Rethinking Rural and Urban Investment

Mike Dwyer

Mike Dwyer is a former writer and contributor at Ordinary Times.

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117 Responses

  1. Jason Kuznicki says:

    There is something very wrong to my way of thinking in calling public sector spending “investment” and in treating it — as I think you do here — as belonging to the same category as private sector investment.

    As an indicator of this error, consider that the question “Shall we ‘invest’ in cities, subrurbs, or rural areas?” really only gets posed in the government. The very framing speaks not to genuine profitmaking opportunities, but to electoral politics, which is the real payoff for so-called government “investment.”

    Private capital examines opportunities on a case-by-case basis and could frankly care less about whether their bearers drank lattes or moonshine.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

      I would consider anything that is aimed towards development an investment, not spending. Maybe we’re just quibbling over terminology but when I think spending I think fixing potholes and such. Basic maintenance of existing infrastructure and institutions.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        So it’s not really spending if it’s a brand-new program?

        That would seem to create a bias toward starting new things and never carrying them through properly.

        Come to think of it, my quibble may have an awful lot of explanatory power.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Well, yeah, investment usually is new ventures, right?Report

          • Tod Kelly in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            “Well, yeah, investment usually is new ventures, right?”

            No, I don’t think so.  Construction companies will, after a good year, upgrade equipment, and this is called an investment – both colloquially and by the tax code.  We might by stock in a blue chip, and this is called an investment.

            Though I appreciate Jason’s sentiment, he is wrong that the private sector only invests in profit centers (which is what I believe he means when he refers to “profit making opportunities”).  In fact, I get the sense that he is viewing “investment” as strictly the kind of investment that a Wall Street broker is engaged in.

            But companies do make investments in areas of the company that are not profit centers all the time.  The company you work for probably has an EAP program.  This is considered an investment, and has no direct relation to profit – it’s an outright expense.  Education reimbursement, profit sharing, employee wellness programs, cafeterias, on-site showers for employees that wish to run at lunch, etc….  These are all investments that have no direct link to profit; neither are they purchased because owners want to be “nice.”  They are made with the conscious attempt to improve conditions over time that they can attract the best employees and so that moral can be high; these investments seem closer to a city building a park than Jason’s (I think) poor choice of, say, a purchase of equities.

            (Again, I recognize that I may have misread Jason.)Report

            • Plinko in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              Companies make investments in things like EAP and they do it to support the bottom line over the long haul. It’s is an investment in “human resources” that we expect returns on – we want happier/better educated/more productive employees in the future.

              It’s pretty intangible so you don’t necessarily put a P+L on it, but I know that’s how it’s seen: in order to achieve our corporate goals we need to attract and maintain a certain amount of talent. In order to do so, we find what investment spending we need to do.Report

            • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tod Kelly says:

              Companies need to compete in the labor market too, where they are buyers rather than producers or sellers.

              I don’t see why this is a problem for the language I used above.  The difference between corporations and government is still very clear. At the end of the day, corporations still need to turn a profit, or at the very least to justify their expenses.  All politicians need to do is win votes.Report

              • Jason – I agree with this entirely.  I’m not so sure that I agree with the next step you take (I think), which is therefore there is no long-term investment value in having, say, a government financed public park.

                I live in a city that is separated by a river from a sister city.  One city has low taxes, little to no planning, and very little in terms of public works.  (About the only parks you will find are business parks.)  It is very, very cheap to live in – the difference in housing costs and cost of living expenses compared to the city across the river is striking.

                The other larger city has much higher taxes, and is constantly engaged in “investments” such as parks, bikeways, running and walking trails, public art, government subsidized public transportation, etc.   It is considerably more expensive to live in.  But it should be noted that one of the reasons that it is more expensive to live in is that the demand to live here is significantly higher than it is to live in our sister city across the river.

                Having the public works and planning we do, our city attracts more – and more affluent – people to live here, pay taxes, and continue to support the public works that make them choose to live here.  Is this not somewhat akin to a company investing in HR to make itself stronger and more attractive in the long run?Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Jason – I agree with this entirely.  I’m not so sure that I agree with the next step you take (I think), which is therefore there is no long-term investment value in having, say, a government financed public park.

                I do not deny that there may be a long-term benefit to having a government-financed public park.

                What I deny is that the benefit is meaningfully compared to the costs in a way at all comparable to what is done in the private sector, with the park’s creators and managers held accountable.  What wins votes wins.  Whatever that might be.Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                To be fair, there are Vancouvers all over Oregon. Portland is a special case, for lots of reasons.

