exciting public meeting place?) which has zero to do with what kind of places people want to live in, but does help him sell books, latte-liberal-lover that he is.

There are a number of ways to respond to Brooks, both on and analytical and a political level, but the basic stat dynamic worth sharing in response to this type of article is this: Most studies tell us that about half of the county wants to live in a nice suburban neighborhood. But about 80% of the living space we currently have is built that way, which means the other 50 percent of us need to fight over 20% of the living space in more urban, walkable communities which makes them super expensive, which in turn makes less people want to live in them. (What percentage of people not into the idea of living in NYC in that study said so in part because they know it is expensive there?)

The bigger thing that worries me is this: Per Brooks here, the right-wingers are offering an increasingly aggressive response to the renewed interest in urbanism, and are already sending out the talking points and funding “libertarian” anti-transit fanatics at all the think tanks, etc. They're doing it because the existence of successful urban places threatens the foundation of their beliefs. Their culture depends on fear of one's neighbor, and insistence that we are responsible only to ourselves, not to our communities.

No one on the left is really fighting this aggression in a political way– all we have are policy people making solid analytical policy points and releasing academic studies and being totally insular in other ways while the talk radio nut-jobs get ready to terrify middle America that we’re about to order them all into a rebuilt Cabrini Green. It really is a continuation of the culture war thing, with some good old fashioned racism mixed in (The Brooks version doesn’t include the welfare queen bit, but you can bet the other ones will).

Ultimately, we can see this as a good sign though, because there is clearly a constituency for urban living that Brooks is trying to disprove the existence of. His goal is to frame the story in a way that conveniently ignores the broader dynamics so they don’t get addressed. If we spend all of our time talking about McDonalds vs. Starbucks, then we conveniently don't address the core issues. This is a classic pseudo-conservative rhetorical device, and its use here means we're winning.

First they ignore you, then they ridicule you...

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