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 donâ€™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 â€” in particular, theÂ 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.