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Good Question: If Cities Are Where the Action Is, Why Subsidize the 'Burbs?

David Callahan

Vishaan Chakrabarti has a great op-ed yesterday that asks a question that we've asked here before: Why does our government so heavily subsidize the suburbs when urban living makes more sense: environmentally, economically, and culturally?

What subsidies are we talking about exactly? Most notable is the combined tax expenditures for the home mortgage interest deduction and the deduction for state and local property taxes, which totaled $146 billion in 2013, according to the CBO. Those deductions are supposed to encourage home ownership but actually just incentivize affluent people to build larger homes, mainly in the 'burbs. 
Meanwhile, our urban infrastructure is crumbling in many places -- from mass transit systems to the waterworks that make city life possible. And this is happening just as many cities are taking off, attracting more young people and families. 
Why do we want to fan today's urban revival in every way we can? Chakrabarti nicely sums up the case:
A staggering 90 percent of our gross domestic product and 86 percent of our jobs are generated in 3 percent of the continental United States, namely our cities. The carbon footprint of most urbanites is substantially lower. And cities are providing, however imperfectly, many more opportunities to climb the social ladder than our increasingly impoverished suburbs. 
Cities aren't just good for climbing the social ladder, they're good places to help you keep your place on that ladder if you face a setback. Think about it: Would you rather become unemployed while living in a lonely cul-de-sac in a distant suburb? Or in a city, with dense social networks? One thing people do when they lose their jobs is start a business, and cities are better places to meet potential partners, get ideas, and access capital.
Where you live matters more now than ever before, as Richard Florida documented in his book, Who's Your City? And it's demonstrably better, from an economic perspective to encourage people to live in cities. Yet public policy does the opposite.
And don't even get me started about the environmental case for downsizing the 'burbs.
Here's the thing, though: It's not enough to just shift resources to cities, as Chakrabarti suggests. We also need a strategy for expanding the number of cities that are viable places to live with ample opportunity, since as I observed here recently, many top tier cities have become way too crowded and expensive.
Brooklyn has already come back. It's places like Syracuse and Bridgeport we need to revive now to achieve what Chakrabarti calls "America's urban future."