Suburban Sprawl Is Not Pro-Family

The middle class may be getting squeezed out of our cities, but the author of a new book dangerously mistakes the symptom for the cure.

A suburban development in Albuquerque, New Mexico Duncan Rawlinson/Flickr

It's not easy raising a family in the city. In New York, where my wife and I have chosen to raise our two daughters, the combination of ridiculously tiny living spaces, exorbitantly high rents, and daily logistical challenges often leads me to wonder if it's all worth it. Trips to the suburbs—like the one we took last week, to visit my parents—hew to a regular psychographic pattern: smugness (Everything out here looks the same! So boring!), followed by grudging reconsideration (Well, at least the kids have a yard to play in. And the grocery store is huge!), followed by bitter envy (I work hard. Why the hell shouldn't I be able to have a car, or own a home?).

Joel Kotkin has spent a lot of time thinking about people like me. As the executive editor of NewGeography.com, a professor of urban studies, and the author of several books on the changing demographics of cities and suburbs, Kotkin enjoys multiple platforms from which he can do what he's best known for: criticizing politicians, developers, and planners for omitting the needs and desires of the middle class when designing urban environments. At his most compelling, he poses some good questions: For whom are we building our cities? What aspects do we want to prioritize? Who’s being left out of the equation? At his least compelling, though, his arguments tend to congeal into an ideologically driven broadside against those who would attempt to slow the juggernaut of urban sprawl.

On one level, Kotkin’s newest book, The Human City, might be seen as a thoughtful reminder that we must never lose sight of the many different communities our cities are obliged to serve. In the United States, the author notes, urban design trends are increasingly geared toward “the needs of childless and often single professionals,” meaning that the focus “necessarily shifts to recreation, arts, culture, and restaurants.” Kotkin worries, not without some justification, that cities—as they rush to court the young, educated, highly skilled workers who make up what social scientist Richard Florida calls the “creative class”—are no longer prioritizing the needs of middle-class families with children.

But on another level, one can read The Human City as little more than the latest shot by right-of-center cultural critics at a completely imaginary enemy: sustainability advocates and developers who champion New Urbanism and the principles of smart growth. Even though more and more conservatives have come to embrace the basic tenets of smart growth—seeing in them, correctly, a prescription for stimulating local economies and increasing civic engagement—there are still many who believe that promoting urban infill, supporting public transit, and discouraging sprawl somehow constitute an "attack" on an entire tier of American society: the suburbs.

It’s a curious concern, and—as I’ve written before—a wholly misplaced one. There is no war on the suburbs. Yet the accusation lingers, thanks to the fear and cynicism that a few inordinately defensive conservative writers, Kotkin among them, continue to sow among economically anxious suburbanites. In its most comically extreme iteration, it manifests as panic: The government is coming for your four-bedroom house and your SUV! Your cul-de-sac is being turned into a sustainability reeducation center! Kotkin may take a milder approach than others, but in a way, his approach is more troubling, since by coming across as sober and rational, he's more likely to influence planners and policymakers.

It’s hard to argue with a number of Kotkin’s premises, many of which rightly point out that way too many developers and city planners seem more interested in catering to the tastes, proclivities, and checking accounts of upwardly mobile singles than they do to working- and middle-class families. If our notion of urbanism is to survive in any culturally meaningful way, he writes, then “it needs to restore the central role of families.…In the coming decades, successful urban areas will be those that provide not only the vibrant districts that attract the young but also those, usually less dense, places that can help preserve the family’s place, not as the exclusive unit in society but as one uniquely indispensable for the ages.”

But as sound as these premises may be, they lead Kotkin to some logically dubious conclusions. For example, after citing statistics showing that most of the recent growth in metropolitan areas has taken place outside of their dense urban cores, he leaps to this assertion, which arrives at the end of his book with the weight of gospel: “[D]ense urban culture—so attractive to the global rich, some young people, and childless professionals—ultimately offers little for the vast majority.” Elsewhere, while ruminating on an expanded definition of the word “sustainability” that would include cultural concerns as well as environmental ones, he buries his pitch for sprawl inside a plea to save the endangered Everyman: “[W]e need to look at social sustainability—that is, the preservation and expansion of the middle class—as a critical value for the future of society and its overall health. Building out into the periphery has provided this option more than any other model.”

But to defend sprawl by asserting that city life “ultimately offers little for the vast majority” is almost certainly to mistake resignation for motivation. Suburbia itself is not the primary draw for many families on the move. As one of Kotkin’s critics, the writer and urban planner Josh Stephens, puts it: “In truth, a suburban preference doesn’t necessarily connote a preference for suburbs; it connotes a preference for things that suburbs tend to offer.” Everybody—from wealthy, single millennials to middle-class parents to the working poor—likes the idea of living someplace with safe streets, decently sized homes, good schools, public green spaces, and affordable rents or mortgages. The best urban planning, of course, endeavors to nurture or provide these to as many city dwellers as possible, irrespective of race or class or socioeconomic status—all while acknowledging the oversize role that cities necessarily play in our ongoing battles against pollution and climate change.

It’s no mystery as to why people want safety, beauty, quality, and affordability in a place to live. These things can be found in a suburb or an exurb, to be sure. But out there, they carry with them social and environmental costs that many people—lots more of them, I suspect, than Kotkin has estimated—simply don’t want to pay. I know that I'm not willing to pay them; nor are the thousands of middle-class families in my safe, beautiful, kid-friendly, dense—and, yes, expensive—Brooklyn neighborhood.

Kotkin is right to warn us that we mustn’t allow our cities to become culturally stratified zones: one-half playground for the rich, one-half prison for the poor. And he’s right to point out that cities, especially those undergoing revivals or renewals, need to do a better job of addressing the needs of all families, including the middle-class ones.

But he’s wrong to think that sprawl somehow represents the fulfilled desires of “the vast majority.” What sprawl represents, instead, is an eerie distortion of the things that people typically say they want from a city. That so many families are willing to settle for that distortion by moving farther and farther out—constantly redefining our urban periphery and pushing our resources, not to mention our sense of shared civic life, to the breaking point—isn’t something to be celebrated. For planners and policymakers, it’s a challenge to be met.


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