                There is a green-field investment prejudice, which I think has to do with man’s inherent optimistic nature (also known as wishful thinking). You’ll see this most clearly in real estate. Two commercial buildings, same size, built at the same time. One is 100% occupied with top drawer firms, the other is 50% occupied. Which one sells for the higher price? Statistically the lower occupied building sells for more. Investors see that empty space and think, “With MY brilliant skills I will fill this place with happy tenants who will pay more” while the full building simply sells for a discounted NPV of future cash flows including pre-agreed rent increases that are included in the leases. Well, this is how it /used/ to work, no one is investing in real estate any more.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to wardsmith says:

                I see where you’re coming from, but I don’t think it diminishes from my point.

                People are willing to pay more to live in Portland in a large part because it is (in the public arena part of the equation) a lot nicer than Vancouver.  Not everyone, of course.  Vancouver is filled with people that work in PDX but prefer to go home on the WA side at night.  Neither group is “correct.”

                But I think this notion that all money spent on public works is being flushed down the drain is as inaccurate as…  as… well, as the notion that any money being spent on public works in good, no matter the cost or benefit.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Vancouver is filled with people that work in PDX but prefer to go home on the WA side at night.

                AKA, rational free riders.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Hey, every business enterprise has its costs associated with doing business.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                That, or: If you can call living in Vancouver rational.Report

              • James Hanley in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Sleep in Vancouver, live in Portland, no?Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                No income tax in Washington State, relatively high income tax in Oregon. No sales tax in Oregon, relatively high sales tax in Washington. Vancouverites seem to have the best of both worlds, they work in PDX, buy things there and sleep in Vancouver blissful in the knowledge that you’re screwing two different states. 😉Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Yeah, try going from Vancouver to PDX and back during rush hour, and then tell me who’s screwing who.Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Oh well if they’re stuck in rush hour they’re screwing each other of course. 😉Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                I know.  They’re like rabbits.Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            If I put my retirement money in IBM stock (founded 1911), is that investment?

            I’d say so, but IBM is hardly a new venture.Report

        • Kolohe in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          It is literally different line items, often with different funding sources, in state and local budgets.Report

        • Plinko in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

          Investment is a form of spending, we differentiate it from purchasing/consumption. My employer spends money opening storesas opposed to buying 5 million garments to sell in the stores we already have. I put money in my 401k instead of buying a PS3. Generally we do so because we expect future rather than immediate payoff. I’m sure you can get pretty weedy here.

          But at a high level, it seems pretty clear to me that a lot of public spending is exactly investment. We build roads because we expect positive public utility when we can move people and things more efficiently. We build schools and staff them because we expect we’ll all be better off when the students grow up than if we had not.Report

  2. BlaiseP says:

    Rural communities are considerably more complex than most people suppose and the rationale for each community is different.   Let’s put it baldly, once a rural town has lost its children, it dies almost immediately.  Once the school districts can no longer support themselves, the schools close and with them, their towns.

    In this town, Augusta, Wisconsin, there’s one fairly large industry, making Bush’s Baked Beans.   Bush’s is building a new facility.  There’s considerable hardwood lumber and furniture making in the area.

    A local grocery store chain has opened a store here, Gordy’s, but it’s just a relabeling of an older store.  Gordy’s used to be an IGA store, a brand often seen in rural America, but he went independent and bought up many rural stores, leveraging his central location in Chippewa Falls into two locations in Eau Claire, Wissota, Cornell, Augusta and Ladysmith.

    There’s a fairly large high school.   There’s Eau Claire down the road, 18 miles away, with most of the amenities of a reasonably large city.  The Amish and Mennonites have a large presence in the area, almost entirely outside the town itself, but they tether their horses and carriages just across the street from me.

    I get the best internet service I’ve ever had here.  Centurytel has a switch just down the street.

    Augusta’s going to make it.   Though old white pine which made it a lumber town is gone, the Amish and Mennonites have ensured this little burg will keep its rural consistency for as long as they stay in the area, which will be forever.   Their big concern is acquiring more farmland for their burgeoning families, for which they will pay cash.   Young men are obliged to find work among the “English” as they call us, often doing construction work, but as soon as a farm opens up, they’re all over it.

    Are suburbs the middle ground?   Perhaps, but I don’t think so.    Suburbs are as different from each other as the outlying towns.   Some are merely smaller cities and townships swallowed up by the post-WW2 boom, when massively-subsidized housing was built with GI Bill money.   Most were poorly planned:  the old downtown sectors died away with the advent of the malls.

    Now the malls are dying, every fourth house is foreclosed, the bland and faceless cubicle farms stand empty, surrounded by their parking lots.   Refurbishing these is not a model for success:   we will not return to the halcyon days of the early 1970s again.   Don’t bother weeping over the suburbs:  they came into existence on the basis of highway subsidies.    If they’re to return to any semblance of prosperity, let them justify their own existences, like the small towns.

