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Cities vs. Suburbs: Which are Thriving Now and What Will Climate Change Mean for Them?

By Climate Guest Contributor on December 17, 2011 at 9:55 am

"Cities vs. Suburbs: Which are Thriving Now and What Will Climate Change Mean for Them?"

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by Greg Hanscom, cross-posted from Grist

If you Google the term “a scholar and a gentleman,” the first result to pop up is a picture of Witold Rybczynski — or it would be if there were any justice in the world. Rybczynski is an architect, author, and professor of urbanism at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written a dozen or so books on technology, architecture, real estate — even a natural history of the screwdriver. He knows The City like it’s nobody’s business.

So it was notable when, in a blog post a few weeks back, Rybczynski opened a can of Jedi-style whoopass on writer Richard Florida for playing “fast and loose” with income numbers to make the case that dense, city-style living is the source of all that’s good in the world. Florida included a chart with a story in The Atlantic charting the average income in cities to show that the more people you pack into a small area, the richer they become. “There seems to be no limit, as yet, to the relationship between greater density and faster growth,” he wrote breathlessly.

Trouble was, the income stats Florida used were from metro areas, meaning that they included the suburbs — where most Americans live and work, Rybczynski points out. Take the ‘burbs out of the equation and the picture looks quite different. Florida’s chart puts the average income of Rybczynski’s hometown of Philadelphia  at $46,230, for example. The median income of the city proper is closer to $30,000, Rybczynski says. The suburbs are apparently where most of the action is.

The so-called creative classes, [Florida] writes, “cluster and thrive in places where the conversation and culture are the most stimulating.” … I don’t know if these suburbs are the scenes of “stimulating conversation,” but they are definitely neither dense nor concentrated. Neither is San Jose, Marin, or Palo Alto, or, for that matter, the outer boroughs of New York City or northern New Jersey. So people are thriving, just not exactly in the places where we imagine — or would like to imagine.

Listen, I want to believe in cities as much as anyone. I want to believe that we can make our cities work again; that we, as a nation, have the vision and heart to reinvest in areas and populations that we turned our back on a generation ago; that we can bring prosperity and eco-conscious living to all. But as long as we’re operating on the false assumption that all our cities look (and function) like New York or San Francisco, we’ll never be able to tackle the very real issues that hold them back. Nor will we be able to solve the even bigger riddle — forging a sustainable future for the suburbs.

I called Rybczynski to get a little perspective on the matter. Here’s what he said.

Q. Why did you feel compelled to call out Richard Florida on his story in The Atlantic?

A. I had come across this a number of times — particularly the statistic about how the majority of world population for the first time is urban rather than rural. It’s true, but that statistic is always based on metropolitan regions. It’s not that the central cities have grown to encompass so much of the population, but that entire metropolitan regions, which include majority suburbs in most cases, are growing.

I was struck by the table that The Atlantic included, which had average household incomes — they said in cities, but in fact the numbers were from metropolitan areas. It didn’t really support the thesis of the article which was that somehow cities with their density and way of life were really what urbanization was all about.

Q. These numbers are often used to back up the story of the “triumph of the city” or an “urban renaissance.” Are we seeing an urban renaissance in this country right now?

A. I wouldn’t call it that. Certain downtowns have revived in a way that would have been quite unpredicted 40 years ago. Cities like Boston, San Francisco, New York, and Washington — these cities attract young professionals and retired people. I don’t think you would have predicted that in the 1950s and 60s. In that sense, there is a renaissance, but it is restricted to downtown living, and a certain number of cities …

It seems like a bigger percentage because these are people are younger, richer — they make more noise culturally. Florida is right about that part of his argument. There is a creative class and it does live in the cities. It’s disproportionately noisy culturally. But it’s a very tiny number of people.

Q. What do you make of polls that say that large numbers of Baby Boomers and Millennials are interested in, if not moving back to the city, then at least living more “urban” lifestyles?

A. I suspect that if you took a poll of Americans you would find that most people would like to be thin. We are an obese nation. The question is, is this something people will act on?

I’m simply not sure what those polls really mean — whether they’re wishful thinking or whether they’re a significant change that people will act on.

