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Suburban State of Mind

by Miriam Axel-Lute on May 10, 2012


Have you visited our lovely suburbs Schenectady and Troy lately?

No, I haven’t become a proponent of some weird dedensification plan. I’m just following the classifications that Wendell Cox, author of War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens Quality of Life, recently created in a New Geography article in order to justify supporting the increasingly unsupportable argument that suburban growth is still where it’s at. In his world, anything outside of the county holding the largest city in a given metropolitan statistical area is suburban. That includes Schenectady and Troy here in the Albany-Schenectady-Troy MSA. In New Jersey, it means that Hoboken, Jersey City, Camden, and freakin’ Newark are considered “suburban.” Newark has a subway, for crissake. And I’m willing to bet a very large sum of money that if Mr. Cox’s children moved into downtown Newark, he wouldn’t be telling his buddies they had settled in the ’burbs.

I can’t really grasp what is driving the backlash, though I think some of it may be subconsciously about trying to protect the narrative that the suburban experiment and decline of cities was the result of free market choices and not federal policy investments in highways and mortgages combined with racist redlining. For some people, I’m sure, the historically liberal political leanings of urbanites also gives the shift a frightening political flavor.

But those are things the next generation isn’t considering when picking where to live. And there are numerous indications that what they are choosing are compact urban areas (which include many older streetcar suburbs it should be noted. This is not about legal definitions), more multifamily housing, and less reliance on driving. Empire State Future had a very good round up of the data on this recently in a post called “There’s nothing inevitable about suburbia.” I was particularly struck by the data showing marked drops in car ownership, and even driver’s license acquisition, among people under 40, especially those in their late teens and early 20s. Notably, although the high cost of car ownership in a time of recession is a major factor, the drop is happening for wealthy young people too.

Now there are not too many people, I hope, who are going to react to this information with as much denial as Cox did. But for a long time, urban areas have been considered primarily problems, and suburban development and transportation patterns considered normal. And that has left us, I’m afraid, with a lot of well-intentioned people who don’t understand how urban areas work, which will have consequences for how they develop and who benefits.

The absurdities that came out of the post office “optimization” plan of a few years ago are one example. The need for a different density of post office branches in dense, lower car-ownership areas so completely didn’t penetrate the skulls of the USPS that they sent post cards to Albany’s Delaware Avenue neighborhood telling residents not to worry about losing their post office, because they could buy stamps at a gas station on Wolf Road, three bus rides away.

The latest example of this was a New York Times article reporting excitedly on one study that found that contrary to all this hullabaloo about food deserts, there are actually lots of grocery stores and nice restaurants within a few miles of poor census tracts! A few miles, huh? Here’s an immersion journalism suggestion: find the time and energy to haul the groceries for a large family on foot or bus three or even two miles. Then keep the produce you got from spoiling until you manage to work in the time to do that again when you have a full time job and kids. (Also, having lived in a few food deserts, I recommend you also compare the food freshness to that at stores in wealthier areas. Hint: if the produce is shrink wrapped to styrofoam, it’s a bad sign.)

Getting these things right, from long-term market shifts to what functional neighborhoods look like, matters. It matters because now is the time when we have to make important choices about how we support the coming generations and the sustainability of our regions. Do we put money into highways or transit? Healthy food infrastructure or far-flung exurban development infrastructure? Do we act now to create permanently affordable housing near transit and services and in revitalizing urban cores, or do we allow people who have stuck out the worst decades in our cities to get pushed to the margins as their neighborhoods become popular again, turning our geography of poverty inside out? Will we urbanize in a well-thought out, inclusive way, or a developer-driven, slap-dash, third-world way?

We shouldn’t let the lingering suburban mindset make us screw this up.