    If the suburbs are to survive, they must find new reasons to exist, as the small towns have always been forced to do.   There is no practical difference.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP says:

      I don’t know that I really follow your comment Blaise. What I am suggesting is that if we ARE going to invest public monies into geographic locales, suburbs are the smartest bet. Your last paragraph implies the suburbs are dying but to the contrary they are booming.Report

      • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        The suburbs are not booming.   They’re a financial sinkhole.  Do you have any idea what a mess commercial real estate has become?   Or the residential real estate market?  Or the parlous state of liquidity for the small businesses which drive suburban businesses?  The suburbs lost those cushy little service sector jobs, the property tax collections plummeted, the malls are dying and I’m told they’re booming?

        This may be true somewhere, but I’ve been in, let’s see, over the last few years, St Louis, Phoenix, Atlanta, Baton Rouge, Minn/St Paul, Bartlesville OK, Houston, none of these are doing well.  Louisville lost GE Appliances for the most part, all that area along the Bardstown Road’s in trouble.  Baton Rouge is a huge mess.   Where are these booming suburbs?Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Per Joel Kotkin 90% of all growth in U.S. metropolitan areas between 2002-2008 was in the suburbs. My understanding is that this trend hasn’t slowed.

          Additionally, the housing market hit cities just as hard. There are thousands of unsold condos in urban areas all over the country.

          Yes, Louisville lost GE. Meanwhile the property has been occupied by new businesses and Ford expanded their plant in the exurbs. The only stretch of Bardstown Road that is hurting is Buchel and that has been declining since the 80s. The Highliands and the Fern Creek area are booming. UPS is building a new 800,000 sq foot building in their logistics hub (the walls went up last week).

          The suburbs are doing just fine.


          • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            NOT HERE. Here, we had 20% vacancy, and we still have 20% vacancy. And we’re doing BETTER than Minn/St. Paul because of it!

            Bubbles are BAD. 2002-2008 was a fucking bubble. Don’t mistake it for the BEST THING EVA. The ownership society concept is dead, and long may it lie buried.

            The Bubble of LAST Resort has burst.

            Now, sit down and think with me for a little… Are you actually talking about investing in “sprawl” or would you rather invest in the “ghetto suburbs” that happen when yinzers flee the city and make shitty ass suburbs? Or would you like to Actually Plan Something for once? You know, strategically?

            A decent strategic plan has a thriving city at its core (serving as a hub and a supply point). It forms the absolute foundation for a region’s economy. Look at SanFrancisco… Look at Manhattan… Vancouver… Outside of this, you want streetcar suburbs, places where commuting happens, but most jobs/etc are kept within where they wanna be.

            Know what you absolutely don’t want? People where they don’t go. Like Atlanta. Or Phoenix (Tucson’s actually an oasis, so’s vegas).Report

        • Mike in reply to BlaiseP says:

          Part of the problem with suburbs is the lack of job stability in today’s marketplace.

          Time was, a “suburb” was where people moved when they had found a stable job, were ready to raise a family, and so on. They’d move to a suburb somewhere nearby to where they were going to work. They’d STAY in the suburb and be invested – not monetarily, but through social connections and daily life – in the community.

          Now? Someone may live in a suburb, but chances are they or their spouse works somewhere 45 minutes drive away. They’re biding their time trying to figure out where or when to move again, because the public school system is “not as good” as it was when they bought the house. They’re waiting for the other shoe to drop on this, their fourth job, to get bought out yet again and all the workers fired because some larger company from another state or country wanted the patent portfolio or brand name.

          Suburbs are where the middle class went to die.Report

          • Mike Dwyer in reply to Mike says:

            “Suburbs are where the middle class went to die.”

            Haven’t people been saying that since the 1960s?Report

            • Tod Kelly in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

              Yeah.  They just take a long, long time to die.  Sometimes up to 60 years after college.Report

            • BlaiseP in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

              The problem, as I’ve said before, resolves to each suburb’s reason for existence.   This won’t be solved by “investing” in the suburbs, any more than investing in rural America will save those towns.

              If we want actual capital I Investments in this country, that will happen once the liquidity crisis for small business is solved.   That won’t happen on the basis of what any facet of government can accomplish.

              When Jefferson and Madison set up the structure of the Congress, especially the Senate, they ensured rural America would always get effective representation.   I’ve worked with the RUS program in St Louis and Wash. DC.   It’s a vast trove of pork but exceedingly useful pork for the most part.   A friend of mine just lost his treehugger job in the Chicago suburbs.  He comes out of telco costing and provisioning, I told him to get involved with RUS and he knew about the program.

              Look, it’s all about location, as with anything else in real estate.   Rural American emptied out in the 1960s and 1970s, what remains is on fairly good economic ground.   Some little towns out in the Dakotas have lost their reasons to exist.   I’ve seen little ghost towns all over the country.   Their reasons to exist disappeared, like the ancient towns of the Middle East.   Look for more of the same in America as the Ogallala Aquifer empties out.

