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Thursday, January 19, 2006


The War Against Suburbia

Joel Kotkin has a commentary on the war against suburbia in the Wall Street Journal [subscription required]:
"Suburbia, the preferred way of life across the advanced capitalist world, is under an unprecedented attack -- one that seeks to replace single-family residences and shopping centers with an 'anti-sprawl' model beloved of planners and environmental activists. The latest battleground is Los Angeles, which gave birth to the suburban metropolis. Many in the political, planning and media elites are itching to use the regulatory process to turn L.A. from a sprawling collection of low-rise communities into a dense, multistory metropolis on the order of New York or Chicago. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has outlined this vision, and it does not conform to the way that most Angelenos prefer to live: 'This old concept that all of us are going to live in a three-bedroom home, you know this 2,500 square feet, with a big frontyard and a big backyard -- well, that's an old concept.'"
Do you think it is an old concept? Kotkin refers to the idea as an "imposed vision." He points out that there is now a substantial effort to use public monies to expand underused train systems, build downtown condos, convention centers, and even sports stadia. He says there is a widespread prejudice in planning deparments of our universities and in our city bureaucracies against suburbs and single family neighborhoods. He writes:
"Acolytes of such worldviews in our City Halls are now working overtime to find ways to snuff out "sprawl" in favor of high-density living. Portland's "urban growth boundary" and the "smart growth" policies promoted by former Maryland Governor Parris Glendening, for example, epitomize the preference of planners to cram populations into ever denser, expensive housing by choking off new land to development. More recently, this notion even has spread to areas where single family homes and suburbs are de rigueur. Planners in Albuquerque have suggested banning backyards -- despised as wasteful and "anti-social" by new urbanists and environmentalists, although it is near-impossible to find a family that doesn't want one. Even the mayor of Boise, Idaho, advocates tilting city development away from private homes, which now dominate the market, toward apartments."

Kotkin suggests that perhaps the best known anti-sprawl government policy was the urban growth boundary in Portland. He believes the result was not the "new urbanist nirvana" envisioned by the proponents, but rather the result has been higher land prices within the boundary and people and businesses have been moving away from Portland in the direction of the communities across the Columbia river in Washington state. He cites that 95% of the regional population increase has taken place outside the city limits.

Perhaps people like living with suburban sprawl? If Kotkin is right about Portand, then people seem to have chosen to live farther away rather than live in the more densely populated "planned" areas within the urban growth boundary. Kotkin also refers to recent polls that say "roughly 51% of Americans . . . prefer to live in the suburbs, while only 13% opt for life in a dense urban place."

Kotkin's conclusion:
"It is time politicians recognized how their constituents actually want to live. If not, they will only hurt their communities, and force aspiring middle-class families to migrate ever further out to the periphery for the privacy, personal space and ownership that constitutes the basis of their common dreams."

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