Maybe America Has Enough Suburbia

Feb 26, 2009
Urban planners want America to look like Amsterdam, but Americans don't want that lifestyle. So says The New York Times columnist David Brooks.

I'm often interested when an expert in another field writes about planning. Because he may not really know what he is writing about, he may bring a useful perspective to the subject. Brooks is an inside-the-Beltway political commentator who appears frequently on television and radio. I think of him as the designated "rational conservative." He usually focuses on national politics and policy, about which he knows a great deal, but he occasionally weighs in on land use issues.

In a column last week headlined, "I Dream of Denver," Brooks wrote, "You may not know it to look at them, but urban planners are human and have dreams. One dream many share is that Americans will give up their love affair with suburban sprawl and will rediscover denser, more environmentally friendly, less auto-dependent ways of living.

"Those dreams have been aroused over the past few months. The economic crisis has devastated the fast-growing developments on the far suburban fringe. Americans now taste the bitter fruit of their overconsumption.

"The time has finally come, some writers are predicting, when Americans will finally repent. They'll move back to the urban core. They will ride more bicycles, have smaller homes and tinier fridges and rediscover the joys of dense community and maybe even superior beer.

"America will, in short, finally begin to look a little more like Amsterdam.

"Well, Amsterdam is a wonderful city, but Americans never seem to want to live there. And even now, in this moment of chastening pain, they don't seem to want the Dutch option."

Brooks based this conclusion on a new Pew Research Center report, which found that about 70% of suburbanites and rural residents but only 52% of city dwellers rate their communities as excellent or very good.

Does this poll result truly mean people don't want to live in cities? Or does it suggest that we need better cities? The same poll found that while 56% of city residents would rather live in a suburb, small town or rural area, 46% of suburban residents also would rather live in a different type of community.

Brooks makes the point that five of the metropolitan areas in which people say they would most like to live "are neither traditional urban centers nor atomized suburban sprawl." The cities at the top of the list that he mentions are Denver, San Diego, Seattle, Orlando and Tampa. Interestingly, Brooks does not name San Francisco, which tied for fourth with Orlando and Tampa. Perhaps the Bay Area, with its three-way axis of bustling cities, doesn't fit his thesis.

Still, I think Brooks makes a valid argument. San Diego offers something for everyone: A resurgent downtown, relatively dense coastal suburbs, more sprawling inland suburbs, small towns in the countryside, numerous ethnic enclaves, freeways and transit, public beaches and desert parks.

That's the real takeaway from the Pew survey: One size does not fit all.

You would never know this from most of our planning during the last 60 years. For the most part, what we have planned for and what we have gotten is suburbia. Low- to median-density single-family houses, segregated uses, few alternatives to the automobile. Yet the Pew poll found that barely more than half of suburban residents would choose a suburban environment, and not even one in five of residents of other areas would pick suburbia.

It makes me wonder if we have built enough suburbia to last us for another a generation or two. Maybe, just maybe, we in California should be focused on making cities whether they be like San Jose or Anaheim better places to live. Maybe we should make our small towns whether it's Chowchilla or Ukiah complete places to live, learn, work and recreate. And maybe we should pause before we convert our rural places whether it's the Salinas Valley or the Sierra foothills into suburbs.

Most planners are not advocating for an American Amsterdam, and neither am I. I'm only pointing out that not everyone nowhere near a majority, according to Pew wants to live in Roseville.

Paul Shigley