I remember in the early days of the New Urbanism movement, one of polls often cited showed that most Americans wanted to live in small towns. A lot of the design drive behind early New Urban communities was this idea of life in a small town. That really did appeal to people.

It didn’t mean that Americans were moving to small towns. Quite the opposite: They were moving out of small towns. There was never a reality behind that, but the big success of New Urbanism is in part because it tapped into an authentic visual image that American culture had.

Q. Is it significant that 20 years ago, people were talking about living in small towns, and today, people are talking about living in urban areas?

A. It is significant. It does represent a change. I would imagine that if you looked at the settings of television shows 30 or 40 years ago, other than Westerns, a lot of them were suburban. If you compared them to today, you would find a more urban bias. I think that is important. It does show a real change in where people see a kind of center of gravity, or how they imagine themselves living. But to say that this means they will live that way it is a big jump. It’s like saying that because we liked Westerns, we were all going to live out in the country.

Q. Do these cultural ideals play a significant part in people’s real-life decisions, or is it a matter of simple economics?

A. How people imagine themselves living is a part of it, too … One of the interesting things about affordability in housing is that builders could build very small affordable houses, but the problem is that people wouldn’t want them. People complain about housing prices but it doesn’t mean they’re willing to sacrifice anything to get a cheaper house. People have tried to figure out ways to build them smaller, strip them down, but the market has often turned against them.

Q. With climate change and rising oil prices, it does seem like the stars are aligning to convince Americans that it really is time to make the shift to denser, less car-dependent living.

A. Rising gas prices have effects on cities, but they’re not all positive. A lot of the employment has moved to the suburbs. Reverse commuting — commuting out of the city to the suburbs — is now bigger than traditional commuting from suburbs to cities. A lot of people who have suburban jobs live in the city because they like the lifestyle. What happens if gas prices go up? They move to the suburbs. That could actually have a negative impact on the city.

Q. If you had to imagine what this country will look like in 20 or 30 or 50 years, do you have any predictions?

A. Automobile travel and inexpensive gasoline were the biggest effects on our urban patterns. My assumption has always been that having committed ourselves to that, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make that pattern work, which means that a), you get the absolute last drop of gas out of the underground, whether it’s shale or tar sands or whatever it is; and b), you’ll make electric cars and hybrid cars and ways to continue that urban pattern. It’s only if all those things fail that we’ll take the much more drastic step of making significant changes in the way we organize ourselves.

Q. We’re going to run this to its logical conclusion, then. That’s not going to be pretty.

A. I’m not as pessimistic in the sense that the whole thing is going to collapse. We’ll find ways to make it work. There’s so much excess in the system. When gas spiked a few years ago, immediately, people started saying, “Well, do I really need to drive to do these errands? Do I really need to make this trip?” People started carpooling immediately. Every single person buying a car bought diesel or small cars. The reaction was immediate. Of course, when gas became cheaper, the reverse was true. But there’s a lot you can do before you have to throw the car away.

Whether we like it or not, we’ve committed ourselves to a certain way of life and it makes sense to make that work. The cost of abandonment will be enormous.

It’s very easy to second-guess everything and say we made a huge mistake with his automobile stuff. But it didn’t seem that way at a time. You read books about the early discovery of petroleum — here’s this stuff that comes out of the ground with its own pressure. With minimum refinement, it turns into fuel. It’s almost unimaginable. It’s just a gift.

At the time, it seemed like a perfectly rational thing to do … And God knows very few people saw the environmental impacts. I don’t think anybody did.

Grist special projects editor Greg Hanscom has been editor of the award-winning environmental magazine High Country News and the Baltimore-based city mag, Urbanite. This piece was originally published at Grist.org.
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9 Responses to Cities vs. Suburbs: Which are Thriving Now and What Will Climate Change Mean for Them?

  1. fj says:

    Having lived in a dense urban environment virtually my entire life this is an excellent article.

    One omission is that there are indications that dense living can cause psychological issues and psychological health may well be a concern.

    Regarding going green and energy efficiency, advocacy for dense urban living is based in large part on the high energy and environmental cost of transportation designed around the considerable energy density of fossil fuels.

