Urban Sprawl: A Grassroots Defense

Hostility towards suburbs is misplaced

One of the benefits of El Nino is warm weather in the late fall. So, my wife and I pack up the kids and go for an evening stroll. Our stroll says a lot about our neighborhood and the people that live here:

Joe, our next door neighbor, used-car dealer, and all-around great guy, is inspecting a newly purchased car. The next house down is a family of four with two young children about the age of ours. He’s a salesman, she’s a nurse. On the other side is a minister and his wife. And behind us is a banker. Other families on the street include an electrician, a factory worker, another salesman, a retired engineer and a teacher.

As we continue our walk with two kids in tow, acquaintances and strangers are outside, playing in their yards, doing yard work, playing with children – the normal stuff of neighborhoods.

Anyone who wonders in will discover our neighborhood is safe, family friendly and all around pleasant. It’s a good place to raise kids. I should know; we live just two streets away from where I grew up.

What’s wrong with this picture? For the vast majority of folks in America nothing. In fact, many aspire to these kinds of neighborhoods and living conditions. Yet, to many urban studies professors and some politicians, this neighborhood and the town that hosts it represent the newest “social ill.” It’s a suburb. Its part of the “urban sprawl” that soothsayers, particularly those in traditional central cities, think is ripping apart the fabric of American society.

The problem with this anti-suburban view is that these cities – and they are cities – are not really the bland, faceless, non-communities described in social studies textbooks. People live here. People choose to live here, and they choose not to move out. In fact, suburban residents are less likely to move than their central city counterparts.

The failure to recognize these simple facts about suburban life is the source of one of the most profound misunderstandings of contemporary Western society: Suburbs exist because people want them, and their wealth permits them to enjoy the fruits of their labor.

“Anti-sprawlers” are correct when they point to public policies such as subsidized mortgage rates, highway construction subsidies, and below cost pricing for utilities as contributers to suburban development. But even if these costs were fully accounted for, it would slow, not stop, the pace of sprawl.

The evidence of this is clear simply by looking across the Atlantic to Europe: there energy prices are much higher, housing is more expensive and mass transit is much more convenient. Still, Europeans have moved in droves to their suburbs (albeit in higher densities).

Even in the U.S., most home and office construction now occurs outside traditional cities. Now, more than half of the American population lives in a suburb and the suburbs are the primary job generators.

Why the hostility toward suburbs? Three reasons come to mind.

First, suburbs are a relatively new phenomenon. Most people, particularly urban policy analysts, do not understand them. While suburbanization has been occurring for centuries, they have not dominated the social and economic life until very recently.

Second, they look different. They often do not have identifiable downtowns (although they often have older parts that are designated as “historical districts”). They also do not have large houses on postage-stamp size lots. They are also designed for the automobile, not crowded high-density rail systems.

Third, suburbs are not easily categorized. They range from new to old, from large to small, from the economically homogenous to the economically diverse, from the ethnically homogenous to the ethnically diverse. Few analysts have theories that can accommodate such diversity. In earlier decades, traditional cities had the same levels of diversity (or segregation), they just were all within one city’s boundaries.

To fully appreciate the social and economic contribution of suburbs, policymakers and citizens need to look beyond the architecture and into the soul of the suburb. Even a casual walk through our neighborhood – a very typical midwestern neighborhood – demonstrates that American society is alive, kicking, and pretty routine in the “sprawling” suburbs. It’s time to recast urban policy mold and root it in an understanding and appreciation for the benefits of low-density, suburban living.

Samuel Staley is director of urban and land use policy at Reason Foundation and co-editor of the book “Smarter Growth: Market-Based Strategies for Land-Use Planning in the 21st Century.”