From the “walking cities” of 1815 to the sprawling cities of today

In recently teaching about the development of the American suburbs, I was reminded of the description of “walking cities” in 1815 provided by historian Kenneth Jackson makes in Crabgrass Frontier:

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The first important characteristic of the walking city was congestion. When Queen Victoria was born in 1819, London had about 800,000 residents and was the largest city on earth. Yet an individual could easily walk the three miles from Paddington, Kensington, Hammersmith, and Fulham, then on the very edges of the city, to the center in only two hours. In Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, and Glasgow, the area of new building was not even two miles from city hall. (14)

While the focus here is on congestion, the time it takes to walk through such density in a major city is notable: in a few hours, one could traverse a significant portion of the city.

Introduce technology with more speed – trains, streetcars, cars, etc. – and cities could expand in space. People could live further from work (the proximity of home to work for many is a feature of the 1815 city that Jackson also notes). The city could go on for miles. The suburbs could extend even further. But, the ability to see a significant portion of the city in a single walk became much harder.

Like Wakanda, drop the suburbs so cities and rural areas are closer

Why do we need suburbs between city and rural life? Perhaps the fictional Wakanda offers an answer:

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“One of the things I love about Wakanda, if you notice, if you watch ‘Black Panther’ carefully, there’s the city, the city’s got all this mass transit and all this housing parks and all this stuff,” explained Chakrabarti, who wrote a book called “A Country of Cities: A Manifesto for an Urban America.” “And the moment you leave the city, you’re in farmland. And there’s this connection between rural life and urban life.”

He added: “I just think that is a really interesting paradigm to think about people, either living in super dense circumstances or really living in true rural hinterland and doing the things that we need everyone to do in farmland, which is grow our food and all of that stuff. And it would mean you would use a lot less land on this planet at the end of the day.”…

Whether major American cities ever transform from where we are today — heavily suburbanized and car-dependent — remains to be seen. But all we have to do is look to Wakanda for an idea of how our cities of the future could work.

I would argue that the American suburbs are popular, in part, because they appear to offer both features of city and rural life. Suburbanites like access to housing, jobs, and cultural amenities but they also want smaller communities and proximity to nature. With cars, they can on their own schedule access these features.

I remember the first time I saw in person this cleaner break between a city and rural areas. I had a chance to spend several days in Tokyo while in college. On one day, we took a train out of the city. As we moved at a high speed away from the city center, we suddenly moved from the denser city to fields. The same break could be seen from the air when flying in and out of the city.

This is not typically the case in the United States where suburbs might stretch for dozens of miles from the city limits before finally dwindling out. Moving more people into denser locations would indeed free up land or freezing development in metropolitan regions within an established boundary would do the same.

A significant majority of Americans “believe it is better for the environment if houses are built further apart”

In April, YouGov reported on a survey with a series of questions on how Americans thought about high-density places. Here is how people responded when asked about the relationship between the environment and building homes:

Three in four Americans say it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart, while one in four say it’s better for houses to be built closer together. While Americans who live in cities are somewhat more likely than Americans who don’t to say that high density is more environmental, the vast majority of city-dwellers still believe that it’s more eco-friendly to build out rather than up. While Republicans and Independents are aligned on this issue, Democrats are somewhat more likely to say high-density living is environmental, though again, the majority still say it is worse for the environment than building farther apart.  https://datawrapper.dwcdn.net/w0YWs/3/

It would be fascinating to follow up on these survey results with interviews or open-ended questions for the respondents: “Please explain why you answered this way.”

Knowing what I know about American preferences for single-family homes and wanting to be closer to nature in the suburbs, here are some factors that could be at work:

-Americans do not know what is best for the environment.

-Proximity to nature matters for how people assess whether the environment is better off. In higher density places, there is less open space or the natural areas have to be planned and protected. If the houses are further apart leaving more room for grass and local creatures, is this better for the environment?

