[ 1960s subdivision in Medfield, a Boston suburb; click image to enlarge ]
Sticking up for a presumed silent, oppressed majority—real or imaginary—is an unbeatable marketing strategy. Just ask Fox News. And so it goes with noted sprawl apologist Joel Kotkin, who writes:
"A year into the Obama administration, America’s dominant geography, suburbia, is now in open revolt against an urban-centric regime that many perceive threatens their way of life, values, and economic future."
Joel Connelly exemplified the local version of this pseudo-drama, writing in a column entitled "520 bridge debate shows Seattle at its worst," that "Seattle politicians should briefly depart from their insular world of interest groups and come [to Medina, the wealthy Eastside suburb] to get a broad view of State Route 520 and how to bridge the problem of cars occupied by just one person. "
The tired meme goes like this: Those who are critical of the suburbs are an urban elitist minority who don't understand the suburban way of life, and who hope to use "social engineering" to force suburbanites to swallow a more urban lifestyle. Case in point: State Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, fretting, in Connelly's paraphrase, that the 520 bridge project "has become a playground for social engineering."
The first flaw in that argument is that it's pretty much impossible to be an American and not have had significant direct experience with the suburbs. Our landscape is thick with them, and our culture is drenched in the suburban American dream.
It's not that critics of the suburbs don't get the suburbs.
For example, I myself had a wonderful time growing up in a suburb, and have spent the majority of my life in relatively car-dependent environments. Most critics understand the suburbs very well. It's just that when they combine that understanding with a balanced assessment of people and the planet and the future, the inescapable conclusion is that the suburbs no longer cut it.
The mounting evidence on everything from energy use to land consumption to obesity rates is already familiar, and even the free market has begun to chime in. For example, a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council found that foreclosure rates were lower in compact, walkable, transit-rich neighborhoods than they were in typical car-dependent suburban neighborhoods.
Meanwhile, demand for housing in walkable urban neighborhoods has risen to the point where real estate analysts like Christopher Leinberger expect that the shortage of supply will likely last for decades. If you want to see social engineering in action, look no further than the mountains of policy, regulations, and public investment that were put in place over decades to promote the suburban model of growth, but that now are impeding the market from meeting the growing demand for a more urban alternative.
Yet to the diehard sprawl apologists, none of that matters. If free people have chosen to live in sprawling suburbs, they posit, then sprawling suburbs are good—end of story. And it follows that anyone who criticizes the suburbs is an elitist who wants to tell others how to live their lives.
The underlying source of that attitude is a toxic combination of American individualism and the invisible hand of the free market writ large. And it's a sorry state, because there are all kinds of reasons free people make bad choices, and we all lose when individual choice is sacred.
What is truly "Seattle at its worst" is when people are so quick to attack those who question the sanity of spending billions on new freeways, when both history and current trends clearly indicate that doing so will propagate bad choices for decades to come. The truly "insular" people are those who can't conceive of any solution to congestion other than building roads.
UPDATE: Rep. Hunter responds in the comments:
I did not say I fretted about social engineering. I don’t.
I don’t agree with the positions attributed to “suburbanites” in the rest of the piece and object to the assumption that only “diehard spawl enthusiasts” support the 520 bridge project. I have a long record of supporting transit funding and improvements in how we manage our growth to produce a more compact, transit oriented King County.
I do care that we as a region can make decisions and move forward. Delay costs $100,000,000 ($100 million) per year. We have been working on this project for well over a decade and have broad agreement on both sides of the lake.
I do care that we can reduce the transit time from Redmond to Seattle in the peak afternoon commute by 40+ minutes. Delaying the bridge leaves transit and carpools in the 520 corridor as an unattractive option for people who care about time.
The 520 bridge serves more people from Seattle who work in the suburbs than people who live on the Eastside and work in Seattle. The capacity that is being added is for 3+ carpools and transit, not GP lanes.
If suburbia is, as Joel Kotkin claims, in "open revolt," they missed a prime target last week when the Washington State Trade and Convention Center in Seattle was crawling with the enemy during the New Partners for Smart Growth conference.
Speakers at the conference included Obama appointees U.S. EPA Administrator Lisa P. Jackson, U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, and U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan. Last summer these three agencies collaborated to create the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. Last week HUD launched a new Office of Sustainable Housing and Communities, DOT established a new Office of Livable Communities, and the EPA announced expanded support for their Office of Sustainable Communities.
The urbanists are on the move.