The Suburbanist Paradox


The Atlantic Monthly’s Matthew Yglesias argues that high-density living is a key strategy to fight climate change. Yglesias takes issue with fellow Atlantic Online blogger Ross Douthat and author Joel Kotkin, who defend suburban sprawl — what James Kunstler has famously called "the most destructive development pattern the world has ever seen, and perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known." Reporting on a recent talk by Kotkin, Douthat writes:

The notion that Americans are moving back to downtowns in large numbers is a myth, Kotkin announced; instead, they’re moving ever outward, into new exurbs and rural areas. The traditional unipolar urban downtown isn’t going to make a comeback: Young couples with families can’t afford to live there, and aging Baby Boomers don’t want to. The American city of the future will be more of an archipelago of suburbs than the kind of one-downtown organism bred by the Industrial Revolution: "We aren’t creating more New Yorks and Chicagos; we’re creating more Los Angeleses."

Yglesias counters:

There’s the paradox. The urbanist proposal isn’t "hey, jerks, why don’t you all move to dense downtowns." Rather, the proposal is something like "why don’t we impose carbon taxes so that things like driving long distances and heating or cooling large detached structures are priced in accordance with their social cost? Why don’t we stop having the federal government heavily subsidize driving cars as the preferred mode of transportation? Why don’t we have more areas that allow for high-density zoning, thus reducing the cost of urban housing?" It’s not that we urbanists are unaware that many people live in low density areas because its cheaper, it’s precisely that we are aware of this fact that makes us believe that the "traditional unipolar downtown" could make a comeback.

Quite naturally, the combination of cars being invented, cars being massively subsidized, and governments being successfully lobbied by car companies to dismantle mass transit systems led to a massive shift in the direction of sprawl. But by that same token, if we step away from those policies to some extent we’ll see a rebalancing in the direction of urbanism.

Photo: telesle17/Flickr

  • Joel Kotkin is attacking a straw man. No one says that everyone should move to downtowns. Environmentalists support a variety of different types of neighborhoods that are higher density than sprawl, ranging from downtowns to streetcar suburbs.

    Kotkin makes a very destructive and transparently false argument when he says: not everyone will move to downtowns, and therefore we should build more auto-dependent sprawl.

  • Nona

    Name the U.S. municipality that added more total residents in the 1990s than any other.

  • jojo

    I must admit, I do think a version the “hey jerks” quote in my mind from time to time. Douthat’s thoughts are at least a decade old, by the way. Nothing really groundbreaking there.

  • jojo


    I think its Vegas, Nona.

  • Rob


    The municipality that added the most residents 1990-2000 was NEW YORK.

    Las Vegas went from 258,295 to 478,434. An increase of 220,139 people or 85%.

    New York went from 7,322,564 to 8,008,278. An increase of 685,714 or 9.4%.

    New York’s increase was four times greater than Las Vegas’ in absolute terms. Las Vegas’ jaw-dropping growth figures are percentages – when you start from nothing it’s easy to have high percentage figures. The entire Las Vegas metro area was less than 1/5 the population of New York CITY as of the 2000 census.


  • Any of you really interested in the sprawl subject should check out Sprawl Kills at; guaranteed you will learn a lot and much that you have never heard about, especially sprawl politics…

  • autosprawl or the biosphere. pick one.

  • Nona: take out the immigrants and you’ve taken out the growth of those urban areas. Those urban areas aren’t appealing to Americans, so how can you usefully translate that environment into a nationwide growth of urban areas? This is nothing against immigrants, they just aren’t representative of the needs and desires of the non-immigrant population.

    I worry about our cities a lot. All our industry is leaving. Most of it has already left. *Nobody* builds factories in cities anymore. And why would they? It’s harder to get materials in and out, the taxes are higher, the real estate is outrageous. In Chicago it seems like there’s just about as many people commuting out of the city as into it.

    Another irony to this urbanism is that local involvement in zoning generally means anti-growth, and anti-growth means that those places that *are* willing to grow will. And there’s always some suburb that is willing to grow — usually the suburbs furthest out, exacerbating the sprawl. The local community activism to do traffic calming or bike advocacy is the same activism that keeps desirable areas from growing to meet demand. Or when less desirable areas are developed to meet demand it’s condemned as gentrification.

