Learning from my suburb

Michael Lewyn's picture

For nearly all of my adult life, I have lived in small towns or urban neighborhoods. But for the past two years, I have lived in sprawl. When I moved to Jacksonville two years ago, I moved to Mandarin, a basically suburban neighborhood about nine miles from downtown. As I looked for apartments in 2006, I noticed that in many ways, Mandarin is typical sprawl: our major commercial street (San Jose Boulevard) is as many as eight lanes in some places, and even most apartments are separated from San Jose's commerce. [See http://atlantaphotos.fotopic.net/c872477.html for my photos of Mandarin and other Jacksonville neighborhoods.] I thought Mandarin would be a typical suburb: homogenously white and upper-middle class.

But in fact, Mandarin has the same kind of social mix as some of Jacksonville's more urban neighborhoods. Like many urban neighborhoods, Mandarin has rich and not-so-rich blocks: the rich live in Mandarin's western edge along the St. Johns River, the areas between the river and San Jose Boulevard (our major commercial street) are middle-to-upper-middle class, and the areas east of San Jose are more humble. And Mandarin has a few apartment complexes, which tend to be not so fancy: my own complex (the most expensive in the area, and the only one west of San Jose) is dominated by retirees, and others are dominated by working-class families of all races. Our retail is not just "big box" stores like Target and Wal-Mart: we have Brazilian, Russian and Asian supermarkets, as well as a variety of ethnic restaurants.

But Mandarin's diversity is not always a good thing: just as residents of walkable urban neighborhoods often don't go north of street X or east of street Y at night in order to avoid crime, Mandarin has a bona fide rough area - a street full of highly affordable apartment complexes where there have been at least two murders in the past two years. And I've been confronted by panhandlers twice in the last few weeks. I worry that Mandarin may be turning into one of Jacksonville's declining inner suburbs, a place forsaken both by urbanites who prefer more walkable neighborhoods and by suburbanites who prefer newer, safer suburbs.

So what have I learned from my years in Mandarin? That both the optimists and the pessimists about suburbia are right. Optimists correctly point out that suburbia is inheriting the diversity of cities- not just their ethnic and economic diversity, but their diversity of commercial forms: the notion that Wal-Mart is a natural monopoly is, in the setting of a large city, simply rubbish.

But pessimists are correct in worrying that as suburbs inherit urban diversity, they may inherit urban crime and decay.

Michael Lewyn is an assistant professor at Touro Law Center in Long Island.



Jacksonville suburbs = green commutes?


I believe that both your residence and your workplace are suburban locations, right? As Matthew Kahn pointed out a year or so ago:

"Controlling for city size and distance to work, commute times are shorter for people who live further from the CBD. ... Big city commutes decline sharply from seven miles to the CBD out to 20 miles to the CBD."

Does Sprawl Enhance our Day to Day Urban Quality of Life?

It should be obvious that commuters who live and work in suburbs have shorter commutes than do the total population of urban workers. Does the sprawled suburban locations of Florida Coastal School of Law and the University of North Florida enable shorter, more green commutes for employees than would downtown Jacksonville locations?

Michael Lewyn's picture

My commute

My commute is shorter than it would be if I worked downtown.

But this would not be true if I worked at University of North Florida, which is very far east of my home.

This illustrates a broader problem with the "sprawl means shorter commutes" claim: the fallacy of unidirectional suburbia. That is, IF suburbs all sprawled in the same direction [say, if an entire metro area was a narrow peninsula like Miami Beach, with a downtown at the southern edge and suburban areas going north from there], suburbanites with suburban jobs might have shorter commutes than suburbanites with urban jobs.

But in a region where suburbia sprawls in all directions, suburbanites might have longer commutes if their job is in the "wrong" suburb. For example, I have a relatively short commute (5 miles from downtown) because my job, like my home, is in the southeastern sector of the city. But if my job was in a northern or western suburb, my commute would be longer than if I worked downtown.

Moreover, there's a broader problem with a Jacksonville-type level of sprawl: when the entire region sprawls, distances to work [and everywhere else] become greater for EVERYONE. My 5 mile commute is shorter than it would be if I worked downtown. But my commute would be much shorter if Jacksonville was a different kind of city- say, if the areas where I live and work were still farmland. In that kind of city, my law school would be downtown. And the amenities I moved to Mandarin for (my religious community) would also be downtown, as it was in the first half of the 20th century.

And in fact, my commute has been shorter in the majority of other cities I have lived in.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Prof. Kahn

By the way, you quote Prof. Kahn's statement:

Controlling for city size and distance to work, commute times are shorter for people who live further from the CBD.

But isn't "Controlling for ... distance to work" a pretty major qualification? That's like saying, "Controlling for your likelihood of being blown up, living in Iraq is pretty peaceful!"

I was showing cause and effect

Well, I don't exactly agree. The reason I included both statements from Matthew's blog post was to show both the result:

"Big city commutes decline sharply from seven miles to the CBD out to 20 miles to the CBD

and the cause for that result:

"Controlling for city size and distance to work, commute times are shorter for people who live further from the CBD."

It is the much faster street speeds out in the far suburbs that enable commute times to be shorter. But I guess I should have spelled that out in my first comment.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Kahn also says...

"It is important to note that in the year 2000, a larger share of commuters do have long commutes relative to in the year 1980. This gap equals roughly 2 percentage points."

In other words, commute times have increased as jobs have suburbanized. Period.

sprawl is sprawl

There are many damaging factors involved in the sprawl development. Among them are the necessity to get everywhere by car, leading to more impermeable pavement which is a heat sink in the sun.
Your sprawl neighborhood destroyed open space, or more often prime farmland that formerly surrounded our CBDs. Now your food has a longer commute too.
Sprawl degrades the neighborhoods that commuters must pass through, making even inner-city streets more pedestrian-hostile and dangerous.
Sprawl is the New Slumburbia! Crime in the burbs is epidemic as foreclosed former homeowners abandon their property which is often occupied by squatters, or rented to Section 8 families. At the same time urban crime seems to be dropping as more "middle class" families move back to town.
Diabetes? Obesity? There's a reason San Francisco is citied with having the fittest population, while the incidence of obesity and diabetes seems to correlate with a lack of walkable amenities in most American suburbs.

