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Four More Reasons to Hate the Suburbs

David Callahan

Yesterday I wrote about how the suburban lifestyle doesn't square with the ecological imperatives of our time and has helped fuel an obesity crisis that is driving healthcare costs skyward. Today, I offer four more reasons we should favor herding Americans back to the cities through whatever policy measures will achieve that goal.

First, suburbs are anti-egalitarian. They are basically education clubs, and you can only belong to the good clubs, with good schools, if you have enough money. Around New York, a basic membership fee for a top school club will run you, say, $700k for a house. Then there are the annual dues -- say, $18k a year in property taxes on that home. Can't afford all that? Well, maybe look at apartments in Yonkers, which has among the worst schools in New York State. 

Suburbs per se aren't to blame for this situation, which is also true in rural areas, because the U.S. tends to fund its schools through local property taxes. But the structure of suburbia, with all these little independent villages, greatly exacerbates the situation. The best way to create a more equitable education system is to fund schools through general government revenues. The second best way is to have large zones of taxation, so wealthier homeowners end up subsidizing less wealthy families. Which is often the case today in cities. 

Second, suburbs are exclusionary. Many wealthier 'burbs have zoning rules that ban multi-family apartment buildings or other kinds of affordable housing options. That makes total sense: If you're part of a club with great perks but a killer membership fee and high dues, you don't want other people breezing in to enjoy the same perks, but pay far less than you do by renting a two-bedroom apartment down by the railroad tracks. So you and your fellow club members make sure, over decades, to limit how many apartment buildings ever get built through the power of zoning. All this is documented in Lisa Prevost's recent book: Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate. Note that I haven't even mentioned race here. There are plenty of good reasons for 'burbs to be exclusionary that have nothing to do with fear of different people. 

Third, suburban towns and villages are wildly inefficient as units of governance. I grew up in the Rivertowns section of Westchester, where three small villages line the Hudson heading north. None have more than 11,000 people. Yet each has its own school district, police department, and village government. And good luck to anyone who tries to streamline things. People flipped out back in the early 1980s when Hastings and Dobbs Ferry considered merging the town's two piddly high schools, neither with more than 500 kids. 

When Andrew Cuomo took office, he vowed to consolidate New York State's 10,500 local governments. The plan never went anywhere. What private club wants to merge with another private club? None do. So money keeps going down the drain of fragmented government. 

Fourth, suburban residential patterns are bad for economic growth. Why? Because density of population is closely linked to the generation of new ideas and businesses, as Richard Florida shows in his book, Who's Your City. Forget the new conventional wisdom that you can get ahead anywhere thanks to the Internet. Quite the contrary: Where we are physically, and our proximity to other people to collaborate with, matters most. Moving to the 'burbs may seem like no big deal, opportunity-wise, when you have that good job in the city. The problem is when you lose that job and suddenly you're sitting home alone on a cul-de-sac. 

Structuring American society to foster collaboration, creativity, and the growth of new businesses matters more than ever, since this country is less able to compete globally when it comes to producing basic goods and services. Our comparative advantage is that we have an extremely educated population that is highly innovative. But innovation happens most when people are around each other, talk to each other, and can generate new schemes together. On the whole, that's more likely to happen in cities, although obviously there are suburbs with lots of community and interaction. Consider this analogy: Everyone knows that cities are much better places to find marital partners. There's just more people and choices. So why would finding business partners be any different?

One last point: China has embarked on a historic effort to move 250 million people to its cities in an effort to ensure long-term growth. This is America, and we can't order people around like that. But what we can do is get rid of public policies that subsidize suburban living and enact new policies that promote urban living.