    Going forward this need not be true and it is likely that personal transport will evolve — if it is allowed — to minimal environmental footprints and be zero or very near zero carbon (cradle-to-cradle). One place to start would be to simply design personal vehicles around sizes and weights that can easily be powered by human power but can also accommodate other sources such as electric.

    Beyond the scope of a simple blog comment, strategies for achieving this appear to be readily accessible and the benefits quite profound.

  2. prokaryotes says:

    Thumbs up for the Jedi reference, ha ha!

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I reckon the mega-slums of the poor world quite possibly refute Florida’s contention, but, of course, these are the dumping-grounds for the ‘useless eaters’ driven off their ancestral land by the ‘Magic of the Market’. Each of Florida’s wonderful rich world cities also drains wealth and sustenance from vast regions, leaving stonking great ‘footprints’ all over the place.

  4. Paul magnus says:

    “God knows very few people saw the environmental impacts. ”
    But we have know and speculated about AGW for over 100yrs!

  5. Polymerase says:

    I appreciate the willingness of CP to consider the data on urbanization objectively, and to question the biases of its liberal readers (of which I am one).

    In light of this article, should Austin be spending tens-to-hundreds of millions on light rail? Could that money be better spent on more immediate GHG emission reduction options?

    Thanks.

  6. Why is this paean to the automobile and suburbs in climate progress? It says Americans are going to get every drop of oil out of the ground, including tar sands and shale, and we will find ways to make it work.

    Everyone who reads this blog should know that, if we exploit all the world’s tar sands, we cannot avoid global warming. We cannot make it work.

    Quoting from the article:
    Automobile travel and inexpensive gasoline were the biggest effects on our urban patterns. My assumption has always been that having committed ourselves to that, we’re going to do whatever it takes to make that pattern work, which means that a), you get the absolute last drop of gas out of the underground, whether it’s shale or tar sands or whatever it is;…

    I’m not as pessimistic in the sense that the whole thing is going to collapse. We’ll find ways to make it work.

    • Mulga Mumblebrain says:

      We are not going to get within a country mile of extracting the ‘last drop’ of hydrocarbons. The collapse will preclude that eventuality. The combination of resource depletion, ecological collapse, economic implosion and the societal and geopolitical ‘bellum omnium contra omnes’ will see to that.

  7. Jake says:

    “I would imagine that if you looked at the settings of television shows 30 or 40 years ago, other than Westerns, a lot of them were suburban. If you compared them to today, you would find a more urban bias.”

    Which means only that the media types who dream up and shoot these TV things have an urban bias. How in the world can you understand what people actually want this way?

    “At the time, it [automobile culture] seemed like a perfectly rational thing to do … And God knows very few people saw the environmental impacts. I don’t think anybody did.”

    Gibberish! We’ve known for at least 38 years (embargo 1973) that this was a major problem. Go back and read the literature of the 1970s.

    Question: How does a “Professor of Urbanism” get noticed?
    Answer: Make up some supposedly provocative nonsense.

    • Witold Rybczynski should know better.

      I agree completely that everyone who was well informed knew 38 years ago that the automobile had global ecological impacts.

      And here are a few quotes from 50 years ago, which show that people who knew about city planning already knew at that time that we were overusing cars:

      “… the plethora of cars has now become a public disutility, but automobile companies continue to manufacture them and persuade people to buy them.” Paul Goodman, Growing Up Absurd (New York, Random House Vintage Books, copyright 1960) p. xii.

      “Good urban planning must provide a place for the motor car: that goes without saying. But this does not in the least mean that the … auto shall dictate the whole scheme of living…. It is an absurdly impoverished technology that has only one answer to the problem of transportation; and it is a poor form of city planning that permits that answer to dominate its entire scheme of existence. … Under the present dispensation, we have sold our urban birthright for a sorry mess of motor cars.” Lewis Mumford, The City In History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects (New York, Harcourt, Brace & World, 1961) p. 509.

      “Today, everyone who values cities is disturbed by automobiles.” Jane Jacobs, The Death and Life of Great American Cities (New York, Random House Vintage Books, 1963, copyright 1961) p. 338.

      Note: Per capita VMT (the distance that the average American drives) today is twice as great as it was 50 years ago, when these statements were written.