My brother visited me in my urban flat and commented that he "didn't want to live anywhere where he could hear the neighbors sneeze", but next he announced that he wanted to "live somewhere where he could walk to cafes and restaurants" Me, I don't even notice the sneezing anymore, and I love not having to own a car.

rob bregoff

Matthew Kahn disagrees

That's not the conclusion Prof. Kahn reached:

Kahn: "From zero miles to the CBD to ten miles, the share with a long commute increases but in the eight to twenty mile range it declines sharply. Job suburbanization in these major cities has reduced mega-commuting."

Not certain, but my guess is that Kahn is familiar enough with his data to confidently make such an assertion.

There is no question that for CBD and edge city workers, commute times have increased. One major reason is that funding for highways has dried up - by diversion of funds to ineffective mass transit - by fuel tax rates that have not kept pace with both inflation and increased fuel efficiency.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Hiding the key fact

It seems to me that Kahn is saying that OVERALL, the average commute has gotten longer - even though it may be shorter for people in upscale suburbs. But he is hiding this key fact in the middle of the data since it conflicts with his agenda of glorifying the status quo.

No one is hiding a "ket fact"

Hmm. I don't know that Matthew Kahn has an "agenda of glorifying the status quo".

Neither Kahn nor I have disputed the fact that average commutes have increased. Given the enormous growth in big city populations, and the underfunding of our highways, an increase in commute times should be expected.

What Kahn does say is that suburbanization of jobs is not the reason for that increase. And I agree with him. I am convinced that cheap energy throughout the 80's and 90's allowed workers to accept jobs far from their residences. I am also convinced that high energy prices the next ten years will reverse that trend. But the result will not be a centralization of workplaces. Quite simply, suburban workers will reduce the geographic distance between their suburban residences and their suburban jobs.

Controlling For Distance To Work

Good point, Michael.

Because he controls for distance to work, Prof. Kahn actually just proves that average speed is higher for people who live further from the CBD.

Of course, we knew that all along. The idea of smart growth is that higher densities may lower speed but they also reduce the distance that people must travel, so that people spend a shorter time travelling overall despite the lower speed.

If you control for distance, you are controlling out the biggest benefit of smart growth - reducing distance travelled.

Charles Siegel

Sprawl enables what is important to most of us

Like Michael, you chose to focus on only one of the two statements of Prof Kahn which I referenced. Here's another passage from Matthew's blog which I feel is relevant:

People who live 18 miles from the CBD had the same share of short commutes as people who live two miles from the CBD. These figures present suggestive evidence that job suburbanization increases the capacity of “mega-cities” to absorb growth without significant degradation of non-market quality of life factors.

Does Sprawl Enhance our Day to Day Urban Quality of Life?

Based on Prof. Kahn's research, it seems clear to me that sprawl does not cause degradation of quality of life. In fact, for those of us who value highly freedom from congestion, freedom from crime, and separation of residences and workplaces, sprawl is our friend.

Sprawl And Long Commutes

I myself live near the CBD but I have a long commute because I have to work in a suburban office park.

Sprawl increases the length of the average commute for everyone - including the people who live near the CBD as well as the people who live in the sprawl. Kahn's research misses this point, as well as distorting the facts by controlling for distance.

Why in the world do you think that New Urbanist suburbs are not as good as sprawl "for those of us who value highly ... freedom from crime, and separation of residences and workplaces"? You are ignoring my key point: that New Urbanist suburbs have all the benefits of sprawl suburbs without the environmental costs.

Charles Siegel

I was sprawled with a very short commute

Sprawl increases the length of the average commute for everyone

Sorry, but I've seen no evidence to support this conclusion. Do you have any? Prof. Kahn's research indicates otherwise. My personal experiences and those of my friends show clearly that dispersing workplaces geographically enables much shorter commutes - for those who want them.

New Urbanist suburbs have all the benefits of sprawl suburbs without the environmental costs.

Well, I admit that I haven't visited a New Urbanist suburb, but ...

- if those suburbs are more dense than the suburb I live in; and
- if workplaces are close enough that most people in those suburbs can walk to them within 5 minutes; then ...

such New Urbanist suburbs do not contain two of the most important features that mine does. I do not want to live in close proximity to other folks. I do not want a factory or an office building or a wqarehouse or a retail store within 5 walking minutes of my home. I've talked to people in my different suburbs about exactly that, and they agree with me. That's why we continue to vote - and elect representatives who will vote - to separate workplaces and residences through zoning and to reject high density housing in close proximity to where we live.

In other words, we're not sprawled because we have not been given a choice. We chose sprawl, and we will continue to choose sprawl. Triple the cost of energy? We'll drive hybrids some days and telecommute other days. $500 per barrel energy? Who cares? That won't get us to live closer than 50 feet to our neighbors on either side or within 2 miles of our jobs.

$500 per barrel crude oil is not going to stop us from driving to a Walmart Supercenter in the summer heat when we need to fill up the car with perishable food. It's the economies of scale of a Walmart or a Lowe's or a PetSmart that provides us with very low prices. The New Urbanist ideal I've read - the creation of mixed-use, walkable living/shopping/working environments - is incompatible with such economies of scale. Until New Urbanists figure out a way to achieve such economies of scale, and to allow families to live in single-family detached housing, and to provide a separation of work and home life, mixed-use communities will remain a tiny portion of the metro environments.

Did you do the math?