              I see no good reason to give the suburbs a crutch in the struggle for survival, not when they failed to maintain the internal dynamics of their small town beginnings.   In the survival of the fittest, they deserve no special breaks.Report

              • Kim in reply to BlaiseP says:

                found the ghost town on the Appalachian trail?Report

              • Patrick Cahalan in reply to BlaiseP says:

                If we want actual capital I Investments in this country, that will happen once the liquidity crisis for small business is solved.   That won’t happen on the basis of what any facet of government can accomplish.


              • Kolohe in reply to BlaiseP says:

                “When Jefferson and Madison set up the structure of the Congress, especially the Senate, they ensured rural America would always get effective representation. ”

                Which is how it turned out, but wasn’t there goal (specifically because ‘rural america’ was 90% of the country when they were around.

                And there’s been ghost towns since there’s been an America. (and if some suburbs become ghost towns, so be it)Report

              • James Hanley in reply to BlaiseP says:

                When Jefferson and Madison set up the structure of the Congress, especially the Senate, they ensured rural America would always get effective representation.


                Jefferson was in Paris (although he did send Madison lots of books on political theory and constitutional systems), and had nothing to do with drafting the Constitution.

                Madison proposed a bi-cameral national legislature with representation in that legislature based on population.

                Thank the New Jersey and Connecticut representatives for the Senate representing rural America through equal representation of states.Report

              • Good catch, Dr. Hanley.  Jefferson was a non-player in the Constitution.  Madison swallows the compromise on the Senate and even defends it in Federalist 62.

                WD, sir.Report

              • Yeah, it’s hard to say what Madison ultimately thought about that compromise.  He was a Virginian, and that was distinctly the largest population state, so he probably had a real hankering for more Virginian influence in Congress.  And he wanted a strong national legislature to hold the states together, since they were on the verge of flying apart, and not just the equality of Senate representation but even more the state legislative selection of Senators worked against that. On the other hand, he wasn’t nearly as much of a nationalist as Hamilton, so he might actually have been quite satisfied with the outcome.  I’d love to go back in time and pick his mind.Report

              • I believe Dr. Taylor has written that Madison was not a particular fan of that particular compromise. I’ll page him.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to BlaiseP says:

      Small towns across America are an artifact of the horse and wagon. If you look at a map of rural farm country, you’ll note that the towns are spaced approximately 10 miles apart. This has to do with the distance that can be reasonably traveled by horse and wagon, which was the conveyance at the time the towns were founded. With modern highways and automobiles, this dynamic has changed and it is entirely reasonable that many of those towns are redundant. In my geographic neighborhood, I’ve seen three and four town school mergers, and what used to be State B rivalries disappear due to the demographics Blaise so eloquently describes.

      LOL, I used to be the ISP for CenturyTel.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to BlaiseP says:

      “Once the school districts can no longer support themselves, the schools close and with them, their towns.”

      Depends on your state. Here, it simply means that a much bigger chunk of their school budget will consist of money transferred by the state from the suburbs to the rural areas. The same statement holds true for their roads. And through somewhat different mechanisms over the years, their electric and telephone utilities. I’m not complaining; how to make the benefits of technology developed in cities available to rural areas has been a problem as long as there have been cities.

      I explicitly said “transferred… from the suburbs” because I live in the West. So much of the population growth was post-WWII that it is difficult to assert that there are actually urban areas. There are concentrations of offices and/or entertainment, some centered on an original “downtown” and some not, but in the grand scheme of things, almost no one actually lives there.  The vast majority of Denver, for example, is indistinguishable from the inner-ring suburbs.Report

  3. Liberty60 says:

    In order to increase development in suburbs, it is necessary to increase their density. Most often suburban communities were formed with the express desire to limit density.

    This low density by the way, is incredibly inefficient in terms of long term financial planning; I recall reading a study made some years ago by Bank of America that demonstrated how low density suburbs could never generate enough tax revenue to ultimately maintain and replace their infrastructure.

    There is a reason cities developed- their more compact configuration is more efficient.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Liberty60 says:

      If higher density is the answer, why are so many large cities on the decline? There may be some economic rationale to higher revenue pools from dense settlement but cities are also breeding grounds for economic inequality (see NYC, San Francisco).Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        That last statement ignores the By Design aspect of that. We made it that way with racist policies, and our policies on wealth inequality continue to make a shit sandwich. Know why we’ve got slumlords? Because that’s what the market will bear. It Need Not Be That Way. We could actually build low cost housing, rather than give people ramshackle, it used to be good housing.

        I don’t think cities are breeding grounds for economic inequality. Suburbs are, by draining the city of the middle class it needs to have decent schools.Report

      • Liberty60 in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Cities live and die all the time, depending on a host of factors.

        Ecoomic inequlity has nothing to do with city form per se; here in Southern California we have plenty of suburban poverty and the poverty of rural areas is pretty well documented.

