Thursday, March 1, 2018

Urban suburbs

My first corporate job also led to my first big move. I'd bounced around before that, between teaching and going off to grad school, but the moves had, at most, entailed crossing only one state line. The corporate position took me from just west of the Mississippi to the East Coast, with no social contacts or experience of the area to draw on.

I did what seemed like the sensible thing and got an apartment a few minutes from work. The company's campus was on the outskirts of town deep in the suburbs. Before that, I had lived in the country, small towns, and a couple of urban areas. Each of those three options had some strong pluses and, under the right conditions, could be quite appealing. By comparison, suburban living, at least without kids, had nothing to recommend it as far as I was concerned. I realized quickly but still too late that I should have picked an interesting neighborhood closer to the center of town, even though that would've meant an extra 20 or 30 minutes of commuting per day.

I did not repeat that mistake for my next job. Before moving, I scouted the area and ask around before deciding on a very cool neighborhood featuring lots of restaurants, bars, and the city's best art-house movie theater within easy walking distance. My daily commute was 45 minutes to an hour, but the traffic wasn't bad and much of it skirted around (and at one point across) the Chesapeake Bay making for a relaxing and scenic beginning and in to each workday.

That neighborhood was, for me, functioning as a de facto suburb. I was trading a longer commute for more desirable living conditions. The fact that these more desirable conditions were found in an area of higher density, rather than lower, does not affect the underlying dynamic.

One of the primary tenets of faith among utopian urbanists is that making it dense areas more dense will have a range of tremendously beneficial effects starting with great reductions in commuting and suburban sprawl. The existence of urban suburbs raises serious questions about that argument.

How big a deal is this? A good urban researcher could probably provide us with fairly reliable numbers, but we can say with some confidence that it's having a sizable effect in at least isolated cases. San Francisco has clearly become an urban suburb for Silicon Valley and, to a degree, Santa Monica and the rapidly gentrifying Venice Beach often fill the same role for much of Los Angeles.

It is worth noting that San Francisco followed by Santa Monica are probably the two cities that density proponents are most passionate about. This raises a disturbing question (and one which, I suspect, researchers will find more difficult to answer): if you greatly increase the density of cities that are already largely functioning as urban suburbs, will you in effect simply be producing more suburban sprawl?

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