Living in Slumburbia, Part 1

The first in a series of articles addressing the transitional state of settlement in America. 

From Shaun Tan's "Tales from Outer Suburbia"

 Long before the current economic crisis, the suburban planning model had already attracted criticism from a wide array of contemporary planners, sociologists, and notable commentators such as James Kunstler.  Although I tend suspect a more common objection on purely aesthetic grounds, most of the criticism has addressed the issues of land use and infrastructure inefficiencies, social alienation, traffic congestion, and, more generally, the contagion known as “urban sprawl“.     

And, as it happens, Greater Suburbia is now in a spot of trouble.  Has this trouble come about for any of the reasons cited above?  Perhaps one offered by James Kunstler in his seminal 1993 book, “The Geography of Nowhere“?  

A land full of places that are not worth caring about will soon be a nation and a way of life that is not worth defending.”   

Well, some might find that to be a rather appealing explanation, but, I think the answer – at this point – is still “No”.  Actually, I’m inclined to believe that suburbia is most likely suffering from it’s success, a theme that will be explored in this article and those to follow.   

Sprawl for All   

Yeah, I know, for many – me included – this proposition may be somewhat hard to believe.  Frankly, these days I go to visit either the city or ‘burbs as little as possible.  It’s become something of a (good) habit over the past decade or so to simply avoid it.  Let me put it this way:  it’s NOT my “happy place”.  Occasionally, however, work or a family obligation will force me into the madness, the circus, the impersonal, chaotic hive that has become modern America, a place that, according to the US Census, is now roughly 80% urbanized (see more below).  

Yeah, if you’re like me, that comes as a bit of a shock.  From my personal perspective – one that is shared, I suspect, by almost any rural reader of this article, “they’re all crazy over there“.  Is this merely a rural bias?  Perhaps, since by the numbers at least, we ruralites are in a distinct and shrinking minority.  But, it does help to explain the growing cultural and political divide in the country, notably the growing collectivist mindset so suited to both modern Americans and “the Borg”.  

So, even if it’s true that “they’re all crazy”, the numbers still compel us to recognize the overwhelming popularity of urban/suburban living.  The Population Reference Bureau (PRB) tells us, for instance, that, as of 2007, 50% of the world’s population is now living in an urban environment and heading to 60% by 2030.  In the developed countries, such as the US, urban populations are now 71% of the whole and heading to 81%.  The 2000 Census estimated that 79% of the US population lived in “urban” places.  While the Census’ definition of urban happens to include places that might “look” somewhat rural when compared to downtown Chicago, this is still a pretty remarkable figure…and one that will surely be surpassed in the 2010 Census.  

Despite the nuance of density, I’m generally inclined to simply lump all of these places together.  To me, it’s sort of like arguing about how much heroin might be bad for you.  From my vantage point, even the fringes of the urban area are part and parcel of one big, fat, writhing mess of humanity.  And, for the purpose of this article at least, I don’t believe that there is any real material difference between, say, Manhattan and Scottsdale.  In the end, even relatively low density suburban communities are part and parcel of the urban phenomena.  No city, no ‘burbs.  Given enough time and proper nutrition, even the most benign Mayberry-esque “town” will develop into one or the other and, in all probability, a combination of both.  

So, the question remains:  Is the urban form, with or without it’s suburban appendage, a good thing or a bad thing?  Most contemporary commentators, such as Kunstler, like to pretend that cities are good, even if suburbs are bad.  More significant, they – along with most modern planners – seem to believe you can have the one without the other.  Furthermore, given a presumed scarcity of development lands and other critical resources, we “must” compress urban/suburban densities to an even greater extent, preventing at all cost, the further expansion of suburban sprawl.  

Scarce Resources?  

Many critics of suburbia decry the wasted resource of so-called “open space”, something most urbanites know very little about as it happens.   Of course, this is an appeal to aesthetic sensibilities, not to science or economics, which should be a useful guide to the politics of the subject.  

In economics, of course, the concept of Highest and Best Use of property is generally determined by the price a buyer is willing to pay for a bit of land.  As it happens, people do congregate, usually according to specialized economic activity, around a “central place”.  These patterns are functionally efficient, largely in order to minimize transportation costs.  Naturally, if one “central place” becomes too expensive or unwieldy, others crop up to take their places.  Still, all of our major cities have such specialized economics at their core.  

In accordance with highest and best use (economic) principles, the most expensive land is that which is sought for the highest order of activity.  That’s not usually housing, but is, rather, usually directly linked to the raison d’être for the entire city.  We’re talking jobs here, followed by a whole host of secondary purposes, of which housing is only one.  

As it follows, the hinterlands – including what is now suburbia – were (and still are) less valuable.  Space, open or otherwise, commands less of a premium the further you travel from the core.  Makes a certain kind of sense, doesn’t it?   And, while there are exceptions to this rule, it is pretty much the whole story as far as land use goes.  

Housing for the rich have – traditionally – tended to be more central than for the poor as a function of these pricing gradients.  Only social engineering efforts – as manifested in our public planning policies – have tended to distort these natural distribution patterns.  (More on that in the next installment.)  

