America and its Cities

Matt writes:

Anyone actually interested in the subject will swiftly see that (a) American public policy is strongly biased against high density living and (b) that this outcome is predictable from the structure of American political institutions. That people don’t realize this is largely a matter of willful ignorance.

And Kevin Drum asks:

So is our rural/suburban bias due to our political institutions — in particular, the U.S. Senate, which overrepresents the residents of sparsely populated states? Or is it mostly due to geography and the relatively recent founding of our country, which have produced fairly low-density urban areas and therefore a naturally weaker constituency for high-density living? Is there some evidence on this point?

I think there are actually two issues involved here. One is the problem of anti-metropolitan policy. The rural-urban divide goes back to the nation’s founding, and it was built into the fabric of American institutions in many ways, the most significant of which is the status of the government as a federal system, within which states are the primary political unit. The Senate obviously favors rural states over urban ones, and the use of the states as the main distribution network for all kinds of federal funding tends to place metropolitan areas at a significant disadvantage. At the same time, the cultural resonance of metro hatred has waned steadily over the past century. Obviously, American iconography still focuses on cowboys and farmers, and “real Americans” are the ones growing corn in Iowa, but the vast majority of Americans live within metropolitan areas, and suburbia, which is fundamentally a metropolitan feature, is considered the median American experience if not the apotheosis of American life.

The American discomfort with and suspicion of central cities, on the other hand, remains a powerful cultural force. City hate predates the republic, but it took on new meaning and intensity in the 20th century, thanks to two key developments.

The first was the change in the distribution of America’s black population. In the early part of the previous century, labor-saving agricultural technologies began pushing millions of black workers off of southern farmland. The need for work sparked a mass migration northward into the country’s great industrial cities. In those cities, black families were segregated into ghettos, and tensions began to build. These tensions escalated as urban centers deindustrialized, leaving millions of black workers once again without jobs, and as the civil rights movement challenged segregation policies, de facto and de jure.

This tension then interacted with the second key development — mass suburbanization. Older cities were built densely around 19th century transportation technologies, such that beyond the urban border — and beyond the reach of mass transit — density rapidly declined to nothing. Automobile ownership brought this cheap, nearby, undeveloped land within easy reach and led the rush into what became the country’s great suburbs. (Suburbanization began before the car, along rail and streetcar lines, but automobile ownership changed the game entirely.)

The federal government explicitly supported suburbanization through highway construction and federal housing policy. Why? Suburbia seemed like the future. Technologists, designers, planners — all sorts of intellectuals — believed that society’s progress would naturally lead to a world in which everyone lived in big houses on lawns with lots of modern appliances and cars to speed them wherever they’d need to go. And it was difficult to see how suburbia’s growth would play out over the course of the next 70 years.

As it turned out, what happened was this: cities began losing their tax base to the suburbs. Once in the suburbs, new residents worked hard to protect themselves from urban ills, by establishing separate school systems and working to exclude minority homeowners however possible. As richer residents moved to suburbs, jobs began to follow, further eroding the urban tax base and shrinking the pool of work available to lower income workers without access to automobiles. In the 1960s, the plight of poor, jobless, immobile minority groups erupted into riots, which accelerated the rush for the suburbs. Thereafter, cities across the country faced extreme budget crises, serious poverty, and rising crime levels. Urban areas were caricatured as parasitic and anarchistic, and law and order politicians like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan won election after election offering to protect white suburbanites from the threat posed by inner cities. Urban distrust became a culture war issue. It didn’t help when urban centers enjoyed a resurgence thanks to growth in knowledge industries, populated by pointy-headed, organic-food loving liberals, or when urban neighborhoods slowly recovered thanks to interest by gays, artists, and other unsavory types.

The divide is not, and has not been for a long time, about what cities do. It’s about who lives in cities and how they’re different from those who don’t.

In my experience, the heat has been turned down on these conflicts. The nervous boomers who moved to the burbs to raise their kids and voted for Reagan now enjoy going downtown for cocktails and a pleasant dinner (though you can always read the comments section of an online newspaper story about an urban crime to see that the bitterness remains). But there is still a set of priors about urban life that is part of suburban culture, that permeates it like the smell of azaleas in spring. It consists of a general befuddlement that people would want to live in unnecessarily small homes, amid traffic and chronic parking shortages, and so many PEOPLE, and at such high PRICES. And the certainty that cities remain unsafe, unproductive, and fundamentally parasitic. All evidence to the contrary.

in other words, over the course of the past century policy guided events in ways that shaped culture, and that culture now continues to shape policy.