-People really like homes built away from other homes, even if this might not be optimal for the environment.

-It is interesting that the biggest gap in opinions is between political parties and not where people live. Even then, two-thirds of Democrats agree with this. This might suggest anyone promoting density as a solution to environmental issues will run into some opposition.

Are American cities in trouble or are we focusing too much on the business core of cities?

Recent data suggests the biggest American cities are facing several issues, including population loss. I wonder if the bigger issue is too much focus on the business and downtown core:

They are all among the 20 largest metropolitan areas in the country. All of their populations were growing in 2011. And then, in 2021, they all shrank by a combined 900,000 people, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings scholar William Frey. That’s an urban exodus nearly the size of two Wyomings.

The great metro shrinkage is part of a larger demographic story. Last year, the U.S. growth rate fell to a record low. The major drivers of population—migration and births—declined, while deaths soared in the pandemic. But America’s largest cities are getting the worst of this national trend. In the past three years, the net number of moves out of Manhattan has increased tenfold. In every urban county within the metros of New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco, immigration declined by at least 50 percent from 2018 to 2021. In downtown Detroit and Long Island, deaths actually exceeded births last year.

The great metro shrinkage also appears to be part of a broader cultural story: The rise of remote work has snipped the tether between home and office, allowing many white-collar workers to move out of high-cost cities. Nearly 5 million Americans have moved since 2020 because of remote-work opportunities, according to Adam Ozimek, the chief economist for the Economic Innovation Group, a think tank in Washington, D.C…

So what might this period of urban struggle look like? Just check out what’s happening now. Mass-transit ridership has collapsed from its pre-pandemic highs in New York, Boston, the Bay Area, and Washington, D.C. Although restaurant bookings and travel have bounced back almost entirely, office occupancy remains 50 percent below its 2019 levels. In San Francisco, vacant office space has nearly quadrupled since the pandemic to 18.7 million square feet. In New York, Mayor Eric Adams has practically begged white-collar workers to return to Midtown, even as those workers patronize businesses in more residential parts of the city, closer to where they live. America’s downtown areas support millions of jobs that can’t be made remote—in retail, construction, health care, and beyond. But for millions of white-collar workers, something important has changed: They don’t work “in” cities anymore. They work on the internet. The city is just where they go for fun.

The overall numbers are what they are. Yet, the emphasis in this piece and in others I have read are about a downtown core that COVID-19 weakened. What if American cities no longer need a dense downtown core in the same way? With more work from home, less demand for downtown office space and more interest in downtown residential space, and the ways cars and mass transit allow workers to live in different places from their workplaces, how much focus should be placed on struggling cores?

This could be a larger existential issue about American cities. In the 1990s, a group of scholars in Los Angeles wrote about a new Los Angeles School of urbanism built around the unique features of the LA region. This includes a decreased emphasis on a downtown core and more sprawl and fragmentation across the region. In contrast, Chicago and New York and many other American cities stand as the established alternative: an important business core in response to which all other city activity is oriented.

So is the problem really cities are in big trouble or that the model of an ultra-dense center with all that comes with it is breaking a bit? This could be a huge change for certain places – particularly parts of Manhattan, downtown San Francisco – but there would also be opportunities throughout cities if development and business and residential activity could be more spread out. Indeed, the picture attached to the story says a lot about this:

This picture is taken from the vantage point of a sizable property just south of Chicago’s Loop. Why is it not developed? If the core did not have to be as dense, could this significant property be better woven into the fabric of the city?

More broadly, observers can think about complete cities and complete regions in addition to changes or issues facing the downtown. If activity is moving elsewhere, what does this mean and how might it improve life elsewhere?

Can a suburban newspaper call for less driving and two long-term options for minimizing driving in suburbs

The headline to an editorial earlier this week in the suburban Daily Herald said “we need to re-evaluate our relationship with cars”. More from the editorial:

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If drivers have been reluctant to limit their car use and reduce mileage in the past, they now have two headline-making reasons to reconsider: painful prices at the pump and a sobering recent report on climate change.