Aesthetics aside, the one of the newest planning juggernaut is the rationale that land use should be dictated on the basis of “best practices”, a concept in which the social engineers utterly ignore the economic process that function, naturally, in accordance with “best practices”.  The planners contend that “valuable farm land” is being plowed up and paved over, that water resources are being consumed too rapidly in the wrong places, that we’ve run out of room to pile or bury the garbage, that society can no longer afford the leapfrogging consumption of space that might be better utilized as, well “open space” yet again.  

Well, here’s one bit of perspective on our “scarce” land resources:  According to Wikipedia, the US enjoys a relatively low population density of 83 people per square mile.  This is well below the world average of 130 persons per square mile and affords a ranking of of 178 of 239 countries listed.  This density is also, well below the 142 of Mexico, the 164 of Ireland, the 177 of Kenya, the 235 of Spain, the 433 of Nigeria, the 1,162 of Puerto Rico, the 1,260 of South Korea, and the 2,917 of Bangladesh.  And lest we forget, the density of the US is so far below that of various city-states like Gibraltar (11,807), Singapore (18,189), or Macau (48,003) that the comparisons fail to be meaningful.   

Yes, there are less dense places…..even relatively habitable ones, such as New Zealand at 41 per square mile.  But most of these, frankly, are less hospitable, being comprised largely of desert, tundra, or mountainous terrain.  Even allowing for “arable lands”, the United States population density is still particularly blessed with only 179 persons per arable square mile, again well below the world average of 325 and, accordingly, an even lower rank of 205 of 239 countries.  

So, we’re not running out of land or even farm land.  We’ll address other “critical” resources such as water at a future date.  For now, however, it remains rather dubious that calls for higher density lifestyles is likely to save us from starvation or otherwise dire consequence.   

(Not So) Smart Growth  

Note:  You might be a Planner if you see a perfectly good design and still have to change it.  

Say what you might about the either the aesthetic or functional inadequacies of suburban land use, but first ask yourself whether this much-maligned landscape is more the result of market forces – notably, those so-called “greedy, short-sighted developers” – or of careful land-use planning?  

Well, naturally enough, both market and regulatory factors have played a role.  But, let’s face it, in most places, developer’s simply can’t build without planning approval.  Similarly, they work very hard to ensure that, within those planning limits, they build something the market wants.   Being so constrained, I really have a hard time believing that what we see across our landscape is simply a reflection of so-called “developer greed“.  

Let’s face it, the general concept of concentrating residential development on largish tracts with limited access along major arterials and highways choked with funneled traffic and strip-retail uses was, first and foremost, a planning concept.  Significantly, it was a divergence from the more traditional town planning of the past.  

We might recall that, historically, most cities and towns simply overlayed their domain with a city grid pattern, replete with interconnected streets with multiple avenues of ingress and egress, around a core commercial district and outlying industrial and agricultural uses.  This pattern, it might be noted, tended to reflect the natural distribution of land-use intensity that results from a “central place” generated market valuation process.  Two fortunate outcome of such practices include:  a) the natural “clustering” or, rather, a compaction of intensity of use in direct accordance with market’s valuation of land around a central place, and b) a widely distributed traffic pattern.  

Significantly, these more traditional planning efforts were patently “pro-growth”, generally coinciding front-loaded infrastructure development.   These were planners that understood that a stable, long-term tax base was far more important to the viability of the community than the haphazard collection of “impact fees”, as if growth were a curse that had to be punished.  

But, even these development patterns ultimately depended on an actual “core”, a central place, if you will, from which these natural market functions would flow.  The notion that a simulated town might be developed around nothing more than a highway interchange merely compounds the other design flaws noted above.  And, truthfully, we ought to understand by now that the long-term viability (shall be say “sustainability”) of an employment base that only serves consumption is going to be problematic at any scale.  

In other words, the notion that we can isolate ourselves from the “dirty” (even undignified) processes of manufacturing (or farming for that matter) has become something like an unfortunate eating disorder or toilet phobia.   Not coincidentally, we might note that, culturally, we’re almost as uncomfortable with where our food comes from as we are with where it goes when we’re done using it.  We rather like limiting our exposure to the process to that isolated bit of consumption in the middle where our (and only our) wishes are granted.  

And, it is here, where we are reminded that all planning efforts will be trumped, in the long run, by market forces.   The more we ignore that fact, the more severe the “trumping” is likely to manifest itself in the form of we see as “unintended consequences”.  And, surely, the “problem” of urban (really suburban) sprawl is simply one of those.    

In the next installment, we’ll look more closely at the demographic and economic forces that brought the suburb into being and what changes we might expect as those forces respond to economic and other challenges.  



2 responses to “Living in Slumburbia, Part 1

  1. Finally got around to reading this one HT – and now I am curious about part 2. I am learning and want to learn more.

    M. Ragazzo

  2. M.>

    Thanks for reading. Taking a bit of time to craft a more scholarly view of the subject. I’ll look into Part 2 soon.


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