"$500 per barrel crude oil is not going to stop us from driving to a Walmart Supercenter in the summer heat when we need to fill up the car with perishable food. It's the economies of scale of a Walmart or a Lowe's or a PetSmart that provides us with very low prices."

Nice to know that you're personally committed towards maintaining the suburban status quo at all costs. However, $500 per barrel crude, or $13 a gallon based on current taxes and refining costs, the Wal-Mart business model and the U.S. economy as a whole would likely be doomed. At $135 a barrel energy expenditures already consume $1 trillion annually or 1/14 of our GNP. At $500 a barrel, it would consume 25% of our GDP, with 70% going overseas in the form of imports. Energy costs and trade deficits of that magnitude are unsustainable.

Seriously, what sort of inflationary impact do you think $500 barrel oil would have on the U.S. economy? And what about the already weak dollar, which has lost some 60% of it's value in the last six years versus the Euro? Already the airlines and trucking companies are struggling, even long distance container shipping, the basis of the Wal-Mart model (lots of cheap merchandise, shipped for a cheap price) is looking like not such a great deal with costs soaring from $3,000 in 2000 for a 40 foot container to more than $8000 today. Do you really think beleaguered middle class, already heavily weighed down with debt, would even continue to exist in anything resembling the current consumption patterns??

To quote Ayn Rand, as ironic as that may seem, 'We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.'

Thanks Matt. I was working

Thanks Matt. I was working on a response to this unbelievable statement but it seems like you've beat me to it.

Anyone who thinks that 500 dollar per barrel oil is NOT going to affect Mall-Wart's "economies of scale" is seriously delusional. That's like saying third degree burns won't affect your flesh.

I believe what we are seeing is what Kunstler calls the "psychology of previous investment" which basically translates into "gosh, it just has to work, we put so much time and money into it after all." This is not far from "we will just drive hybrids some days and telecommute other days" ... and everything will continue to be just swell in the suburbs. It'll be just like it is now, but better.

Delusional with free market optimism

"seriously delusional"

That's amusing, Patrick.

I read recently that every generation believes the particular challenges they are faced with are the grandest of all time. The author, whose name escapes me, explained that our egos inflate the crisis of the times. The mind subconciously argues "I'm important, so if anything really big is going to happen, certainly it will happen in my lifetime."

Every successive generation seems to underestimate the ability of humans and their economies to adapt. Lack of confidence in the average human leads to calls for central planning. And, of course, central planning continues to generate inefficient solutions. That's why we're right now spending billions on ineffective light rail trains and removing 30 percent of our corn from the food markets. Despite the failure of central planning, the pessimists continue to find a willing audience in Washington, where politicians recognize opportunities to extract more contributions from industry lobbyists.

Funny, but somehow I'm not pessimistic even as the big government planners roll on. I guess my faith in people and free markets exceeds my fear of central planners. Perhaps that's what I'm delusional about.

Households and industry - more adaptable than you believe


U.S. households will adapt to $13 per gallon gasoline. High mileage vehicles will replace gas guzzlers. Workers will move closer to workplaces, or else move to workplaces closer to homes. Employers will help out by encouraging telecommuting and four day workweeks. Net effect of these changes: at least a 50% reduction in household gasoline consumption over a 5 or 6 year period after gasoline prices explode.

At the same time, $500 crude oil would enable development of alternate energy sources such as wind power and oil shale, and eventually nuclear. Conventional energy from capped oil wells will also re-enter the marketplace. It seems unlikely to me that real energy prices could rise above the $500 crude level in this century.

Walmart rules at every oil price

$500 crude helps Walmart. If consumers pay more for gasoline and for other petroleum-based products, they will seek lower costs for staple goods. Walmart's economies of scale become even more important, as the currently "snobbish" upper middle class households realize that mixing with the masses at Walmart is OK if it means lower prices.

Walmart's advantage over competitors - particular the small competitors - is not that it sources goods in Asia. All retailers source goods in Asia. Walmart's advantage is its economies of scale and its intelligent use of computers. You may not remember this, but Walmart was winning way back in the 70's and early 80's, before all retailers were sourcing goods from Asia.

Walmart sells staple goods. That market will not dry up, even with high inflation. The losers from high oil will be the travel and hospitality industries, even more so than today. IMO, households will substitute in-home entertainment and leisure for vacations, restaurant meals, and sports events. Who wins when people buy larger televisions, more charcoal, and electronic games? Walmart and other big box retailers.

Missing the point.

John Dewey makes a number of claims that are factually inaccurate.

Starting with the last point: new urbanist design and planning is actually not at all incompatible with the business model of big box chain retailers, including WalMart. There are more and more "urban" big box stores everyday, here and in Europe.

New urbanists have figured out how to combine mixed-use, walkable environments with all of the contemporary retail models and a range of working environments from professional/technical and service to a range of industrial. You may not want to live within 5 minutes walk of work, but many do and many high tech companies have relocated to provide this kind of convenience for employees. (Look at the work, for example, on "Silicon Alley," the urban version of Silicon Valley.) This is nothing new and not rocket science.

The challenge to the "economies of scale" when oil is $500 a barrel is that the inventory management system depends on maintaining what is essentially a rolling warehousing system. It will be interesting to see how the market changes as fuel costs really start to level the playing field for more local business. The Supercenter, in particlar, is not likely to be sustainable (literally) with rising oil prices and the emergence of options. I believe their business model is built on the expectation of a lot of volume. The marketshed of a Supercenter is doubly constrained by traffic congestion (associated with the sprawl pattern) and fuel costs. (I think Walmart has recognized this and bailed on a number of stores they were looking to build.)

The other challenge to Walmart is politicsl. Communities are recognizing that WalMart and other similar businesses are not the boon to the local and regional economy that they are purported to be. Economic development people are moving in the direction of pushing the development of more local business, and driving harder bargains with Walmart (to the point of being willing to send them away if they won't behave). It's not clear how this will affect retail in the long run, but combined with community resistance to the big box form, it is already changing the approach of many of these big retailers.

