The Great Suburbia Debate

by Reihan Salam

Are conservatives turning on the suburbs? Joel Kotkin, the prolific author and executive editor of The New Geography, an excellent resource for students of urbanism, warns that anti-suburban sentiment, which has long been firmly entrenched on the environmental left, is spreading to the right. He attacks those he calls the “retro-urbanist conservatives” for “parroting the basic urban legends of the smart-growth crowd and planners,” and for, in effect, “waging a war on middle-class America.” Specifically, he takes the anti-suburban conservatives to task for suggesting that suburbanites have longer commutes than city-dwellers (they don’t) and that they’re less likely to be engaged in civic life (they aren’t).

Though I’m an admirer of Kotkin, and though I can’t speak for every conservative who has made the case for denser development, he gets a number of important things wrong. Or rather I think he gets a number of important things wrong. It’s a bit hard to tell, for while Kotkin singles out the conservative columnist Matt Lewis and the conservative activist Paul Weyrich for criticism, the latter of whom has been dead since 2008, as Kotkin acknowledges, many of his specific charges are directed against unnamed anti-suburban conservatives who are making arguments that don’t make much sense, and are thus very easily knocked down.

For example, Kotkin claims that “some conservatives” (again, no names) have been “lured by their own class prejudice” into turning against market forces. “In reality,” Kotkin writes, “imposing Draconian planning is not even necessary for the growth of density.” Of course, this is exactly the argument that Edward Glaeser makes in The Triumph of the City, a manifesto for the pro-market, pro-density right. “In places that have both liberal planning regimes and economic growth, such as Houston and Dallas,” he observes, “there has been a more rapid increase in multifamily housing than in cities such as Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco or New York.” Indeed, this is why many conservatives, myself included, have explicitly argued that cities like New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles should look to the liberal planning regimes of Houston and Dallas as a model. (To be clear, by “liberal” planning regimes, Kotkin means less-restrictive, more market-oriented planning regimes, and so do I.) 

The global cities that manage to be both highly productive and affordable, like Tokyo and Toronto, tend to have liberal planning regimes, which allow for rapid growth of housing stock, and in particular of the multifamily housing stock. These regions are characterized by rapid housing development in the suburbs and in the urban core, and their “suburbs” tend to be more urban than low-density suburbs in the U.S. governed by stringent planning regimes that tightly restrict multifamily development. When Glaeser makes the case for density, he does so not by calling for “imposing draconian planning” on cities and towns. Rather, he explicitly calls for the relaxation of land-use regulation. The economists Joseph Gyourko, Albert Saiz, and Anita A. Summers have carefully documented the extent of land-use regulation across major U.S. cities, and there is clear evidence that Americans are moving to regions with less restrictive planning regimes and thus more affordable housing. It could be that it is not economists like Glaeser and Gyourko that Kotkin has in mind when he takes retro-urbanist conservatives to task, which is fair enough. But if not, he should say so.

Moreover, Kotkin complains about new planning legislation in California and other states “that tends to price single-family homes, the preference of some 70 percent of adults, well beyond the capacity of the vast majority of residents.” Before delving into this claim in more detail, it is worth noting that Kotkin relies on a 2004 survey of Californians from the Public Policy Institute of California. Suffice it to say, much has changed since 2004. But even if we rely on this survey alone, we find that 53 percent of Californians state that “they would choose to live in a small home with a small backyard if it means a shorter commute to work.” When asked if they would be willing to live in a mixed-use neighborhood if it meant more proximity to stores and services, a proxy for density, 48 percent said that they would while 49 percent said that they would still prefer a residential-only neighborhood. What these results tells us is that something on the order of 30 percent of Californians in 2004 favor “walkable urbanism,” yet the supply of walkable urban neighborhoods in California, by any reasonable standard, fails to meet this demand, hence the high cost of market-rate housing in California’s dense urban neighborhoods.

And a more recent 2014 national survey, from the Pew Research Center, finds that while 49 percent of Americans favor living in neighborhoods in which “the houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away,” 48 percent favor neighborhoods in which “houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are in walking distance.” If anything, there is reason to believe that the preference for density would be stronger in California, as California is more liberal than the United States as a whole. The Pew survey finds that 46 percent of self-identified liberals in the U.S. would prefer to live in a city; only 4 percent of conservatives feel the same way. Even if the share of Californians who prefer single-family homes remains fixed at its 2004 level, 30 percent of adults is a very high number and the growth of housing stock in dense urban regions of California has been anemic.

Kotkin relies heavily on the work of Wendell Cox, a transportation consultant who seems to believe that denser development is necessarily a product of central planning. In desirable regions, however, less restrictive planning regimes will naturally lead to higher densities, as property owners will naturally seek to maximize the value of their investments. Restrictive land-use regulations tend to limit density, not impose it on unwilling landowners. When Cox warns that state and regional planners in California “seek to radically restructure urban areas, forcing much of the new hyperdensity development into narrowly confined corridors,” he raises a few questions. Do developers have the option of not building in these corridors and instead investing their money in something else entirely? Yes, they do. If developers were not explicitly required to build at low densities, is there good reason to believe that they would build at high densities to accommodate the fact that there are many people (30 percent of adults is not too shabby) who would happily do so if it meant that they could live in a desirable region or neighborhood? Yes, there is.

And finally, Kotkin neglects one of the most compelling arguments against an excessive reliance on low-density suburbs. Neighborhoods of single-family homes serve the interests of some families very well, particularly middle- and upper-middle-income two-parent families with children. But they serve the interests of other families far less well. Kotkin has correctly observed that the increasing concentration of poverty in suburban neighborhoods can be overstated, and for reminding policymakers that urban and rural poverty are far more entrenched problems than suburban poverty. Yet as I argue in a recent Slate column, a built environment dominated by single-family homes is ill-suited to the needs of single-parent families, not to mention single adults.

Recently, Robert VerBruggen of RealClearPolitics shared a chart that illustrates the transformation of living arrangements for American children from 1960 to 2012. 

Whereas in 1960, 65 percent of children 0-14 lived in households with married parents, in which only the father was employed, that share had fallen to 22 percent by 2012. When we factor in households in which both parents work, the decline doesn’t look quite so dramatic; the share of children raised in these households has risen from 18 percent to 34 percent. Single-family homes are, like all homes, depreciating assets that require maintenance. In the case of multifamily homes, maintenance is generally outsourced to landlords; in the case of single-family homes, maintenance is performed by the owner-occupier. It stands to reason that married couples are as a general rule in a better position to do the work of maintaining a home than a single adult, if only because they are able to pool their resources. Either they can do the work themselves or they can hire others to do it for them. In the case of low- to middle-income single-parent families, however, resources are tightly constrained, including time. As nonmarital child-rearing grows more prevalent, the time that can be devoted to home maintenance and civic life necessarily declines. The effects of this shift are more pronounced in single-family home neighborhoods than in multifamily home or mixed neighborhoods.

And so we come to have come full-circle. Low-rise suburban living was well-suited to the needs of the postwar decades, when the share of married-parent families was far higher, the foreign-born share of the population was far lower, violent crime in the cities was rising, and the cultural gap between low- and high-income families was modest. But the United States has changed, and in some respects we’ve come to more closely resemble the more diverse and unequal society we were in the first decades of the last century. It stands to reason that our built environment will evolve as well. This isn’t about “class prejudice,” as Kotkin would have us believe. There will always be a place for low-rise suburban living. Yet as the share of households that are best-suited for low-rise suburban living shrinks, denser living arrangements are going to have to play a larger role.

The Agenda

NRO’s domestic-policy blog, by Reihan Salam.