Whether you're an urbanite or a lifelong resident of a suburb, you probably have an opinion on suburban design. You may have a preference for the quiet of suburban neighborhoods or you might feel a strong dislike toward "McMansions." Today, we're here to debunk four common myths about suburbia that come from both sides of this spectrum.
Myth #1: This is just how people want to live.
Myth #1: The suburbs exist because that's the way people want to live. The only reason we have the suburban style of development with its large homes, three car garages, big box stores and wide, fast-moving streets, is because people prefer that sort of living, right?
Busted: The suburbs exist because that's the style of development that has been regulated into existence and funded by governments across the nation.
Joe Cortright from City Observatory explored this concept in a 2016 article, citing data from a study of two cities—one, more urban in development pattern (Boston) and the other, more suburban (Atlanta)—to see where people with a preference for urban life live. He writes:
People whose stated preferences were more urban were much more likely to actually live in an urban neighborhood in the Boston area than in the Atlanta area—suggesting that in Atlanta something might be preventing them from satisfying their preferences. At the same time, people who expressed preferences for the most auto-oriented neighborhoods were able to satisfy that demand the vast majority of the time in both regions—about 95 percent of those in Atlanta, and 80-90 percent of those in Boston. More rigorous tests prove that this difference is statistically significant.
You can also read more about the government policies that impact suburban-style housing here.
Myth #2: The problem is sprawl.
Myth #2: Sprawl is the biggest problem with the suburbs. If we just stopped building so many one-story buildings and winding suburban roads, we'd be fine.
Busted: The problem is a development pattern that is financially insolvent.
Chuck Marohn writes in "Sprawl is Not the Problem":
During the Great Depression and after World War II, America began to build places at a grand scale and did so, increasingly, with the belief that what we built was then finished. New construction devices and cheap energy sources allowed us to work at this grand scale and increasing affluence allowed us to dream big... The wealth and prosperity of the America of the Suburban Experiment is largely an illusion, a distortion brought about by what we've called the Growth Ponzi Scheme. It manifests in quick growth and job creation followed by increasing poverty, enormous income gaps, declining neighborhoods, concentrated power, unpayable debts and, as a result, widespread social anxiety.
The Growth Ponzi Scheme which is obsessed with building anew and has forgotten the tried-and-true method of building incrementally over time is what is slowly destroying the suburbs. It's not a specific style of building, it's a failure to plan for the future, resulting in a land use pattern that is financially insolvent.
Myth #3: Suburban residents pay for their lifestyle.
Myth #3: Suburban residents are paying for the cost of their lifestyle.
However we feel about culs de sac and strip malls, we can at least agree that the people who live in suburban areas are paying for that way of life, so what's the big deal?
Busted: Across the country, we see that urban areas subsidize suburban living to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars a year.
Look at the poorest urban neighborhoods in your metro area and you will find that they are the ones subsidizing every spread-out piece of infrastructure around them. In "Poor Neighborhoods Makes the Best Investments," Chuck Marohn writes:
On a per acre basis, neighborhoods that tend to be poor also tend to pay more taxes and cost less to provide services to than their more affluent counterparts.
Read more from Strong Towns about how urban areas subsidize the suburbs:
- "A Thousand Hidden Subsidies" by Johnny Sanphillippo
- "The Hills are Alive ('cause the Cities Subsidize them)" by Steven Shultis
- "How we Subsidize Spread-Out Places via Utilities" by Richard Bose
Myth #4: We can make the suburbs more financially productive if we try.
Myth #4: We can turn the suburbs into financially productive places if we just try our hardest.
Busted: No. There's too much suburban development for this to ever happen.
This may be the most painful truth to confront, especially for optimists who constantly try to find a silver lining: But we can turn those empty big box stores into libraries and schools! We can transform those stroads into complete streets! Let me give you an example: McAllen, TX retrofitted an empty Walmart building into a public library to the tune of $24 million. Last year, big name companies planned to close more than 2,500 big box stores. In one year! At that rate, we couldn't possibly finance (much less have the demand for) all the libraries, performing arts centers, museums, you-name-its to fill those spaces.
Here's another example: A suburb in Wisconsin is trying to build its way toward a more urban form. The price tag? More than $150 million for a handful of businesses, apartment buildings and a public green space. Unfortunately it's only really accessible by car. So much for urban living. This is simply not something we can apply on any sort of scale to make a meaningful difference.
It’s just far too difficult and expensive of a chore to make nearly any suburbia post-1970 into something [more urban]... There’s simply no upside to making un-walkable places into C- versions of walkable cities.
He's right. With the painfully limited amount of resources we all have right now, we must make the hard choices about where to focus our efforts. We can take small steps to help older neighborhoods with a solid foundation to be more successful, or we can take herculean steps to push a few suburban neighborhoods in a slightly better direction, in spite of aggressive cultural opposition. The answer is clear.
(Top photo by Johnny Sanphillippo)