Most new urbanists do not propose to prohibit low density, single-family housing in relatively remote locations, but mostly work to make a variety of levels of urban intensities possible. It's about having the choice-- a choice that has not been there, as a result of a combination of factors that make up the current development regime. There is now plenty of market performance and market analysis to show that there are substantial numbers of people who are interested in having those choices, even without the increase in the costs of gasoline. There continues to be a market for low density suburban housing, but there is a growing market for medium and high density, mixed-use urbanism. Why not allow both and let the market decide?

Let me say that again: when the choice exists, there are plenty of people who will choose to live in an urban neighborhood, at different scales and levels of urban intensity. There have been neighborhood satisfaction surveys that find this market segment, and there has been a lot of real estate product sold in recent years demonstrating the accuracy of these surveys.

There is plenty of data showing the impact of unrelentingly suburban patterns on travel behavior, commuting patterns, and traffic congestion. I find it hard to believe that anyone could deny it. In this region (Florida gulf coast) we have a network of arterials and interstate highways that has moved steadily toward failure, with declining LOS, longer commuting times and distances, serious congestion.

The traffic modelling clearly shows that continued business-as-usual patterns of development, assuming only the suburban densities and no dramatic growth, will produce worsening conditions.

It should not be surprising that there might be, in some regions, a filling out of the suburbs with a fuller mix of uses. Equally unsurprising is the idea that suburbanization of this sort might reduce some commuting times, especially at first when the new roads are first built. The problem is that the suburban pattern continues to the point of failure, to the point where the mere aggregation of stuff chokes the roads and fouls the air and water. To suggest that sprawl continues to be "our" choice is not only fallacious, but misses the point.

Walmart Supercenters cannot thrive with walkup only customers

David Brian makes a number of points in a long post. I'll respond to some of them one at a time.

I am aware that Walmart has tried to adapt some locations to meet the New Urbanists principle of walkability. But they are not changing their basic structure of giant supercenters which draw from a ten mile or greater radius. Those are their most profitable locations, and they do seem incompatible with New Urbanist principles I've read.

The parking is the main problem

There are some who object to the negative economic impact that Walmart Supercenters can have on an area, but this is not a general new urbanist attitude. In general, the only thing that is seriously incompatible with new urbanist principles is the form of the big box, set back from the road and with a massive parking field in front. There is no requirement that they have to survive on walk-in trade, only that they behave themselves so that they don't destroy any possibility of a pedestrian environment. There have been a variety of strategies designed for them (for parking, for breaking up the monotony of the box, for embedding them in the urban fabric in a less hostile and disruptive fashion).

It can be challenging, but it is a solvable problem, from a design standpoint. We have three big box supermarkets, including a Whole Foods, that we have brought in to our little downtown, making it possible for the downtown residents to get groceries without driving five miles to the nearest strip center.

Walmart does behave itself, Mr. Brain

David Brian: "only that they behave themselves so that they don't destroy any possibility of a pedestrian environment."

The vast majority of the U.S. could care less about a pedestrian environment. They've proven that by the housing they choose.

I sincerely dislike the tone implied when you write "behave themselves". It says that you guys - the New Urbanists - have the right to decide what is good behavior and what is bad behavior.

Walmart is a profit-seeking enterprise, and they are going to adapt to their customers. Almost all Walmart customers nationwide drive to shop there. They will continue to do so despite all the efforts of New Urbanists to persuade them otherwise. When the company builds large parking lots adjacent to roadways, Walmart is serving those customers it wishes to attract. For all of those customers, Walmart is "behaving" just as its target customers wish it to. If rear parking was what almost all of Walmart and Target and Best Buy and Krogers and Safeway customers desired - if that was what is attractive to those customers - that's how the retail landscape would have evolved.

What is the evidence for that claim?

Where is the evidence that the "vast majority of the U.S." could care less about a pedestrian environment? I see a lot of communities working very hard to establish just such an environment.

I'm sorry you dislike me taking a light tone with respect to rule governing the form of development. It is my belief (and it seems to be yours) that new development ought to be responsible and sensitive with respect to local community standards. It is not me that decides what counts as good or bad behavior in a community. It is the community. If the community decides that it is trying to create an environment that is comfortable for pedestrians, then it is perfectly appropriate for them to expect cooperation from developers (just as you would expect them to cooperate with your low-density vision for your community).

If a retailer near you wanted to light its parking lot with stadium lights that are high enough and bright enough to shine into your back yard, would you think that it would be legitimate for the community to impose some limits on that design feature, in spite of the arguments that the bright lights attract customers and keep them safe?

You seem to have your shorts in a twist about new urbanists. Can I please stipulate that I am not asking you to buy into an ideology? I'm asking you to think about the challenges that many communities face, and the fact that there is a large percentage of people in this country (something on the order of 30%) who are interested in a lifestyle different from yours. If I have time, I'll dig out some exact numbers for you.

It simply is not true to say that if something different were attractive to customers, the retail landscape would look different. I worked for Krogers for a couple of years, drawing the plans for their six store types (at the time). The site plans for the stores are governed by convention and regulatory requirements. They are not responsive to the needs or tastes of customers, and much less to the community context. Is it really evil to ask chain stores to be context-sensitive? I don't know why you would argue such a thing, given your otherwise overwhelming emphasis on the community's right to dictate what other people do with their property.

Fuel costs are the same for everyone

"It will be interesting to see how the market changes as fuel costs really start to level the playing field for more local business."

I cannot disagree more. If households spend more for fuel, low prices for staple goods become more important than ever. Walmart's economies of scale - its negotiating power, its computer controlled inventory and purchasing systems, its ability to spread administrative costs over huge volumes of product - will continue to enable its always low prices.

