Who fights for suburbia?

Michael Lewyn's picture

This morning, one of my listservs was aflutter with discussion of a new article by Joel Kotkin, attacking an alleged "war against the suburbs." According to Kotkin, this "war" consisted of Jerry Brown's efforts to "compel residents to move to city centers." After reading Kotkin's article, I couldn't really figure out exactly what Brown was trying to do- and since I don't live in California, it really isn't that important to me.

However, it is important to realize that "smart growth" need not be the enemy of suburbs. Here's why:

Suppose you are in a bucolic outer suburb, where one- and two-acre lots dominate the landscape. Under the sprawl status quo, more and more subdivisions are coming your way. That means your neighborhoods will become more like cities and older suburbs: more dense, more socially diverse. The residents of these subdivisions will crowd your roads, making your commute more difficult. By contrast, the most radical smart growth policies (such as Oregon's urban growth boundaries) limit developers' rights to build up those outer suburbs. Bad for the developers, but very good for you, the incumbent suburbanite.

What if you are in an older suburb? The sprawl status quo means that jobs and people will migrate to outer suburbs - but they'll still drive on your roads, so you still have traffic to worry about. Moreover, some of those people moving to outer suburbs may abandon your suburb. And if they are replaced by poorer households, your tax base and public schools may decline; eventually, you will be faced with the same problems as the troubled city nearby. So policies that limit outer-suburban development may protect your suburb from the problems of the Big Bad City.

In sum, arguments over sprawl and smart growth are not simply "city vs. suburb" battles. Suburbanites' interests are complex, and do not always square with the interests of the developers and road-builders.

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



Who Protects the Inner Older Suburbs?

I'd say that older, inner suburbs have a lot more in common with central cities than the newest fringe auto-oriented areas. For one thing, mixed use land use, transit, provisions for walking and bicycling, etc. are likely to be much more effective in those communities that were developed in the transit era and mostly retain walkable grid street patterns.

Josh Stephens's picture

Suburbs Can Handle Themselves

Kotkin implies that surburbs are somehow underprivileged, forlorn, marginalized, and in need of a champion. Funny how that sounds a lot like the inner cities, except in the inner cities it's true whereas in the suburbs it's a figment of Kotkin's strange world-view. The suburbs -- with their wealth, safety, and good schools -- can take care of themselves, and, as Michael rightly points out, they will do just fine as cities continue to revive.

Michael Lewyn's picture

Some suburbs yes, some suburbs no

The most elite suburbs can take care of themselves. The working class suburbs, not so much.

But at any rate, my article was less about whether suburbs can take care of themselves than how best they should do seek to so. Do they take care of themselves by supporting more sprawl or fighting sprawl? For at least some suburbs some of the time, the answer is: the latter.

Josh Stephens's picture

Elite Suburbs

That's totally fair. In my haste I was a bit general. I feel like the suburbs that Kotkin romanticizes are the "elite" suburbs, which do not, in fact, need his help.

I think your overall point is crucial, though: Suburbs often seem to view themselves at a remove from center cities and therefore indifferent, or hostile to, the density vs. sprawl debate. It would indeed behoove them to embrace density in center cities.

Jerry Brown's response

To read Jerry Brown's response to Mr. Kotkin's article, use this link. http://online.wsj.com/article/SB121738189085995477.html

A New Low For Kotkin

This op-ed is a new low for Kotkin. Here are a couple of quotes, which I won't even bother to comment on:

"...massive new highway projects ... gave us broad, low-density developments with room for millions of Californians to have a home with a backyard and two cars in the driveway. Those were the good old days."

"Several prominent scholars ... have found there is little evidence linking suburbanization to global warming, pointing out that density itself can produce increased auto congestion and pollution."

I wonder if Kotkin wants China and India to adopt the same policies that the US adopted in the 1950s and 1950s, building freeways and promoting sprawl. Maybe he thinks that will help control global warming by reducing auto congestion and pollution.

Charles Siegel

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