Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Density Paradox

I'm a regular reader of New Geography. I've been known to contribute an article or two to the website. I appreciate the counter-narrative to urbanophilia (apologies to Aaron Renn), which dominates urban policy discourse. Suburbia is the scourge of America, a geography we should efface. New Geography tends to go too far in the other direction, but the polemic is worth considering:

Progressives clearly feel a need to delegitimise suburban life. This stems from their barely suppressed rage against people they can’t control. Like Kurtz in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, suburban people have strayed too far from civilisation, they contend, and will lose their minds. Yet they fail to explain why surveys indicate an overwhelming preference for detached housing on sizeable blocks, or why the latest Australian Unity Wellbeing Index registers higher rates of happiness amongst suburban people than their inner-city counterparts.

I'm a self-loathing suburbanite. I suspect that I have a lot of company. We must be careful that this spatial fetish doesn't weigh too heavily on economic development. The pro-suburb camp is making a class argument. In the context of the urban geography of globalization (i.e. Spiky World), they have a strong case:

Some world cities are distinguished by vast disparities in wealth and economic opportunity - between such globally oriented zones, sucking up the region’s capital, infrastructure capacity, skills base and government services, and stagnant hinterlands inhabited by struggling workers in declining, marginal industries or masses of unemployed. But that was not Sydney’s fate.

Why and how did a viable economy develop in the middle to outer suburbs of the city? To answer this question it is necessary to recall some of the constants of Sydney’s recent history. The gradual emergence of global Sydney generated higher land values throughout the inner-city. Consequently, many inner-city land uses associated with nineteenth century transport nodes, such as the light industrial plants, depots and warehouses clustered near the railway junction south of the CBD or along the harbour foreshores of the inner-west were no longer sustainable in the face of escalating demands for office space and gentrification.

The not-so-subtle subtext is that market forces are more working class friendly. Suburbs are a spatial technology that allows more people access to the windfalls of density (i.e. innovation). I'm reminded of the journey-to-work maps I viewed at university. Regional geographic mobility correlates with gender. Typically, women are "stuck" and thus exploited as cheap labor.

Richard Florida struggles with the density paradox. The cost of creativity is dear. Yet people continue to cram into Manhattan or Moscow, ignoring the high price of real estate. Globalization is spiky. How many people can afford access to this world?

On the other hand, the migration to a greenfield rides on the back of subsidy. Moving on up and then out, leaves your former residence holding the bag of entitlements. Suburban school districts inevitably run into the same problem, but economic nomads can always find another greenfield. That's just the tip of the public iceberg that supports suburban fetishism.

I'm reminded of the challenges facing environmental economists. How do we marketize the costs of global warming? We are still struggling to figure out how to better marketize surbanization/urbanization, two sides of the same coin.


Unknown said...

This post seems like a rare miss from you. I didn't understand this part:

"Suburbs are a spatial technology that allows more people access to the windfalls of density (i.e. innovation)."

Suburbs kill density. From my perspective, every abandoned/underdeveloped house in Uptown and the North Side is the counterpart to some crappy subdivision in the North/South/East/West Hills. And since our innovation center is located somewhere on Forbes Ave, how does having people living in suburbs help that? Pittsburgh's not like Manhattan or Europe where there's a sharp lack of affordable, centrally-located housing. And in truth, even our "expensive" city neighborhoods like Shadyside and Squirrel Hill are very very affordable compared to everywhere else.

As far as "marketizing" (really?) suburbanization, there's only one thing that needs to happen, and that's $5+ gasoline.

Jim Russell said...


I anticipated that most of my readers are more familiar with the arguments against suburbanization.

Yes. Suburbs kill density. And killing density drives down the cost of real estate. So, folks with a well-paying DC job drive until they qualify.

If you are, for whatever reason, tethered to the creative core; your cost of living is going to go through the roof. Young professionals and immigrants are very good at working around this problem.

Jobs are spiky. Residents are more flat. See Silicon Valley.

Unknown said...

"If you are, for whatever reason, tethered to the creative core; your cost of living is going to go through the roof."

So, yes, obviously if you take a typical suburban lot and drop it into the middle of squirrel hill it will be much more expensive. But the thing about the better parts of the rust belt, and Pittsburgh in particular, is that you can get a reasonably-sized house in a reasonably-nice (walkable) neighborhood for a reasonable amount of money. This is just not the case in DC, NYC, SF, etc.

Maybe I'm just a utopian socialist, but expensive gas will convince people rather quickly that they prefer denser quarters.

Stephen Gross said...

I have wrestled with this a lot. When I tall to suburbanites, I am amazed at their estimation of urban housing. Even though cities like Pittsburg and minneapolis have excellent housing, many peope simply want size: large lots, large houses. The urban houses that seem lovely to me are undesirable to suburbanites. Yikes!