Meeting both challenges means committing to conservation as individuals — and as a society…

Minimizing driving and maximizing the efficiency of our cars are vital tools in the battles to lower gas bills and protect our planet.

The Daily Herald covers news in the suburbs of Chicago and is based in Arlington Heights, a suburb with a denser downtown roughly 25 miles northwest of Chicago. In other words, they serve an area built on cars and driving. Their headquarters is primarily accessible by cars and is next to a major interstate.

One of the primary features of the American suburbs is that it revolves around driving. Single-family homes with larger lots are made possible by cars. Commuting to other suburbs or large cities is made possible by cars. Fast food is made possible by cars. Big box stores and shopping malls rely on cars. And so on. More broadly, one could argue the American way of life is built around cars.

I do see two longer-term and possible suburban options that could minimize driving:

-Denser suburban developments, downtowns, and communities. In the Chicago area, downtown densification has been a trend for a while as communities seek downtown residents who can then patronize local business. “Surban” communities are of interest. New Urbanists promote residences within walking distances of regular needs.

-More working from home. COVID-19 has accelerated this but technology does make it possible for some workers.

In both cases, suburbanites might not be able to give up cars all together but a household might be able to go from two to one car with less driving. That would reduce pollution, traffic, and parking needs.

However, both of these shifts are significant ones. Denser suburban areas are not necessarily ones with single-family homes on big lots. Denser areas put people in closer proximity to each other. Working from home might be technologically feasible but might not be desirable by corporations and organizations or by communities who relied on commuters and workers. These might be options more available in some communities or some residents rather than to all suburbanites.

What I can access in a 10 minute drive from my suburban location

Following up on an earlier post this week on the desire some Americans have to live within 10 minutes drive from what they need on a daily basis, I briefly catalogued what I could access within ten minutes drive of my suburban residence. Ten minutes does not necessarily get my very far from my house given residential speed limits and the number of stop signs and traffic lights in my way. For most of these locations, I can access them by bicycle in about the same time (though I cannot carry as much).

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Here is a rough count of what is within 10 minutes:

Grocery stores: at least 5

Gas stations: at least 3

Fast food/fast casual restaurants: at least a dozen

Parks: at least 5 community parks, two forest preserves, one linear pathway

Schools: at least 4

Other shopping: one second-tier shopping area at a major intersection, multiple strip malls, lots of car repair and automotive parts places, etc.

Transportation: 1 commuter train station

Almost 10 minutes away (usually more like a 12-15 minute drive away): 1 suburban downtown with a public library, local stores and restaurants, civic buildings; 2 interstates; many more stores/schools/parks; multiple big box retailers

All of this within a residential part of suburbia with medium levels of suburban density. The people around me could walk or bike to many of these locations but many do not since a short drive is convenient and normal. I would guess many residents would say the quick driving access to so many amenities is a contributor to the high quality of life.

The real New (Sub)Urbanism in the United States: a 10 minute drive from daily needs

A quote from one family who moved from Chicago to the suburbs highlights what many Americans want in a community:

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“What I expect if I’m paying property taxes and the like is, within a 10-minute drive in my community I should be able to have access to most of what I need. Most, not everything. And that’s what we have here,” he said. “We got what we were looking for in terms of space to raise our family and more of a neighborhood feel.”

In their principles for communities, New Urbanists advocate for higher densities than present in many suburban locations, they emphasize walkability in that residents can access daily needs within a 15 minute walk, and they array residences around commercial and civic land uses. Whether in denser suburban downtowns or redeveloped mixed-use properties or “surban” locations, there is a different feel to these suburban locations. These communities do not need to be cities in terms of their population and density but they present a distinct difference from the low-density suburban sprawl found in many American locations.

