Kotkin: “The Triumph of Suburbia”

Joel Kotkin argues the suburbs have clearly won in the United States:

But the simple fact remains that the single-family home has remained the American dream, with sales outpacing those of condominiums  and co-ops despite the downturn.

Florida has suggested that simply stating the numbers makes me a sprawl lover. While he and other urban nostalgists see the city only in its dense urban core, and the city’s role as intimately tied with the amenities that are supposed to attract the relatively wealthy members of the so-called “creative class,” I see the urban form as ever changing, and consider a city’s primary mission not aesthetic or simply economic but to serve the interests and aspirations of all of its residents.

Clearly the data supports a long-term preference for suburbs. Even as some core cities rebounded from the nadir of the 1970s, the suburban share of overall share of growth in America’s 51 major metropolitan areas (those with populations  of at least one million) has accelerated—rising from 85 percent in the ’90s to 91 percent in the ’00s. There’s more than a tinge of elitism animating the urban theorists who think that urban destiny rides mostly with the remaining nine percent matters. Overall, over 70 percent of residents in the major metropolitan areas now live in suburbs…

While they’ve weaved a compelling narrative, the numbers make it clear that the retro-urbanists only chance of prevailing is a disaster, say if the dynamics associated with the Great Recession—a rise in renting, declining home ownership and plunging birthrates—become our new, ongoing normal. Left to their own devices, Americans will continue to make the “wrong” choices about how to live.

Kotkin has been saying this for a quite a while now. On one hand, he appears to be correct: a good number of Americans like suburbs. On the other hand, others would argue there is much more going on than just individual preferences. Perhaps the whole system, from funding for highways versus mass transit, government programs intended to help people purchase homes, to a culture that idealizes autonomy and driving, is rigged in favor of the suburbs. And if this system is rigged, then people aren’t exactly making completely unconstrained choices.

The key here is that one doesn’t have to argue Kotkin’s individual choice argument is necessarily or completely wrong just because the system may be set up in a certain way. Yet, urban sociologists would tend to put the emphasis on the second explanation, that there are a number of larger social forces that promote the suburbs and have helped convince many Americans that the suburbs are the place they want to be.

One thought on “Kotkin: “The Triumph of Suburbia”

  1. Pingback: What if Americans like the suburbs? | Legally Sociable

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