    All of which isn’t to defend suburban development, but at least it shouldn’t be baffling why people choose to live in the suburbs. It’s not because of some GM conspiracy.

    Personally I think progressives need to pay a little more attention to the efficiency and functional aspects of the city, not just culture and community. There’s a lot of things that people care about where the suburbs come out ahead, it’s not just all based on irrationality and fear. Not surprisingly the things *we* care most about are what urban areas are good at, because everyone here is probably pro-urban. We can’t/shouldn’t turn the city into the suburbs, but we should at least address some of these issues more honestly, in a more complete way, and not just focus on a conveniently limited set of attributes.

  • anonymous

    The really ironic thing is that Los Angeles is busy turning itself into a New York, or at least a Chicago. It’s a slow subtle trend, but over time it becomes very noticeable. And LA is not the model of exurban sprawl: Phoenix or Vegas are. And guess where housing prices just came crashing down. Cities are doing quite well, especially compared to how they were doing in the 60s and 70s, and the problems they are having now are not because people are moving out, but because people are moving in, driving real estate prices up, causing gentrification, killing off the local industry and taking over formerly industrial land, and so on. These are the problems of success, and cities will need to learn to deal with them soon, or else the growth will be self-limiting as the rich yuppie-types push everyone else out.

  • Angus Grieve-Smith

    Joel, your book looks interesting, but I’m surprised that you don’t talk more about the most direct way that sprawl kills: through car crashes.

  • About the Market for Mixed Use & Walkability:

    The great preponderance of surveys finds approximately one-third of the current U.S. market wants neighborhoods that are multiform, mixed use and walkable. Nearly all (90+ percent) of new residential development is conventional suburban sprawl or otherwise hostile to pedestrians. Ergo, a market failure is taking place, and a pretty massive one at that.

    Furthermore, the market demand is projected to increase because of demographic factors and ongoing cultural trends. Changes in enviro-financial factors, like global warming and peak oil, might also accelerate this trend.

  • Rob

    Ian Bicking: I was interested in your claim that New York’s growth has mostly been immigrants so I did some amateur demographic research on Turns out that you are largely correct but the results are interesting so I thought I would share them.

    I compared New York City to Clark County, NV (Infoshare does not have data on Las Vegas as a city and anyway, it is more fair to look at the whole county since Vegas is so sprawled and since this debate is about the relative attraction of large cities vs. sprawled out suburbs).

    Total Population Change 1990 to 2000
    NYC: 7,322,562 to 8,008,278 (685,714 or 9.4%)
    CCNV: 741,459 to 1,375,764 (634,306 or 85.5%)

    Population Change by Place of Birth.

    Born in Same State
    NYC: 3,877,681 to 3,964,551 (76,870 or 2.0%)
    CCNV: 143,072 to 262,593 (119,521 or 83.5%)

    Born in Other States
    NYC: 984,665 to 868,527 (-116,138 or -11.8%)
    CCNV: 516,926 to 865,421 (348,495 or 67.4%)

    NYC: 2,450,218 to 3,175,200 (724,982 or 29.6%)
    CCNV: 81,461 to 247,751 (166,290 or 204.1%)

  • “The local community activism to do traffic calming or bike advocacy is the same activism that keeps desirable areas from growing to meet demand.”

    Traffic calming and bicycle advocacy don’t limit urban growth in any way I can imagine. As NYC has hit a physical limit on the number of cars it can accommodate (and is dumbly butting into it every morning) the only way to grow further is to convert more people to car-free living. Traffic calming, and more importantly traffic reduction, makes walking and biking safer and more pleasant, allowing more of whom you call Americans to subject themselves to it.

    “Or when less desirable areas are developed to meet demand it’s condemned as gentrification.”

    With you on that one. There’s definitely a contradiction in demanding affordable housing while waging the unwinnable ideological war against gentrification; also, doing everything possible to thwart any construction project anywhere. I just don’t see the same problem with livable streets thinking, as we long ago passed the point where auto-accommodation could facilitate growth in NYC. (This is probably the realization that converted our mayor six months ago.)


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