        Suburbs are just inefficient; the amount of infrastructure required to service them is enormous compared to the wealth they generate.

        This is why they have long been bedroom communities, sucking at the teat of the city they despise.

        Don’t get me wrong, I am all in favor of the proposal of increasing their density; but that merely turns them into cities.Report

        • Tod Kelly in reply to Liberty60 says:

          This is probably one of those areas where I’m just being dense, but can somebody explain to me why we have to look at cities/suburbs/urban areas, declare a winner and pick one?

          Isn’t it rather self evident that each flourishes in great part because of the assistance of the others, that there will always be one or the other that is growing while another declining, and that the best option is having all of the above to choose from?


          • Kim in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            … I’m sorry? you like having a state filled to the brim with landfills? When we could be recycling most of it?

            What upsets people is the vast amount of waste inherent in suburbs (not waste of land, but waste of energy, of gas… of infrastructure…).

            I am a cheap taxpayer, and I don’t like to pay oodles so that other people can drive ten miles more to work, so they don’t have to send their kids to city schools. (am I patient with the people who “want a house” so that their neighbors don’t have to hear them screw? yes! but that’s available in the city, thank you kindly)Report

          • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Tod Kelly says:

            This is probably one of those areas where I’m just being dense, but can somebody explain to me why we have to look at cities/suburbs/urban areas, declare a winner and pick one?

            Because that is what politics demands, particularly in its culture-war aspect.Report

          • Mike Dwyer in reply to Tod Kelly says:


            Isn’t it rather self evident that each flourishes in great part because of the assistance of the others, that there will always be one or the other that is growing while another declining, and that the best option is having all of the above to choose from?

            I agree, that’s what I tried to address here:

            The greatest benefit to a heavy suburban investment is that the suburbs can act as a bridge between urban and rural areas, providing transit areas for goods, revenue and opportunity. Suburban areas also provide a consumer class for the increasingly retail-focused urban areas as well as a source of employment for rural populations willing to commute.Report

  4. Plinko says:

    I enjoyed the post, Mike, but I disagree with your conclusion. The problems you cite on cities are problems because we’re often poorly managing our cities. The most productive investments we could make would be in our cities – but it wouldn’t necessarily be in dumping cash in infrastructure projects (though I’m sure there are plenty of good ones to do), often it would be in overhauls of regulations, consolidating jurisdictional areas, and improving tax codes.

    Suburban investment and development happens largely because we’ve already chosen to pour investment into suburbs rather than cities, because we’ve allowed our cities to be mismanaged, leaving business and residents little choice but to live out and away.Report

    • Mike Dwyer in reply to Plinko says:

      Plinko – I agree cities are mismanaged but the truth is that Americans overwhelmingly prefer lower-density settlement.  In 1969 Herbert Gans famously said, “If suburban life is undesirable, the suburbanites themselves seem blissfully unaware of it.”


      • Plinko in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        I think you’re right they most people do prefer it if all else is equal, but I think it’s a very valid question if they would choose them if we did not simultaneously heavily subsidize suburban development while so heavily restricting urban development.

        The facts, as far as I can see them tell us quite clearly that there is a ton of demand for urban property while suburban /rural property has a massive shortfall of demand vs. supply.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Plinko says:

          I guess it depends on where you live. In Louisville downtown condos fill up very slowly and new suburban neighborhoods often have a waiting list.Report

          • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            How is boom there? We had a few bubbly condos built here, stupid places where they shouldn’t have gone. More reasonable real estate goes like hotcakes around here, well, for what can be afforded.Report

            • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:

              People here simply don’t like that kind of living. They’ve been trying to lure folks downtown for two decades now. We have a vibrant urban scene but it’s in tight neighborhods built 120 years ago in what was the suburbs to my great grandparents. Here downtown is almost exclusively a place where you go for entertainment. What Kotkin would call a boutique city.Report

              • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                so people would move in if there were mixed income single/duple family houses? (and a concommittant sense of community?)


              • Jaybird in reply to Kim says:

                All we need to do is legislate concomitant senses of community and imagine the works we could create!


              • Kim in reply to Jaybird says:

                I find high taxes does the trick, but maybe that’s just an illusion…Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:

                No – that’s my point. Very few people here want to live in a heavily-urbanized environment. There’s a reason we choose to live here and not NYC. We like elbow room.Report

              • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                what’s your square footage of land? 😉Report

              • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                I tremendously enjoyed living in downtown areas (DC and Paris) when I was younger.  Merely in terms of living arrangements, an efficiency apartment in the urban core is one of the most agreeable ways to live.  It doesn’t have to break the bank, either.

                But now I have a kid, and I worry about different things. Crime. Schools. Pollution. Having safe places to play and explore.

                People don’t go to the suburbs because they’re evil. They go there because they’ve gotten older and have kids.


              • This – or this sort of – for us.