In practice, the quote above highlights how some of the goals of New Urbanism are carried out in American suburbs. Americans want both private housing, typically in the form of single-family homes, and amenities within 10 minute drive. These amenities likely include schools, parks, grocery stores, and other shopping opportunities. Additionally, these homes should be in a neighborhood that offers safety and opportunities for children.

This is not what New Urbanists want. This current arrangement depends on driving and planning based around driving. A ten minute drive encourages lower densities as Americans can get roughly a few miles within that time span. Walking in service of accomplishing daily tasks is often not possible and walks become about exercise or getting out of the private house.

Nudging Americans to reorient their lives from a 10 minute drive to a 10 minute walk in suburban settings is a difficult task. While there are pockets where neighborhoods with a New Urbanist lifestyle operate, it is not the norm and driving is expected.

A denser suburbia in California and the rest of the United States

The single-family home is the most important feature of American suburbs. What happens when conditions change and pressures lead to more multifamily housing units and denser housing in suburbia? From California:

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In June, as Ms. Coats told me about the house and the neighborhood from the doorstep of her bungalow, she gazed toward a fresh foundation that had entombed the back half of Lot 118 in concrete. Over the next few weeks, a construction crew erected a two-story building that filled in a green rectangle from the Clairemont Villas brochure. A few feet away, the original four-bedroom house was loudly gut-renovated into a pair of apartments.

When the workers head to their next job this month, they will leave what amounts to a triplex rental complex on the type of lot that in the seven decades since Ms. Coats’s family moved in had been reserved for single-family houses. It’s part of a push across California and the nation to encourage density in suburban neighborhoods by allowing people to subdivide single-family houses and build new units in their backyards…

In the vast zone between those poles lie existing single-family neighborhoods like Clairemont, which account for most of the urban landscape yet remain conspicuously untouched. The omission is the product of a political bargain that says sprawl can sprawl and downtowns can rise but single-family neighborhoods are sealed off from growth by the cudgel of zoning rules that dictate what can be built where. The deal is almost never stated so plainly, but it is the foundation of local politics in virtually every U.S. city and cuts to the core of the country’s deepest class and racial conflicts…

“It doesn’t fit.” “It’s adding people.” “We don’t want that here.” “There’s other places for that.” “We just want to keep our neighborhood like it is.” “They want to push us out and tear our houses down.” “Parking.” “Parking.” “Parking.”

Several quick thoughts on these changes in many suburban communities:

  1. Where exactly this density will happen will be fascinating to watch. Will it happen in wealthier suburban communities or will they be able to keep it at bay? Inner-ring suburbs are often already more familiar with such density but this is less common in suburbs further from the big city.
  2. The housing pressure is acute in California but is not so clear or as well publicized in many other locations. If this works in California, where else does it show up?
  3. The NIMBY concerns cited above will be vocally shared again and again. The appeal for many single-family home owners is the space between neighbors, relatively lots of room for parking, and not feeling like the neighborhood is crowded.
  4. How much are #1-3 above linked to another long-term pattern in suburbia: race and exclusion? Homeowners will say it is about protecting their properties – particularly their property values, which single-family home zoning is intended to do – but it is also about who is able to live in the neighborhood and community.
  5. The addition of units and people to existing single-family home neighborhoods is a different approach to denser suburbia than creating larger-scale “surban” projects that some would find desirable near suburban downtowns or in large-scale redevelopment.

An additional reason to dislike Chicago McMansions: contributing to lower population density

One Chicago observer suggests teardown McMansions impoverish the city in three ways: they suburbanize neighborhoods, they are poorly built and do not fit in with the architectural context of the city, and help lower the population density of neighborhoods. More on this third point:

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But Chicago’s density is declining, and some of the city’s most prominent neighborhoods have actually started to lose residents. Lincoln Par, once home to 102,000 people, barely housed 70,000 in 2020. Lakeview, once holding 124,000, was at 103,050 around the same time. North Center had decreased from 48,000 to 35,114, and nearby community such as West Town and Bucktown had similar fallen in scale.

