2008/02/07

Suburbs still a haven of selfishness and racism

Probably the biggest obstacle in America to an environmentally sustainable society (other than maybe meat-eating) is the low density of our cities. There are a handful of high-density cities built in the 19th century, but the fastest-growing cities like Atlanta, Houston, Phoenix, and Las Vegas are almost completely composed of sprawl, and even the dense cities are surrounded by their own sprawling (and rapidly-growing) suburbs.

The main problem is that building and maintaining sprawl is an incredibly inefficient use of resources. It takes more land and covers it with concrete, strip malls, and TGIFridays; it uses more raw materials to build and heat so many one-family homes and to extend the roads, sewers, and electrical lines; and worst of all it requires that cars be the main form of transportation. Public transit is only feasible under conditions of high density, when ridership is high enough to sustain regular bus and train routes, while walking or biking the extended distances of the suburbs is usually not realistic for many people.

Long Island is the birthplace of sprawl, where the first true suburbs emerged after World War II. It is also an unusually progressive suburban area, electing more Democrats than Republicans and county leaders who argue for denser, more vertical development. But the impulses that have always led people to move to the suburbs - a desire for a big home with access to good schools and a neighborhood without any minorities or poor people - are still strong even there, even in the face of an impending crisis in housing affordability. A recent survey found that
Fifty-nine percent of Long Islanders could never imagine themselves living in an apartment. Asked which type of neighborhood they preferred — one where you could walk to stores or one that required driving — 56 percent said they would rather drive. Meanwhile, only 7 percent agreed that “creating ethnically and economically diverse neighborhoods” was the major advantage of building more affordable housing. Asked what the worst disadvantage was, 20 percent said “bringing in the wrong kinds of people.”
If I were optimistic I'd say that once we get a carbon tax or its equivalent, a lot of this problem would go away. If the price of fossil fuels started to reflect their real social costs, the building of new sprawl would cease, cities like Houston or Phoenix would collapse economically and become the Detroits of the next generation, and high-density development would take off. But reading comments on Chicago Tribune articles related to transit, as I am wont to do, makes me think otherwise. Here's a fairly typical example, which the comment service identified as originating in Oak Brook, Illinois (errors of spelling and spacing preserved):
Maybe you can send all the illegals from your state [he is responding to a poster from California] and they can drive the buses and trains for $2.00 HR! Never mind we have way to many already!I hope the CTA goes down the toilet if you cant run a business with the money you have shut down we in the burbs are tired of bailing out Chicago! I'm lucky i dont buy anything in the collar counties so the only money they will ever get from is the money i cant control them from getting!I will be moving shortly from crook state!
The heady mix of antitax selfishness and anti-immigrant racism is pretty telling, and I think once the attack on car culture and sprawl starts taking off the backlash will only get worse. My fear is that we might be facing a new culture war, not over religious issues (fundamentalists may even prove to be allies), but over the sacrifices needed to combat global warming and the particular brand of anti-egalitarian, neoliberal individualism that could be called the ideology of the suburbs. It's a confrontation that will have to be made at some point, but I'm worried that getting bogged down in it might fatally delay urgent steps needed to control greenhouse gas emissions.

5 comments:

Eric Allix Rogers said...

I can't bring myself to read the comments on Tribune transit or politics articles anymore, because they're just so nasty. I think you're probably right, that the next culture war is going to be against suburbanites, who will fight tooth and claw to protect the subsidies the rest of us pony up to sustain their way of life. The one thing that gives me hope is that at least some suburbanites will have the good sense to give up on it and move back in to cities when the price of gas gets high enough to seriously dent their quality of life; they aren't all extremists and bigots - hopefully that's just a vocal minority.

kyle said...

I think one thing we seriously need to consider in any attack on the suburban way of life is that as cities do become more appealing to suburbanites, the demographics of suburbs are changing. Just because white folks decide to come to the city doesn't mean their racism disappears -- they just drive people out. Low-income workers in the service sector especially are now being pushed into suburbs, significantly because of gentrification but also because they can't commute to jobs otherwise. A slow path to Paris's model, perhaps? That won't help us much. I don't have time right now to find numbers on how quickly these shifts are taking place, but the suburbs definitely the lily-white institutions they used to be.

Jake said...

very good point. some of chicago's near suburbs like cicero, berwyn, or harvey are now majority black or latino. (some very useful demographic maps on distribution and change in race, ethnicity, and income can be found here.) if you look at the map on change in income, you'll see how striking the gentrification of the north side and near south side was in the '90s and how incomes fell as blacks and latinos were pushed into the near west and south suburbs. unless the city finally starts doing something to secure affordable housing, poor people are going to really be squeezed between rising housing costs in the city and rising transportation costs in the suburbs. in addition to the environmental issues, this is another reason we have to make public transit and high-density development major priorities.

Jake said...

this article reinforces a lot of the points i was making, and also includes this classic story:
"Alexander Lee, the 33-year-old founder of Project Laundry List, which tries to revive the use of clotheslines to save energy, has run into plenty of resistance from suburban community associations, many of which have regulations restricting them, he said. 'There are three complaints,' Mr. Lee said. 'It will lower my property values. That’s what poor people do. Also, I don’t want anyone to see my underwear'.

Chris said...

eventually the political autonomy of the suburbs will need to be questioned. maybe they should be absorbed by the cities and be regulted or taxed out of existence. maybe we could let the ultra-wealthy continue to live in them in return for ultra high taxes.

one thing that the article reminded me is that some of the north shore suburbs are much preferable to newer ones. they don't sprawl nearly as much, most are connected to chicago by the metra, and have downtown areas that are accessible to a lot of residents by foot and contain markets, cleaners, and other essentials.

i'm sure that right now a lot of people drive four blocks from their houses to these downtowns, but at least there's potential there. now all we need to do is expropriate those big old mansions and make them mutli-family dwellings.

however i don't agree with making the old owners into the servants of the new resident families, i think that's just going too far.