Comments

  1. MW says:

    A few thoughts
    1) The weathy folks who are now moving back into cities are the same families that were quick to move out before.
    1b) Urban folks tend to be in the humanities and arts rather than science and business (finance is the exception). Rightly or wrongly, the industries associated with downtown are thought of being rent-seeking (finance, law, government)

    2) The fact that prices are high is an indicator that many, many people want to live in cities. If the land use regulations were to be relaxed more people could live there. But as it stands now, people are priced out. *** The largest subsidy to urban folks is the land use regulation, if that were removed – then spending in urban areas wouldn’t seem as going to gated communities.***

  2. Alex B. says:

    There’s the key disconnect between the cultural definition of what is urban and the academic/economic definition.

    In the economic sense, the suburbs are also urban since they participate in the same economy, though they have differences in design, they are nevertheless part of the same agglomeration.

    This disconnect is quite clear in the political realm. I recall Republican rallies in recent election cycles where suburban locations were lauding their rural values and self-image, despite the entirely metropolitan nature of the place they call home.

  3. Nice summation, Ryan.

    I don’t mind the general befuddlement that people seem to experience at the idea that someone would prefer living in an apartment/condo in the city than in a split-level in the ‘burbs.

    What I do mind is the way that any hint of policy that would favor increased density or greater livability in cities is interpreted by such people as a desire to drag them out of their split-levels and force them at gunpoint into living in urban hellholes. I know this sounds like the way Atrios goes on about this, but I don’t think he is overstating this phenomenon.

  4. Mixner says:

    There is no significant “back to the city” movement. The suburbs are still growing faster than the cities. Population growth in cities comes mainly from immigrants, not domestic migrants. And immigration is slowing.

  5. Mixner says:

    The fact that prices are high is an indicator that many, many people want to live in cities.

    No, it’s an indicator that housing in cities is expensive to supply. Price alone doesn’t tell you anything about the size of the market.

    If the land use regulations were to be relaxed more people could live there.

    If people wanted to relax the land use regulations, they would.

  6. blondeambition says:

    “There is no significant “back to the city” movement. The suburbs are still growing faster than the cities. Population growth in cities comes mainly from immigrants, not domestic migrants. And immigration is slowing.”

    ———–

    That’s not true:

    http://discoveringurbanism.blogspot.com/2010/12/new-census-numbers-confirm-resurgence.html

    “Taking a look at a number of indicators, they outlined the beginnings of a reversal of the 20th century story of urban decline. Instead they found evidence of city centers prospering and the aging suburbs around them falling into economic decline.”

  7. Elaine says:

    This is exacerbated by a recent phenomenon — the rise of non-white immigration. Brookings’ Bruce Kats refers to the result as the “cultural generation gap” — cities are increasingly younger and more diverse (and perhaps increasingly wealthier), while suburbs are growing older, whiter and, perhaps, less wealthy.

    The key question is whether, in the face of this divide, each generation will realize that its well-being depends on the well-being of the other, even though they seem to have no reason invest in each other. That is, will younger urban residents be willing to support Social Security and Medicare for older suburban residents so that, in return, those older residents will be willing to support education, housing and economic opportunity in the cities? If not, I submit we are in real trouble.

  8. Robbo says:

    Our favorite pal, Mixner (i.e. Garyg, Gordy, whatever he’s calling himself today).

    Give it up pal, you’re wrong. Just plain wrong. Please don’t feed the trolls, folks.

  9. Mixner says:

    That’s not true

    It is true. The blog post you link to is about changes in median income, not about changes in population. The cities are gentrifying (or parts of them are, anyway), but most of the population growth is in the suburbs.

  10. David Sucher says:

    Just FYI, there is a movement afoot — based at Harvard School of Design, no less — to encourage suburban sprawl. Truly. It’s in the name of “Landscape Urbanism.”

    The new head of Landscape (Charles Wldheim) doesn’t like walkable cities and wants more sprawl. It’s true and no exaggeration. Check it out.

    I’ll cite specifics if you doubt it.

  11. oboe says:

    The cities are gentrifying (or parts of them are, anyway), but most of the population growth is in the suburbs.

    You make an excellent point. As research from the Brookings Institute has shown, the greatest growth has been in the suburbs. This phenomenon is best described as “The Suburbanization of Poverty.”

    Not quite sure why you seem to think this is a sign of the health of the suburbs compared to the cities, though.

  12. Mixner says:

    Not quite sure why you seem to think this is a sign of the health of the suburbs compared to the cities, though.

    The cities continue to lose population to the suburbs. This includes poor people as well as people in other income brackets.