I do not understand why you feel that local businesses will not suffer from exactly the same fuel costs as Walmart does. Local businesses get their inventory from the same locations as Walmart. They just go through wholesalers to do it.

Have you ever owned a small retail store? I did for fifteen years, and I do understand the economics.

Build high density, but not in my suburb

"There continues to be a market for low density suburban housing, but there is a growing market for medium and high density, mixed-use urbanism. Why not allow both and let the market decide?"

No problem here. If voters in Dallas or Fort Worth or anywhere else want to allow high-density housing, that's fine with me. But voters in my suburban town of Flower Mound should also have the right to prohibit high density housing, if that's what they wish.

You see, David, it's not just that we wish to live in a low density neighborhood. We wish to live in a low density neighborhood surrounded by other low density neighborhoods. And we have the legal right to make laws which allow that.

Michael Lewyn's picture

This sort of NIMBYism has costs

But what the majority of city councils vote for is not necessarily what people want; it is only what the Not In My Back Yard (NIMBY) activists want.

The problem with allowing everyone to dictate their neighbors' choice is that even people living in high-density areas will almost never want more density for a simple economic reason: as sellers of a commodity (housing) they naturally want to restrict the supply of the commodity so they can get higher prices of it. So in city and suburb alike, NIMBYs limit housing supply and thus succeed in raising housing prices.

The result is that consumer choice is essentially squashed except in the newest, furthest out areas. People who want to live close in (whether in urban environments OR relatively close-in low-density suburbs) are priced out of the market, because housing prices are higher for everyone.

These are not the results of individual choices; these are the results of political choices. And in turn, these political choices basically are wealth redistribution machines: they redistribute wealth from the "outs" (people who, due to youth or poverty, didn't buy into the most desirable neighborhoods when it was cheap) to the "ins" (people who bought when it was cheap).

PS Great discussion, everybody!

Who is really talking about wealth redistribution?


Are you saying that when voters limit density through their votes or through their elected officials it is a redistribution of wealth because it prevents potential landowners from sharing in the wealth gained by the existing landowners? Does that mean that when the landowners build up the value of their land - through better school systems; through funding of law enforcement that reduces crime rates; through parks and common landscaping; through funding of road maintenance; etc. - that all potential landowners have a right to a piece of that wealth?

Michael Lewyn's picture

Government distribution of wealth is redistribution of wealth

As a general matter, government doesn't create wealth; it only redistributes it.

Raising the price [or, in your words, "build[ing] up the value"] of something through government coercion doesn't create wealth. It just redistributes it to the "Incumbents' Club" of homeowners.

To draw an analogy- let's suppose government created a cartel in agriculture and raised the price of food sky-high. Would it be creating wealth? Would the starving masses "have a right to a piece of that wealth"?

Funding basic city services does increase value

"As a general matter, government doesn't create wealth; it only redistributes it."

As a general matter, I agree with that statement. But not in the case of schools, fire protection, police protection, and parks/recreation.

When Flower Mound voters decide to pay more taxes in order to increase school funding, increase police and fire protection, and increase parks and recreation facilities, they have decided to transfer wealth from their own pockets to the pockets of school teachers, policemen, firemen, and construction companies. However, through such transfer, they have made their community a more desirable place and have increased the value of the homes they own. The taxes they have paid are an investment in their community.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Do high taxes really have anything to do with it?

If Flower Mound's allegedly generous government services had anything to do with high taxes, then you'd be happy to let other people in to help share the tax burden.

If Flower Mound is a typical well-off suburb what I suspect is going on is this: you have the same menu of government services that poor cities have- but they seem better because you have a more affluent populace. To take education as an example: children from well-educated, affluent households are easy to educate because they have advantages from day one. Schools filled with them will be "good schools" NOT because they are better funded (often they aren't), NOT because the teachers are any better, NOT because the bureaucrats are better, but because the students are better. Similarly, the cops have an easier job because your affluent residents don't commit a lot of crime (or, if they do, they do it from their offices in Dallas or Plano).

How do I know this? Because of the exceptions that prove the rule. Even in terrible urban school districts, "exam schools" that screen out low achievers do well (e.g. City Honors in Buffalo). But in those same urban school districts, nonselective schools generally do poorly even when they spend far more than suburban schools (e.g. Kansas City, where a school desegregation order forced the city to spend two or three times as much as its suburbs in the 1980s).

In short, your city's so-called "better" government services are just a reflection of your wealth - not of any investments you made with that wealth. So to use your home values and high tax base to justify exclusion is a circular argument: you have high home values because you exclude, and you exclude to protect your high home values.

Did you misunderstand my meaning?

I think you misunderstood me, Michael. I don't think I argued that Flower Mound pays more than Dallas for teachers, fire protection, police and parks. Certainly Dallas has to pay high wages to keep teachers and police officers from fleeing to the more attractive suburbs - though it still loses many.

I meant that Flower Mound now has better schools, police, parks, and fire protection than it did when the town was first formed three decades ago. As a result, the property values in our town have increased. That was an example of how government spending increased the value of the land we owned. You had argued, I think, that government action did not create wealth. I agreed with you in general, but not with respect to investment in city services.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Even more confused

So now what I'm hearing is: Flower Mound really doesn't pay more than Dallas. But what they pay is an "investment" that somehow causes everything to improve, while Dallas's spending somehow doesn't (at least not to the same degree).

And why is "investment in city services" different from any other kind of government spending?

It seems to me more plausible that it is the wealth of the community that makes the schools etc. better rather than vice versa. If I'm right, it probably isn't the case that the schools build the wealth; rather, the wealth builds the schools.

Having said that and focusing on the big picture, I don't think its a great harm to the public good if there are one or two exclusive Flower Mounds per region. The problem is: if enough suburbs do it, big trouble results.

