Cities versus suburbs is the wrong debate

It is undeniable that demand is growing for walkable neighborhoods and communities with access to public transportation, parks and a range of housing choices.

In a blog post on Forbes, Joel Kotkin argues that as young adults — who are currently moving to cities and walkable neighborhoods — get older they will look to live in a car-dependent suburb.

Evidence from the last Census show the opposite [of growing cities]: a marked acceleration of movement not into cities but toward suburban and exurban locations. The simple, usually inexorable effects of maturation may be one reason for this surprising result. Simply put, when 20-somethings get older, they do things like marry, start businesses, settle down and maybe start having kids.

Kotkin’s argument incorrectly focuses on cities versus suburbs — specifically suburbs that are dominated by “automobiles and single-family houses” — without focusing on the types of communities and neighborhoods where people actually want to live. He also ignores the baby boomers who are beginning to retire and realize a large, suburban, car-dependent lifestyle may no longer be the most appealing option.

When asked what type of community that people want to live in — not city versus suburbs, but smart growth versus sprawling — the majority choose the characteristics of a smart growth community. The survey, conducted by the National Association of Realtors, found that 55 percent of Americans prefer a smaller home, on a smaller lot, near shops and services, where they have choices for walking, biking, driving or taking public transportation, over a sprawling one with large homes on a large lot distant from services.

Silver Spring, Md. is a great example of a community that breaks down the stereotype of a suburb. The Washington D.C. suburb has a mix of housing options and it’s transit-oriented and walkable. Silver Spring works well for those families that want more space to raise a family but also want to walk to the grocery store or ride public transportation. Silver Spring and many other communities throughout the country are working to create suburbs that are walkable and welcoming.

Millennials, or “echo-boomers,” are at the forefront of the shift away from exurban housing towards communities with smart growth characteristics. An analysis of the 2010 U.S. Census by CEOs for Cities found that the number of college-educated 25 to 34 year-olds has increased twice as fast in neighborhoods within three miles of the urban cores of the 50 largest U.S. cities as compared to other areas of the same metropolitan regions. CEOs for Cities explains why the attraction of college educated millennial to urban cores is so important:

CEOs for Cities’ research further shows that 58 percent of a metropolitan area’s success, as defined by per capita income, can be attributed to the percentage of its population with four-year college degrees. Even though some households will move to the suburbs when they have children, no one should overlook the importance of attracting talented young adults to urban cores. Building strong core cities today contributes to successful suburbs tomorrow.

As this growing demographic continues to demand walkable communities, the desire for these types of communities will not go away as the echo-boomers age. And what Kotkin forgets is: there are a lot of families choosing to stay in the city or in close-knit walkable towns today. With such high demand and popularity for smart growth neighborhoods among a wide-ranging demographic, it’s important to give people the option for town centers and walkable suburban neighborhoods to complement the urban core of big cities.

A range of housing options in our neighborhoods will better meet the needs and desires of our population. There will always be movement to and away from cities, to and away from suburbs. That movement is an integral part of the American story. But we should make our communities more walkable and provide more transportation choices to fit with demand, whether that’s in our cities or our suburbs.

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    2 Responses to Cities versus suburbs is the wrong debate

    1. Tim Evans says:

      Kotkin also “forgets” that it’s a really, really bad idea to use a typology that defines “suburb” as anything that’s part of a metropolitan area but not one of that metro area’s principal cities: http://www.njfuture.org/2011/03/03/is-jersey-city-a-suburb-joel-kotkin-thinks-so/

    2. Randy Bosch says:

      A well considered perspective, thank you. The real boon will be to direct more energy to maturing appropriate “suburbs” into sustainable, walkable, livable communities without importing the problems of the cities into them. The dream of “force/entice everyone back to the cities” that will not contain the vast population increase since traditional core cities matured and that have an incredible amount of work to do to make themselves sustainable, walkable, livable communities again (and some arguably never were that). Even the definition of “cities” is vague – city limits? 30 min bus ride? When Los Angeles was a walkable city, the San Fernando Valley was rangeland and now only has pockets of the new definition of livable community. A little Urban Geography continuing education is in order. Both/and is the paradigm, not either/or. A significant majority of Americans have never lived in traditional core cities (often for two or three generations) and never will/can/want to do so. It’s not a competition. Good work, Tyler!

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