Over the past week or so, there’s been a great deal of words blogged amongst various econobloggers on suburban subsidies, regulations, built form, etc. Are they the product of market demand, and thus an accurate gauge of the preferences we have for urban design? Why do libertarians not take on these subsidies and distortions in the market, when they clearly have an enormous impact in what we build and how we get around?
Didn’t we just have this libertarian-vs-urbanist discussion as it related to high speed rail?
Ryan Avent pointed to a bizarre post from Bryan Caplan, where Caplan proffers that zoning restrictions against mixed use were somehow pro-urban. Ryan managed to get Tyler Cowen’s attention, if not change his mind. Ryan has other posts on the subject, too – and there are many more, but I can’t even keep track of them all.
Throughout the entire discussion, it became increasingly clear to me that no one was being very precise in what they mean by ‘suburb.’ Indeed, the word itself is so broad that it can’t have too precise of a meaning – yet at the same time, I think most of us know a suburb when we see one.
Some refer to suburbs by jurisdiction – but this isn’t particularly accurate. Some parts of DC are essentially old streetcar suburbs. Likewise, parts of suburban jurisdictions have distinct pockets of urban form (Silver Spring, Bethesda, etc.), and many jurisdictions are so large and varied that defining them with one word is a exercise in futility (how would you characterize Montgomery County – it has urban, rural, and everything in between).
When speaking of what makes great urban places, we talk about Density, Diversity, and Design. In evaluating whether a place is ‘suburban’ or not (or more accurately, what kind of suburb we’re talking about), it makes more sense to look at form rather than jurisdiction.
Ryan Avent gets to the heart of the matter:
At the heart of many of Tyler’s posts are questions about what drove the growth of the suburbs. This is a question that really must be framed appropriately to make sense.
If one refers to suburbs as development outside the traditional or center city, then suburbs have basically been around as long as cities. Some share of population growth has always been accommodated by development at the urban fringe. Development of new transportation technologies changed the pace and the form of suburban developments over time, as did the increase in population growth associated with industrial development. But outward growth is a natural part of urban development.
When we talk about the phenomenon of rapid suburban growth in America, we’re largely asking questions about why that growth took a particular form and why that growth coincided with decline in center cities. Obviously, new suburban growth forms were largely a function of the automobile, but that’s not the end of the story. Specific choices were made to accommodate the automobile in various ways, and those choices affected decisions at the margins, and given the importance of feedback loops in urban settings these choices were potentially quite powerful in certain circumstances.
Simply viewing suburbs as the natural outward extension of the city isn’t a sufficient analytical framework. It addresses location, but not density, diversity, or design. Indeed, many older streetcar suburbs would be considered urban today, certainly within the purview of what New Urbanists often seek to create.
The Three D’s, the factors important to urban/suburban form (not just location), have been highly regulated and influenced by specific policy choices. Matt Yglesias captures this idea with a rhetorical question:
Maybe us urbanists are wrong, and even though it seems to be the case that suburban sprawl in the United States is systematically supported by a series of direct and indirect subsidies and regulatory mandates that it secretly also reflects underlying market preference and it’s all just some kind of giant coincidence. But why can’t we try to put this proposition to the test?
Indeed. Why can’t we?