                I loved living in the heart of downtown as a young single guy.  But the thought of living there now, with two growing boys, makes me feel cramped just thinking about it.

                We still live in the city, but in an area that is so residential as to feel pretty suburban.Report

              • Kim in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                when I speak of “we ought to invest in our cities” I mean THIS. Plenty of apartments for young people (with concommittant coffeehouses as impromptu living rooms). Plenty of full houses for parents with kids, and enough condos for retirees.Report

              • DensityDuck in reply to Kim says:

                In most definitions I’ve heard, the presence of “full houses” means you’ve got a suburb.Report

              • Kim in reply to Kim says:


                Okay, now I feel like we’ve gone someplace both… strange, and satisfying!

                268 Dimwiddie street, pittsburgh pa

                193 Oneida Street, pittsburgh, pa

                1502 Denniston Street, pittsburgh, pa

                5113 Rosetta Street, pittsburgh, pa

                There you go. Not saying we don’t have rowhouses or apartment complexes, but all of this (both low-income and high income) is single family and well within city limits.Report

              • Kim in reply to Kim says:


                If that’s what you mean, when you say suburb, I’ve been in portions of San Francisco that meet that definition. I call baloney. I don’t think the idea of single family units is troublesome at all. Nor backyards. I do think the idea of neighborhoods where you don’t/can’t walk to most essentials are troublesome. I do think places where it’s inefficient to recycle are troublesome. I’d like to avoid these.Report

              • Jesse Ewiak in reply to Kim says:

                Seattle’s a pretty big suburb then.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Jason Kuznicki says:

                I grew up in the suburbs so it’s honestly all I have ever known but we actually moved to what I would term the exurbs when my wife and I got married. Around here everyone keeps moving farther and farther out and then little sub-communities crop up. It kind of makes you feel like a pioneer in some tiny, weird way.

                I will agree 100% that people like the suburbs when they have kids. Since Louisville is in many ways just a conglomeration of distinct neighborhoods that mostly have a suburban feel, we get our fair share of people moving here to escape other cities. I think this is also happening a lot in the Carolinas.Report

              • Plinko in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                I think what I’m not getting across well is that while people may prefer, they do so without regard to cost. Once costs and opportunities are accounted for, a lot more people would likely live in cities, and many choose to do so though they all would love to someday have their 40 acres and peace. Suburbs now are often so attractive because they are relatively cheap thanks to the awful mismanagement of cities coupled with the federal and state subsidies that flowed into suburban development.

                I suspect there’s also some definitional issue as well – most people in the US actually live in cities, many of them are just not major urban areas.

                I grew up in Oshkosh, Wi, current pop. about 70,000, but it’s not a suburb, it’s a city.It is included in a metro area (GB/Appleton/Fox Cities/Oshkosh) but there is no dominant urban core that it attaches to. But I think we often credit places like it as as a suburb because it’s not in the same league as NYC/LA/Chicago/SF or even Milwaukee.

                Compare that to a place like I live now where we are clearly attached to Atlanta. I would say we live in a suburb now.


              • Will Truman in reply to Plinko says:

                How do you define this attachment?

                The place I was raised would, by almost anybody who visited it or looked at the demographics, call it a suburb. Despite the fact that almost everyone I knew who lived there worked in the same area. Trips to the city were periodic (airports, sporting events, etc), but not for errands or shopping.

                In my twenty years of being tied to the area, though, nobody ever really thought of it as anything but a suburb.Report

              • Kim in reply to Plinko says:


                This may sound strange, but I define the city based on the old streetcar routes (which means it reaches out to Kennywood). It’s all the old places that were designed before cars were “everything”, and they share a few common characteristics:

                1) local retail, houses atop.

                2) walkable streets

                3) fairly densely packed houses (3,000 sq. ft lots)

                4) crumbly infrastructure

                5) decent bus service



                I’d class that as a small town (like mckeesport or new kensington)Report

      • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Mike, you have lived with a homeowner’s association? You think Americans enjoy being like Russians and told what color they may paint their door, and told no rosesbushes never, even if they’re pretty and well-trimmed?

        Most Americans believe propaganda, and then get into situations where they discover how bad the propaganda is.Report

        • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:

          I think Americans LOVE the suburbs and research proves this. Personally, I DO live under an HOA and while some of the rules are dumb, they are a small pain. Well worth the location.Report

          • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

            What does the location give you?

            My location gives me pollen, a longer life expectancy, and amenities galore (free and fun)Report

            • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:

              For me it’s about being positioned between the city and the country. I can drive 20 minutes in one direction and we have a world-class theater scene, concerts, excellent restaurants, etc. I drive 20 minutes in the other direction and I’m at my hunting spot. Best of both worlds.Report

              • Kim in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

                how long do you hunt for? I live in the city, and it’s an 1.5 hour drive max to anyplace I’d care to hike. But i spend the whole day hiking, and come back deader’n’hell.