These neighborhoods are becoming more expensive, and much of this de-densification may be due to a “spreading out” of sorts; wealthier people are moving in and are able to afford more space.

But there’s more to it than that. Previously, when a neighborhood in Chicago was in demand, builders capitalized, and the housing stock swelled. Chicago’s zoning laws, however, have changed, and while they allow for high-rise development in various downtown areas, they prohibit this same approach in neighborhoods. One thing is for sure, though: No matter how strict the zoning ode is in residential areas, single-family homes are pretty much always allowed.

One theory, termed “The homevoter hypothesis,” speculates that this is due to the control that homeowners have on urban development. Their interests have the most influence on local aldermen and, therefore, residential development. The good of the community and the city is not a factor in their agenda, which instead focuses on home value growth, and how to wield zoning changes in order to achieve it.

The argument seems to make sense: those who want to live in more well-off Chicago neighborhoods bring resources and an interest in larger homes. This could mean converting structures to single-family homes or tearing down older structures and starting over from scratch. If there is indeed an increase in larger single-family homes in Chicago, there should be data to support this. Anecdotally, my occasional travels in some of these neighborhoods suggests a good number of new homes nestled between two-flats and three-flats.

Additionally, there may be other forces at work that could also be leading to de-densification in Chicago neighborhoods:

  1. Chicago residents are leaving neighborhoods faster than people want to come in, regardless of what housing stock is available. The population is down in a number of neighborhoods across the city.
  2. The demand for new housing is higher in locations in and around the Loop because of the concentration of jobs and cultural opportunities plus the activity of developers. While Chicago has been known as a city of neighborhoods for a long time, the neighborhoods might not be as hot as the center.
  3. Developers and builders also want these new single-family homes because they can make a lot of money on each property.

Put all of this together and the new Chicago McMansions represent a change to numerous streets and neighborhoods.

One way suburbs fight affordable housing: concerns about density

This example of how the conversation about a proposed affordable housing project with 58 units in the Chicago suburbs is illustrative:

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The developers propose to build a three-story building on approximately 2.5 acres at 874-920 N. Quentin Road, on the southwest corner with Poplar Street. All of the apartments — one-, two- and three-bedrooms — would be set aside for tenants whose income is between 30% and 80% of the area’s median income.

Village staff members recommended denying the plan, and the plan commission did the same after a public hearing Tuesday night. The village council will have final say and is expected to discuss the matter Aug. 9.

Plan commissioners praised the developer’s successful record of affordable housing developments, but they didn’t like the plan for the Palatine site, saying it’s too dense. The area consists of single-family homes and townhouses, with an apartment complex further north…

Several residents spoke Tuesday against the plan, saying they are worried about traffic, noise and light pollution, and changing the character of the neighborhood.

The final word will come in a few weeks. In the meantime, this set of arguments is a common one when suburbs consider apartments or even townhomes and condos. A key issue is the density of the project. What this often means is the community prefers to have single-family homes. Denser housing is often thought of as smaller housing or cheaper housing. Here, that is clear in that it is affordable housing where, through a sizable tax credit ($15 million) from an Illinois agency, residents will not need to pay full market rate.

Additionally, people often have concerns about the aesthetics and daily experiences around apartments. Apartment buildings are taller and are bulkier compared to homes on grassy lots. Because of more residents on less land, there will be more traffic on local roads. This particular proposal is close to a busier intersection but it also would be adjacent to single-family homes. It just looks different than single-family homes. If there are too many denser developments, the impression may be that single-family homes are not valued.

In sum, this density and kind of housing is perceived as a threat to the character of single-family home communities. Municipalities will sometimes respond to such proposals by asking the developer to reduce the number of units. Or, they might reject it all together by saying that it is not a good fit. And the search for land for affordable housing continues.