Must suburbs languish in order for cities to flourish?

Plenty of folks have responded to this bit from the Economist, as I did a bit ago, and it’s fair to say that some urbanists are in a huff that the Economist is daring to suggest that suburbs are doing anything but dying the miserable death suburbs deserve to die because urbanists don’t approve of them.

Which brings up a question that I have: Must suburbs languish in order for cities to flourish?

I don’t think so. David Harvey suggests that there is a zero-sum aspect to it, in a wonderful bit of theory that examines how capitalist urbanism tends to selectively raise up, valorize, and then devalue particular places, sloshing back and forth in a cycle, so that real estate developers always have money to make from development and redevelopment. I’m less convinced that one place has to languish for the other to thrive in order to feed the engine, but David Harvey is much smarter than I am, so you should probably just go read his blog.

But anyway.

Back in the day, meaning the 1980s and early 1990s, when I was coming up and the central cities of Rustbelt were really, truly in trouble, and suburbs were flourishing, there was a strong mantra from urbanists that I thought made all sorts of sense: the suburbs really can’t flourish past a certain point with a weak downtown.

It seems to me, however, that we are in a phase here where the economic co-dependence of city-suburbs seems to have been conveniently forgotten now that people see signs of life in downtowns. Who needs the suburbs? Wait a minute. If the suburbs needed the city back when the money was flowing to the suburbs…doesn’t the city need its suburbs in order for regional economic development to lift boats?

There’s more than a little whiff of that “suburbs must be dying, they simply must be, because I want them to” attitude in this piece from Michael Lewyn on Planetized called The Economist and Suburbia: A Fistful of Myths. I have to admit to not understanding a good bit of it, but the parts I do understand strike me misguided in understanding regional form. The author notes he’s not an expert on international urbanization, but that much of what the Economist noted about suburbs strikes him as wrong in US and Canadian region. He goes point-by-point:

1. “[A]lmost every city is becoming less dense.” This is the old “everyone does it” theory of suburban sprawl: its just a worldwide trend, nothing we can do about it. Of course, this sort of argument completely overlooks distinctions of degree. Does anyone really think there’s no difference between Vancouver and Phoenix, or between Amsterdam and Detroit?

The idea that there are differences in degree in how rapidly regions spread is a hardly perennial; anti-sprawl folks have been claiming this ever since Peter Gordon and Harry Richardson got a million cites by stirring up planners in JAPA with arguments about suburbs being a reflection of consumer sovereignty. I don’t think anybody really questions that there are differences in marginal rates of land consumption in urbanization. What still rather sits at the heart of the debate is whether policy and planning can alter that marginal rate and, if so, they can do so enough to really show significant effects in all the things people want to see change: driving, energy consumption, and the like. Planners say yes to both.

I’m befuddled as to what his comparisons are meant to mark; they clearly make sense to him. But I don’t remember the Economist piece saying there were no differences between how suburbs form or what regions look like. Of course there are differences between Amsterdam and Detroit and Vancouver and Phoenix, and there are also differences between Detroit and Phoenix, so I’m not sure what differences we are discussing here or why. It’s like there’s some secret language here, and we’d all know the significance of these comparisons if we knew the language. I don’t. (A thought: planetizen should sell decoder rings). The point from the Economist is that worldwide urbanization has wrought metropolitan growth rather than, strictly, urban growth.

2. “The simple truth is that people become richer they consume more space.” So, logically, as American wages have stagnated over the past several decades, suburbia should have stopped in its tracks long ago. (Somehow this failed to occur, at least until the last decade or so). Moreover, if this were true, our nation’s declining industrial regions, like Buffalo and Detroit, would have become hubs of urbanization, while rich regions, like San Francisco and New York, would have turned into huge versions of Phoenix. In fact, the richest regions have growing central cities—and were it not for restrictive zoning, these central cities would probably be growing more far more rapidly. By contrast, cities in stagnant regions, such as Detroit and Buffalo, generally continue to lose population decade after decade (though even these regions are starting to experience downtown growth).

He allows that space consumption and affluence may go together internationally, but it doesn’t strike him as true in the US. There are a lot of assumptions in his argument, and I’m trying to disentangle them. First of all, the Economist claim is about space being a normal good, that’s all. It may (and probably does) translate into aggregate effects, such as “stopping suburbanization in its tracks” with wage stagnation. Here, Lewyn has a problem: he wants to claim that suburbs are languishing because he wants them to, but if they are actually languishing with wage stagnation, that actually would evidence the idea that space is a normal good, but he doesn’t want to agree that space is a normal good because that might suggest that suburbs have something to offer.

