Don't Treat Suburbs As A 'Sin'

Columnist Steven Greenhut argues that Smart Growth ideologies mistakenly treat suburbia as a sin, and examines contracy evidence from a new study on suburban isolation and Wendell Cox's book, "War on the Dream."

Steven Greenhut, a columnist for the Orange County Register, writes that the ideologies of Smart Growth and the New Urbanism "argue that traditional suburbia of the sort that has evolved since the 1950s is a terrible thing. They say it promotes isolation, hopelessness, despair, social turmoil, leads to deep divisions among classes and races and is unsustainable. 'Unsustainable' is one of those words that defies precise meaning, but those who throw around such a term are suggesting that suburbia is causing irreparable harm to the environment. The Smart Growth/New Urbanist crowd has a solution to the terror of suburbia. We should all live packed into apartment buildings."

"Unfortunately, Smart Growth and New Urbanism are based on faulty foundations. Those of us who grew up crammed into row houses in dirty East Coast cities (in my case, Philadelphia) scratch our heads at the otherworldly arguments and analyses these ideologues make. When we moved to the suburbs, we found: a) less political corruption; b) better schools; c) more open space; d) friendlier neighbors; e) a more free-flowing transportation system; f) cleaner air; g) less crime, etc. The suburbs might not offer the nightlife, restaurants, architectural splendor and cultural pleasures of the city, but they hardly are the fonts of despair that the Smart Growthers claim."

Greenhut also evaluates a new study by Jan Brueckner of the UC Irvine Economics Department and Ann Largey of the Dublin City University Business School in Ireland, which finds that "suburbanites are more likely to talk to their neighbors, to have more friends, to be involved in social clubs."

Thanks to Ken Orski

Full Story: Suburbs a sin to Smart Growthers

Comments

Comments

On Validity of Arguments

The article depends a lot on comparison between suburbs and cities, but most of the following arguments against cities and for seem not quite valid:

Those of us who grew up crammed into row houses in dirty East Coast cities (in my case, Philadelphia) scratch our heads at the otherworldly arguments and analyses these ideologues make. When we moved to the suburbs, we found: a) less political corruption; b) better schools; c) more open space; d) friendlier neighbors; e) a more free-flowing transportation system; f) cleaner air; g) less crime, etc.

The "bombarded with people" hypothesis to explain the friendlier-neighbors observation makes some sense, but "less crime" (hello, Randal O'Toole), "better schools," and especially "less political corruption" seem much less causation than historical correlation and could use a better explanation than just personal experience.

As for "more free-flowing transportation system," in suburbs that's often true but limited to cars, obviously (OK, except maybe bikes, at least where car speeds are not ridiculously high).

And then "more open space" -- sorry, "more" might be true, but is "more" better? The last time I found myself living in an inner city the nearest parks were small but functional and a few minutes' walk away, while the last time I lived in a outer-ring-suburban atmosphere the nearest park was farther away (and I lived relatively close to it), had fewer amenities per acre (just a lot of grass in many areas), and was basically a consolidation of the city's park needs -- huge, but at the expense of having smaller, much closer public parks.

Then there's the "freedom" angle, that freedom -- lack of regulations, namely "smart-growth" rules -- fosters homeownership, and vice versa -- yet so many suburbs have strict regulations against housing choices. Lots must be of a large minimum size, unused front yards must be deep, parking must be plentiful, low-impact business (offices, small retail, very light industry) must never mix with residences. Wait, where did "freedom" go?

Number 47.

Reading this opinion piece and your nice reply, Michael, I'm reminded of that old joke where (I'll shorten it) the comedians are up on stage and one says "814" and everyone laughs. Another gets up: "244", and brings the house down. Someone in the audience says 'I can do that', gets up on stage, says "442", dead silence. Back at the table they ask 'what happened' and their tablemate says 'I guess you don't know how to tell a joke'.

What does this joke have to do with this op-ed piece? There are only so many arguments for sprawl. This one is from boilerplate argument #47. If it sounds off-key, maybe he doesn't know how to present the argument.

Best,

D

suburbs are underpriced

One major objection to your comment about suburbs and housing affordability: suburban homes are often more affordable because the cost of land is cheaper in suburban areas, less restrictions are placed on development, and many of the infrastructure costs are covered by cities seeking the tax base. The fact is that all three of these contribute to serious environmental externalities. If these were included in the price of suburban development, it would make it MUCH costlier than urban development. Now, that said, I grew up in suburbia and I live in suburbia. But at least I am conscious of some of the inequities that bring it about. I do hate depending on my car though, and with global warming becoming an ever more daunting reality (or do you believe this is also a farse?) I have fewer reasons to justify my choice to live in such an inefficient way...

Diego Velasco
Planner, Irvine, CA

Ideologically Narrow

This columnist would be correct about suburbs being cheaper a lot of the time, but what struck me were the unexplained statements I mentioned before, so I focused on those.

He seems to conclude the root of the city-suburb difference is homeownership, and the cities have constrained supply and suburbs few constraints, which would affect prices and therefore access to homeownership -- but what does that have to do with the ills and corruption he recalls from his own specific experience in Philadelphia? Anyway, the cities sometimes do and don't have these ills (and sometimes suburbs do), but homeownership is not foreign to cities, just more costly much of the time. (Okay, he intends to use this as an argument against smart growth -- but he spends lots of sentences describing smart growth in terms of old cities, not newer smart-growth communities actually shaped by this policy.)

Actually, I think he's right that suburbs aren't "sin," but they do have problems that libertarian-influenced, Cox-esque commentators seem to be ideologically opposed to acknowledging.

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