                (Pittsburgh, in case you’re interested, has a world-class theater scene (“serious theater”, not so much broadway pop). It’s about the only thing we do really, really well in terms of the arts, but it is really good. we host a lot of world premieres).

                How much do you think doubling gas prices is likely to affect your enjoyment of where you live? (20 minutes into the city still codes as a “close suburb” to me, which I don’t mind nearly as much as the exurbs)Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Kim says:

                I hunt for 3-4 hours usually.


                Gas prices won’t change my habits. And it’s a 20 minute drive to downtown mainly because Louisville is a great city to drive in.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Tod Kelly says:








                Right now goose season is in full swing. Tomorow it’s going to be 14 degrees at sunrise. It’s going to hurt a bit but when the season ends in eighteen days you’ve got power through it.Report

              • Tod Kelly in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                Squirrel?  My dad (from the wee outskirts of the Michigan thumb) used to talk about squirrel pie.

                Do you eat the squirrel, and if so how do you prepare it?  I’ve had all the rest, of course.  Except while I’ve had turkey, I’ve never had wild turkey. (Except for the booze, of course.)Report

              • Kim in reply to Tod Kelly says:


                we could use some more deerhunters up here, if you ever get the urge to head someplace else. The deer are eating the trees in NW PA — to the point of destroying the forest.Report

              • Mike Dwyer in reply to Tod Kelly says:

                With squirrel I’m a big fan of cassoulets. Squirrel has a good flavor as they mostly live off of acorns in KY. People spend a lot of money for acorn-fed pork from Spain. I get acorn-fed meat from the woods for free.Report

        • DensityDuck in reply to Kim says:

          “Mike, you have lived with a homeowner’s association?”

          Or you could live in a high-rise condo, where there’s no need for a homeowner’s association because there is no common or externally-visible property.Report

          • Kim in reply to DensityDuck says:

            … obviously haven’t been to pittsburgh. we build green here, and that means a rooftop garden if nothing else. 😉


          • wardsmith in reply to DensityDuck says:

            Condos have HOA’s although the name might be a little different like COA (condominium owners association) . You’re paying dues to the “association” for upkeep, improvements and amenities. They won’t let you leave things in the common hallway and will certainly get involved with remodeling projects. You’d be surprised how involved they can get. And don’t even get me started on Co-ops. My son lives in a condo in Seattle where they are overcharging the dues to build up a massive reserve that benefits no one. In less than 20 years they could rebuild the entire building, but that doesn’t really benefit the current condo owners. However, they voted on it and all he can do is vote with his feet, and try to sell into a depressed market with the added burden of a ridiculously high COA fee.

            I live in an HOA where the water bill is shared equally. Most of the houses have an acre or so, mine is slightly less and I keep 90% of my land in a natural wooded state and don’t water it.That doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay for my neighbors’ swimming pools and vast landscaping.

            HOA’s are good experience for those who think that governments are the solution to everything. All politics is local and it doesn’t get more local than a COA or HOA.


            • James Hanley in reply to wardsmith says:

              I live in an HOA where the water bill is shared equally. Most of the houses have an acre or so, mine is slightly less and I keep 90% of my land in a natural wooded state and don’t water it.That doesn’t mean I don’t have to pay for my neighbors’ swimming pools and vast landscaping.

              Wait, I don’t get that.  However much you do or do not water, if the water bill is shared equally, you are paying for your neighbors’ swimming pools, no?

              Assume you used no water at all–then all your payment would be to support your neighbors, right?

              (But kudos for leaving your near-acre wooded.  I have an affinity for such “yards.”)Report

              • wardsmith in reply to James Hanley says:

                Poor use of a double negative I suppose. In essence, although we consume considerably less water than our neighbors, we are subsidizing their bills.  Writ larger, this is how many taxpayers may feel about many gov’t “expenses”.WRT their desires.Report

            • Kim in reply to wardsmith says:

              Mischief in Florida! Laughter in housing association!

              Mandatory Christmas Lights!

              Repaint Houses in Primary Colors!

              No SUVs or Pickups Allowed!

              … and they’re just starting. they can’t be voted out for at least a year, too.

              Deviltry and merriment…Report

              • wardsmith in reply to Kim says:

                … and they’re just starting. they can’t be voted out for at least a year, too.

                Now look at Congresscritters. They can’t be voted out for at least two years or 6 in the case of Senatecritters. Think of all the devlitry and merriment they can come up with. Presidents can do a lot of damage in 4 years.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Mike Dwyer says:

        Plinko – I agree cities are mismanaged but the truth is that Americans overwhelmingly prefer lower-density settlement.

        I agree with this, but with a couple of caveats.