Sorry for the confusion

"But what they pay is an "investment" that somehow causes everything to improve, while Dallas's spending somehow doesn't (at least not to the same degree)."

Yeah, you really aren't understanding what I'm writing at all.

You wrote that government does not create wealth, it only redistributes wealth. I replied that I agree in general, but not in all cases. From that point on, I was not comparing Flower Mound to Dallas.

As I see it, when the residents of a town collectively invest in infrastructure, they can, and often do, increase the value of the land they own. I do not believe such spending to be zero-sum.

Perhaps you would argue that increasing the value of Flower Mound land must decrease the value of some other piece of land somewhere else. I disagree with that argument, as it implies a constant demand for land.

Or perhaps your argument is that the value of Flower Mound land cannot increase due to that infrastructure investment in an amount greater than that investment. I would also disagree with that argument.

Why does recent public investment have greater returns in Flower Mound than in Dallas? Most of Flower Mound was undeveloped farmland until the mid-90's. Dallas has been a large city for over a century. The same public investment in Dallas - even on a per capita basis - should not generate the returns that Flower Mound realized over the past 15 years. But when north Dallas County was undeveloped farmland - decades ago - I have no doubt that collective funding of roads, water, police, fire, and education services did increase the value of the land there just as much.

Masses have no right to my wealth

If the government raised agriculture prices all over the nation, then perhaps the masses might starve. But if Flower Mound raised agriculture prices just in Flower Mound, the "starving masses" would just eat elsewhere.

That's all that's happening in Flower Mound. We've told the low income masses to either pay the same bills we pay or else go live in Lewisville or Irving or Hurst or Carrollton or any of the nearby blue-collar communities.

You and your neighbors can certainly vote as you wish.

If that is the political will of your jurisdiction, then knock yourselves out. I certainly haven't suggested that you can't. Just don't write as if there's a generalizable wisdom in what you choose for yourselves.

Just to be clear, I suspect that most planners and urban designers would not suggest "high density" mixed use housing in a low density suburb surrounded by other low density suburbs. This makes me wonder if you have actually looked at any mixed-use developments that might be found in an area like yours, but it could well be that you just see no need for relief from automobile traffic, and no desire for the particular quality of life offered by traditional neighborhood patterns. It makes no sense, however, to argue so adamantly against something in general that you just don't happen to like for yourself. Try looking at places that are, in fact, suffering as a result of suburban patterns of development, and think about the range of possible solutions. Also, I suggest looking around the country at the way low-density suburbs surrounded by other low-density suburbs have fared over time. It's not always a pretty picture.

I have investigated available mixed use housing, Mr. Brain

David Brain: “This makes me wonder if you have actually looked at any mixed-use developments that might be found in an area like yours … I suggest looking around the country at the way low-density suburbs surrounded by other low-density suburbs have fared over time. It's not always a pretty picture.”

First, let’s agree that not everyone has the same priorities when searching for housing. Very few families want to live within walking distance of a retail center.

I have owned homes in 8 different low density suburbs in large cities across the nation – Houston, St. Louis, Memphis, Dallas, and Sacramento. All 8 suburbs were exactly what I would call a “pretty picture”

I have lived in high density housing surrounded by more high density housing in Philadelphia, Milan, and Houston. All of these neighborhoods were highly congested, filthy, and very noisy.

I have considered buying housng in mixed use developments in the north Texas suburbs of far north Dallas, in Irving, and in Southlake. All of these developments were noisy and highly congested. The first two offered very few of the retail amenities which are important to my family. The last could be considered walkable, but only if one wanted to push a loaded grocery basket a quarter mile across a six lane highway and through a traffic-congested shopping center.

I see no point in looking at high density mixed-use housing anywhere else but north Texas, where I work. What I have seen here is just nowhere near as desirable as where I live, and the housing prices – except for the very new and trendy Southlake Town Square - reflect that desirability very well.

So your preferences should rule the rest of us?

You seem to reduce every question to what you prefer when you look for housing. I'm not asking you to consider moving in to a different kind of neighborhood. Nor am I asking you to allow change in your neighborhood. I'm asking you to consider the problems that many communities around the country are facing, and to consider the possibility that some of these problems might be addressed by planning that also happens to meet the needs and preferences of a sizable number of people (whose presence is clearly evident in the market).

It's not just my preferences, sir

As long as they don't screw up my suburb, and especially if they don't expect the public to pay for it, I've got no problem at all with developers building such housing wherever communities allow it. But I do not believe many affluent communities want that - certainly not the several I've lived in. I'm sure lower income families would love to live in inexpensive, high density housing in my school district. I don't want them here and I'm positive the overwhelming majority of my community does not either. We've won that low cost housing, high-density battle over and over again at the ballot box for at least a dozen years.

As for the "problems" you refer to, I have read nothing from you or Michael that persuaded me that high density living will ever solve a congestion problem. I am still convinced that high density equals high congestion, and that geographic dispersal of workplaces is the solution to long commutes and congestion.

Geographic dispersal is no solution

We have found that the geographic "dispersal" of employment has had the effect of stifling potential economic development. The suburban pattern has created a persistent geographic disconnect between jobs and housing.

For example, our excellent hospital has a hard time filling the lower end jobs (janitors, cafeteria workers, orderlies, lab technicians) because there is no way people at that point in the income structure can afford to live near or afford to commute from the places where they can afford to live.

The economic development people have found that companies won't move here, in spite of the quality of life for the more highly paid employees, because they can't afford to pay salaries at the low end that are sufficient to supporting the housing/transportation costs. The pattern of "drive 'till you qualify" creates blockages in the labor market.

As for long commutes and congestion: picture a road network where the roads are loaded with BOTH very local trips and, increasingly, with longer trips. It is not just the trips to and from work, but the longer trips to reach all the retail and amenities that are strung out on the arterials. This is precisely what causes six lane, main arterials to gridlock.

