Anti/Pro Suburban

One of the better balanced articles about the suburbs vs the city debate, from the New York Times.

An excerpt.

THIRTY miles from downtown Minneapolis is the small city of Otsego, defined by its proximity to two highways and its investment in two wastewater treatment plants. Its one grocery store is a SuperTarget. Its walkability score, on a scale of 1 to 100, is 3.

And yet, as soon as the housing market showed signs of resuscitation, building began again, workers started assembling swatches of sod into lawns and suburban pioneers were, once again, happy to colonize a cul-de-sac, confident that others would follow.

It was as if one of the most despised bad actors of the boom years — urban sprawl — had been hiding out in earnest Otsego, with its low crime rate and free Tuesday kiddie concerts. It was easy for a visitor, standing there amid the bulldozers, to imagine that sprawl had put a finger to the wind and decided it was high time for a comeback.

But the details of this miniboom tell a more complicated story.

All of the land under development in Otsego was already slated for housing when the bust arrived, and the developers buying these surplus lots today are getting a better bargain because some of the work of planning and grading had already been completed. The cost difference has sweetened the deal for buyers who are willing to take on a longer commute for more house. But when it comes to breaking ground on new projects, developers are still focused on land closer to the city.

Some experts say it is only a matter of time before they work their way back out. But others, like Leigh Gallagher, the author of “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving,” argue that the return of the housing market does not mean the return of sprawl. In her 272-page book, Ms. Gallagher marshals demographic, economic and anecdotal evidence.

Couples are marrying later and having smaller families — by 2025, she says, the majority of suburban households are expected to have no children. Teenagers are increasingly opting to go without driver’s licenses. Millennials, economically strapped and witness to the housing crisis, say they prefer to live in urban environments. Boomers are reconsidering their large houses and landscaped yards.

The price of sprawl has become been increasingly undeniable. Moderate-income families have seen their transportation costs balloon to more than a quarter of their income. Cities have discovered that low-density developments fail to pay for their own infrastructure. More recently, a new study of economic mobility suggested that sprawl, and its accompanying lack of transportation options, prevented access to higher paying jobs.

Preferences do have a slow effect, Ms. Gallagher said. “We rebuild our environment every 50 years or so.”

But not completely. Single-family homes still define the American dream and prospective home buyers overwhelmingly prefer them.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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