This argument turns into a mare’s nest as he starts to conflate things that don’t really have much to do with each other. All the normal good argument suggests is that, ceteris paribus, a person will consume more space as income grows. However, there are infinite variations on what a square foot gets you; a square foot in the suburbs is not equal in amenity to a square foot in the city. Isn’t that the point? Somebody with urban preferences will still buy a bigger apartment (can I say flat? I like that word, and it’s shorter) if their income grows, not that they will mindlessly move to the suburbs.

It’s entirely possible to alter people’s preferences so that they prefer to be in an urban setting–but that even within that urban setting, people who have income growth might, if they like their nabe and even their building, move into their building’s penthouse from a smaller flat on the 7th floor. That’s straight in line with the “normal good” idea.

The “Why hasn’t New York become Phoenix” assertion is misguided. For one, New York as a region has grown–a lot–outside of the burroughs. So in some ways, New York has become a bit like Phoenix in human settlement even if its center has held. Again, it’s entirely possible that, with regional growth, both suburbs and cities can grow. Yes, the rent gradient in New York has remained much, much steeper than Phoenix, but the population difference is enormous, and frankly, it’s a specious comparison. It’s not New York versus Phoenix that might tell us much about individual demand for space versus demand for amenity. Instead, the relevant comparison is what New York is now, with regulated land markets, versus what it would be without those regulations. Lewyn notes correctly that places like San Francisco and New York would grow more if the development regime were not so restrictive.

And that’s the difficulty. We don’t have that comparison. The closest we have is Alain and Sophie Bertaud’s work with Steve Malpezzi, and models can only take you so far.

Why Phoenix hasn’t turned into New York is an equally valid question, as we’ve had multiple decades of anti-sprawl policy and sentiment. The answer to both why New York hasn’t become Phoenix and why Phoenix has not become New York may have one answer, highly inconvenient to planning: regional form doesn’t necessarily shift much once its established.

Nonetheless, the Economist’s point is a real issue for planning: in concert with restrictive land development policies and economic growth, it’s entirely possible that the “space is a normal good” problem means places like Manhattan can decrease in the overall percentage of population and housing they hold relative to their suburban counterparts, even though Manhattan is a still a wonderful and desirable place to live.

To wit: Lewyn is correct that there has been no real wage growth, but there has been economic growth over the past few decades, and thus some people are doing just fine, thank you very much, in terms of reaping the rewards of economic growth. An example: the Eastern Columbia Building downtown is lovely, and I used to live there and dream about buying one of three penthouses on its roof.

Until Johnny Depp bought all three of those penthouses and took the walls down between and made a lovely space for himself and his family.

That kind of thing can change the population density in ways that may aggregate to a larger problem if it happens often enough. That’s the “Greenwich Village” problem the Economist mentioned.

Finally, the “why aren’t Buffalo and Detroit” thriving question concerns a lot of things; it may be quite affordable to live in both those downtowns, but when people make residential location decisions, I’m not sure how many times in their lives they are really weighing downtown Buffalo versus Fremont (suburban SF). It seems to me that people who get to choose their regions a la carte like that are likely to have immense discretion or particular tastes (which is great), but for a lot of us, I suspect the job determines the region and our preferences and income dictate location within that region.

4. “suburbia, at its heart, is the embodiment of compromise.” I think the article was trying to say here that suburbanites balance commuting distance and affordability. But wait a minute—if people live in the suburbs because they can’t afford the city, then how is it the case that suburbia is a result of wealth (see claim 2 above)?

See Ed Glaeser and Matt Kahn: Why do poor people live in cities?

Remember that prices per square foot are not the same, and that people satisfice. They may absolutely dream of a Manhattan apartment, but what they have for dollars stretches only to a relatively small and squalid flat in Queens, and even that could probably be a step up from their childhood home rural Kansas, both in terms of urban preference and impact on the environment.

What the numbers suggest to me is that growing regions can grow in a lot of different ways, one of which is growing both at the center and on the fringe, and there are differences preference that get met and satisfied in both locations: some wealthy with preferences for trolleys and tapas restaurants and art galleries seek urban centers and rich people who like gates with armed security and horse farming seek out exclusive suburban enclaves. It’s possible for wealth in metropolitan regions of the 21st century to be spatially distributed in myriad different ways, just like urban wealth of the 19th and 20th centuries: (the pied-a-terre in Manhattan for the work week, the cottage in the Hamptons, the row house in Boston, the Nantucket “cottage”, etc. etc.)

One thought on “Must suburbs languish in order for cities to flourish?

  1. In support of your argument–and you probably have seen this–Manhattan is getting less dense in the desirable places:
    The real density of Manhattan is north of Central Park, where families live in multigenerational units that are small. The average size of a Manhattan unit has increased over the years, and by quite a bit.
    Space is a normal good.

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