Planners don't suggest mixing high and low density housing?

David Brain: "I suspect that most planners and urban designers would not suggest "high density" mixed use housing in a low density suburb surrounded by other low density suburbs."

I don't know about most planners, but Mr. Lewyn seemed to be suggesting exactly that in his reply posted six minutes before yours.

As far as I am concerned, the voters in a legal community should be able to decide the density of housing they will allow - either directly or through their elected officials. Mr. Lewyn may not believe that elected officials vote the wishes of their constituents. I have personally been involved in several local elections where zoning and housing density were the top issues for voters. As far as I can tell - and I have been closely involved - the will of the voters is being carried out in planning and density decisions.

It depends on what you mean by mix.

No, planners typically do not propose mixing high density with low density housing. The old fashioned approach was certainly to keep them separated. The newer approach recognizes the need and value of allowing for higher densities IN SOME PLACES. If that is the case, the planning and design problem is figuring out how to allow for higher densities without detracting from the quality of a nearby low-density neighborhood. "Higher densities" doesn't necessarily mean "high density." For example, one might see a plan that proposes to put a mixed-use neighborhood center where there is currently a strip center.

Just curious: I assume there is a strip center somewhere nearby. Let's say, for the sake of argument, that the strip center is in a location acceptable to you and your neighbors. What would be your objection to redeveloping a strip center with big boxes into a more attractive (but equally functional) mixed-use center? On the exact same footprint? That is, a place where there might be two or three story townhouses, maybe some apartments and live-work units, but also all the stores that you routinely shop for your so-called "staples" (as well as, say, your dentist and the guy who does your taxes)? There is plenty of convenient parking, actually more convenient because it is structured so that you don't have to hike a quarter mile from the edges of a parking field on a busy day.

Notice that one of the implications of this pattern would be that the retail ecology would change in ways that affect the adjacent property owners positively. Instead of the linear array of stuff on the arterial, you get convenient one-stop access to a bunch of things. Instead of a land use that is ugly on the edges, you get a land use that is attractive and quite compatible with residential neighborhoods on the edges? (So, for example, instead of creating a corridor of unattractive retail that destroys property values immediately behind it, creating a blighted and decaying neighborhood, you actually maintain the desirability of the adjacent neighborhoods?

Maybe you don't want to live close to this, but you don't want to live close to the strip center either, I assume. So what's the problem?

Keep socioeconomic classes separated

First, it is conceivable that my neighbors and my family could walk to the two supermarket centers within a few blocks of my home, but we almost never do so. We do walk quite a lot for pleasure, through the greenbelts which connect most of the low density subdivisions in Flower Mound. However, carrying bags of groceries to and from the supermarket in the Texas climate would never be a pleasurable experience.

The retail centers close to my home are attractively landscaped, including one which has fountains and park-like seating. No one "hikes a quarter mile" across a parking lot anywhere in Flower Mound. There is no unnattractive retail within 5 miles of my home. But, of course, attractiveness is in the eyes of the beholder.

As I said before, neither my family nor my neighbors desire to live in close proximity to high density housing. We do not want the increased congestion near our residences. Our affluent community certainly does not want the influx of lower income residents. So we would fight vigorously any attempt to build the type housing you described.

Flower Mound has allowed a few luxury apartments to be built in areas on the outskirts of its low density housing. But most people who desire high density housing - especially less expensive high density housing - live in the adjacent blue-collar towns of Lewisville and Grapevine.

David, I grew up and started adult life in blue-collar and high density neighborhoods. Then I made my fortune and moved to a town populated by other successful people. I have no intention of returning to my roots, to the pettiness and envy of the lower middle class.

Michael Lewyn's picture


"As I said before, neither my family nor my neighbors desire to live in close proximity to high density housing. We do not want the increased congestion near our residences. Our affluent community certainly does not want the influx of lower income residents."

But didn't you say a day or two ago that corporate relocations are accompanied by inexpensive housing, so that everybody has the opportunity to live near suburban jobs and have a short commute too?

On the one hand, you brag about excluding lower income people from your suburb. On the other, you say that sprawl accommodates lower income people. Which is it?

No inconsistency

I can't really tell, Michael, if your objective is to understand my point of view or to win an argument.

I clarified my point about inexpensive housing earlier, and I'm sure you read it. I meant low-density housing that was inexpensive relative to the low-density housing which would surround a geographic cluster of large workplaces.

The low density, single family housing just north of downtown Dallas is out of the range of the majority who work in the high rise offices of the CBD. The low density housing just east and south of Dallas's LBJ office complex - the Addison edge city - is also out of the range of the majority who work in those office buildings.

On the other hand, when J.C. Penney opened its corporate headquarters on the Plano-Frisco border, developers immediately built $150K to $200K homes in the immediate vicinity. Almost every worker at J.C. Penney's headquarters could afford those homes. If they chose to do so, they could live within 5 to 10 minutes of their job, in the low-density housing they desired. That would never have been the case if J.C. Penney had relocated to downtown Dallas.

Back to your question: there is nothing inconsistent about my desire to exclude lower income people from Flower Mound and my claim that corporate relocations are accompanied by relatively inexpensive housing. No corporations have relocated headquarters to Flower Mound.

Michael Lewyn's picture

That makes more sense...

Now that I know you are talking about two very different types of suburbs. If Plano and Frisco don't engage in the same kind of exclusionary zoning as Flower Mound, then it might be easier for people to move there and live relatively inexpensively.

Of course, that leaves Plano and Frisco with a dilemma: if they exclude, then nonrich people can't live close to work, which is bad for the region as a whole and maybe even for the corporate labor pool. But if don't exclude the poor at all, then they have more poverty, a weaker tax base, etc. which in turn means that eventually the higher income class is going to have longer commutes, and that the bosses are going to want to move to more prosperous suburbs.