        I think the anti-urban trend that built the suburbs in the first place is explicable by a lot of different contributing factors.  Americans prefer things that come with lower-density settlement, but there’s no reason why some of those things can’t occur in a urban environment.  It’s just that pocket parks and dog friendliness and bike paths and small local markets have a tendency to dry up under urban pressure.  Certainly there are larger-density cities that have handled this better than others.

        Me, I eventually want at least 10 acres.  That puts me into ruralsuburbia for retirement.  Not sure how to pull *that* one off.Report

    • Plinko in reply to Plinko says:

      I meant to add, I’d love to see a ‘Race to the Top’ type program that would offer sizable block grants to local jurisdictions that make major positive overhauls of their codes the same way we’ve granted to states that make major overhauls in their education structures.Report

  5. DensityDuck says:

    Hasn’t someone else here on the League suggested that the future of American living is employment centers installed in already-existing lower-density suburbs?  (That is, the job will follow the housing, rather than the housing following the jobs.)Report

    • Yup. That was me. I didn’t say “will,” I should note, but that it is a very real possibility that is too often ignored by urbanists who argue that if we forced people and businesses to make a decision (by, say, cutting back on road infrastructure or instituting a large gas tax) urbanization is nigh-inevitable. I don’t think this is the case at all and I suspect that what happens will be more complicated than that.

      A number of people said that if the suburbs become more dense, which I do actually think they might (depending on how it all goes down), then that sort of proves their point. Maybe so. But I suspect our respective views of more dense and less dense differ.Report

  6. North says:

    I’ve always gotten the impression that some of the strongest drivers of the growth of suburbs and the lack of denser urban building is the utter madness of current zoning regimes. If you can’t build up or heavy in the region you’re in then increasing populations simply require that you build out instead.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to North says:

      I think it’s a factor, but not the primary one. I come from a sprawling place with comparatively lax zoning regulations. They built a huge skyscraper condo that we can see from our back yard. They’re having a lot of difficulty filling it. I think people think “You know, if I’m going to live in this part of town, I might as well live in a house with a yard.”Report

      • North in reply to Will Truman says:

         Perhaps I’m being anecdotal but most of the places that spring to mind that have stringently no zoning rules (the Southwest in particular) tend to have lots of empty space around them which makes it very economical to sprawl.Report

  7. Liberty60 says:

    Suburbs were built on the premise of cheap land and easy commuting to the cities where the jobs are.

    For most of the post WWII era that was true. But that model is unsustainable- as more and more suburbs are built farther and farther away, the traffic becomes intolerable; since the suburbs are (politically) wed to the notion of low density, they can’t genereate the volume of jobs needed to be self-sufficient.

    At some tipping point the cost of living in the suburbs (in terms of commute time, transportation cost etc.)  becomes higher than living closer to work.

    The Urban Land Institute has done a lot of good analysis of these sorts of patterns- here is a recent one from The Atlantic.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Liberty60 says:

      You assume that employers have stayed and will stay in the city. Back home, there are far more intrasuburb and intersuburb commuters than suburb-to-city ones.Report

      • Kim in reply to Will Truman says:

        1) Where’s back home?

        2) I merely assert that confining the pollution to the lowlands MIGHT be a good idea. 😉 [nope, I lied. but there are reasonable arguments for locating industry in the city. one of the main is that a hub and spoke infrastructure is much cheaper! (and I live in a city of bridges. steel was cheap here…)Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Kim says:

          1) Can’t say. A southern city with a population of over a million. I don’t think it’s all that unique. I’ve lived other places and have noticed the same thing. In the southwest, I commuted from the city to a suburb. In the Pacific Northwest, from an urban area to a separate suburby town (and the jobs in my urby area tended as often as not to the suburbs, at least in IT).

          2) There may be other reasons to support increased density. I’m just saying that the from-suburb-to-city thinking is outdated. Or, at the least, that it doesn’t *have* to be that way. When we last discussed the issue, your reply was that the suburbs being commuted to were actually cities (or something to that effect). Maybe so, but few would think of them as such outside the context of the conversation we’re having (and they don’t do a very good job of meeting the criteria you mentioned).Report

      • Liberty60 in reply to Will Truman says:

        Those are probably “Edge Cities” which is the phenomenon of densification of suburban transportation nodes.

        Which is another way of creating cities. These present political challenges for the suburbs, since “higher density” is the trigger word for local opposition.

        There ARE jobs in the suburbs, just not the volume needed to support a non-commuting workforce. An edge city might have lets say, a 2 story office campus with a few hundred employees per acre; a downtown will have 50,000.Report

        • Will Truman in reply to Liberty60 says:

          Meh. Not really. We can continue this conversation in email, if you prefer, so that I can name places. But by your definition, nearly every suburb of my home city is an Edge City. Lots and lots of employers out there, not just a single campus here or there. I couldn’t get a job in the city if I tried. The thought had actually appealed to me.Report