Socioeconomic segregation does not require long commutes

Western Plano and Frisco - the Legacy Park area where J.C. Penney, EDS, and others relocated - will not have any problem with deterioration. University Park and Highland Park - the wealthy 1930's and 1940's suburbs just north of Dallas's CBD - are still highly valued communities 70 years later. Dallas corporate leaders still live there. The tax base for both is still extremely high.

Legacy Park corporations will not have a problem with availability of the working class. Adjacent suburbs of The Colony, Lewisville, and Carrollton provide more than adequate housing for workers of any income. Plano's a large suburb - 200,000+ - and it contains apartments, lower middle class housing, and affluent housing, but not all close to each other.

It is true that the lower class cannot live within 15 minutes of Legacy Park corporations, but they can live within 30 minutes If Legacy Park corporations and other employers were crowded into Dallas's older CBD and edge cities, the commute for everyone would be even longer.

It's clearly not about Flower Mound.

The more you tell me about your affluent suburb, the more I wonder why you weighed into a discussion that Michael started with a post about the dilemmas of an inner ring suburb.

Imagine this condition. A place is approaching build-out as low-density residential subdivisions, connected by a network of arterials that have attracted the full complement of retail over the years. Maybe even call it low to moderate density, since what I mean is everything from about 3 units to the acre to large lot subdivisions (2 and 5 acre ranchettes). The consequences of this pattern of development is that there is traffic congestion everywhere on the arterial network, and every effort to ease congestion is, at best, only a temporary solution. What do we do? As citizens, as planners, as county government? Citzens are clamoring for something to be done about the traffic, in part because the commutes are ugly and the soccer mom's day is spent looking at the back end of other people's cars.

One solution: pray for a category 4 or 5 hurricane to clear out the population and start over (but in ten years we're back to the same place).

Another solution: A combined strategy of land use and transportation planning. (1)Capture some number of trips in centers that enable walkable access within (from housing and parking) and some level of transit connection from outside. The place is busy and congested, but not in a way that actually hampers access and mobility. (E.g. Instead of driving up and down the arterial to put together a round of shopping, we can drive to the "town center," park in a convenient structure, and have access to large and small shops, services, etc. Some are able to arrive by bus, some are able to come down from their condo.) (2) Plan the road network to carry traffic (and people) efficiently between centers and from outlying suburbs, but contain the congestion in centers.

My point is this: if you have a situation where traffic congestion is pretty evenly distributed throughout an overloaded network, one can either reduce the number of people (plague, storm, mass euthenasia of the elderly, etc., none of which would be politically popular) or the number of local trips that get packaged on the main transportation corridors along with the longer distance trips. (The traffic analyses often show that a huge proportion of the load causing the roadway to fail is often very local travel: people hopping from school, to orthodontist, to fast food restaurant, to Home Depot, to grocery store, etc.) What it actually takes is both reduction and redistribution of trips, which means a combination of land use and transportation.

My other point: the problem under discussion here, given Michael's starting point, is not whether or not to add density to Flower Mound, but what to do about a place that is already suffering from the impact of a wave of suburbanization that went by some time ago, and now suffers the consequences.

Sorry for getting off-topic

Well, I apologize. I did go off topic when discussing my own suburb, which is in no way similar to what Michael was discussin.. But you guys seemed curious, so I continued.

My initial comment on Michael's post was about geographic dispersement of workplaces - about whether a professor who lectured on sprawl and the law actually benefitted from a shorter commute because his workplace was geographically dispersed from central Jacksonville. I thought that comment was relevant, and I appreciated Michael's response about unidirectional vs radial sprawl.

Radial sprawl?

One thing to understand about the idea of "sprawl" is that it is actually a misleading concept. It's not just about the literal spread of human settlement, but also the pattern.

For example a neighborhood on the urban fringe that is centered on a university might well reduce commuting times for the people who move there to be close to the main employer and/or related employment opportunities. So there is the sort of "sprawl" (urban growth) that forms new centers in a polycentric metropolitan area, and then there is the more seriously problematic pattern of single-use residential subdivisions strung along arterial corridors. The older pattern of suburban development tended to take the form of more complete neighborhoods (or villages), whereas the more recent suburban patterns have been much more relentlessly about rapid development of disconnected single-use projects, plumbed together with a roadway network doomed to fail.

New centers

"So there is the sort of "sprawl" (urban growth) that forms new centers in a polycentric metropolitan area"

The polycentric pattern is exactly what I was referring to about the dispersment of workplaces and residences. As corporate headquarters have relocated to the far suburbs - the fringes of the Dallas Fort Worth metro area - entirely new communities have emerged. Frisco-West Plano (Legacy Park) is a developing edge city, with shopping, hospitals, schools, and new housing ringed around the huge office buildings. The Legacy Park area even contains some mixed use development and apartments for those who desire it.

The problem for Legacy Park, as I see it, is over-concentration. Had the employers stopped at EDS, J.C. Penney, and Frito-Lay, it might have remained uncongested. But now a handful of other large employers have moved in, and the area has outgrown its roads.

A polycentric development pattern does not ensure short commutes, it only makes them possible. Some workers insist on living far from workplaces, even when affordable housing is available nearby. Those are the ones I hope will be motivated by gasoline prices to relocate either residences or jobs.


Brand new! Urban Grid City Collection

Each city has its own unique story. Commemorate where you came from or where you want to go.
Grids and Guide Red book cover

Grids & Guides

A notebook for visual thinkers. Available in red and black.
AICP CTP Storefont Display

The first online AICP* CTP exam prep class

Are you ready to take the AICP* Certified Transportation Planner exam?
Priced at $245 for May exam!
Book cover of the Guide to Graduate Planning Programs 4th Edition

Thinking about Grad School?

The Planetizen Guide to Graduate Urban Planning Programs is the only comprehensive ranking and listing of graduate urban planning programs available.
Starting at $24.95