Where we live: The battle for the suburbs

by Ryan Streeter on August 3, 2012. Follow Ryan on Twitter.

Two interesting, complementary articles today worth reading: Stanley Kurtz’s NRO piece on the Obama administration’s effort to starve the suburbs to aid cities, and Joel Kotkin’s Forbes piece on how trends will keep the suburbs growing.

Kurtz writes:

Obama’s plans to undercut the political and economic independence of America’s suburbs reach back decades. The community organizers who trained him in the mid-1980s blamed the plight of cities on taxpayer “flight” to suburbia. Beginning in the mid-1990s, Obama’s mentors at the Gamaliel Foundation (a community-organizing network Obama helped found) formally dedicated their efforts to the budding fight against suburban “sprawl.” From his positions on the boards of a couple of left-leaning Chicago foundations, Obama channeled substantial financial support to these efforts. On entering politics, he served as a dedicated ally of his mentors’ anti-suburban activism.

As President, Obama has worked with anti-sprawl activists to implement suburban-denigrating polices:

One approach is to force suburban residents into densely packed cities by blocking development on the outskirts of metropolitan areas, and by discouraging driving with a blizzard of taxes, fees, and regulations. Step two is to move the poor out of cities by imposing low-income-housing quotas on development in middle-class suburbs. Step three is to export the controversial “regional tax-base sharing” scheme currently in place in the Minneapolis–St. Paul area to the rest of the country. Under this program, a portion of suburban tax money flows into a common regional pot, which is then effectively redistributed to urban, and a few less well-off “inner-ring” suburban, municipalities.

Kotkin writes, however, that the preferences of ordinary Americans are the headwind that the anti-sprawl elites will run into:

Preferences are the key here, particularly paying attention to what people want as they age. The 2011 Community Preference Survey, commissioned jointly by the National Association of Realtors and Smart Growth America, found that only a small minority — less than 10 percent — favored a dense urban location. Some 80 percent expressed preference for a single-family home.

Kotkin concludes:

Over time, in a market-based economy, consumer preferences matter far more than those of pundits, professors or, for that matter, rent-seeking real estate developers. The only things that can kill off future suburban development would be forced densification by government edict or a continued miserable economy that entraps millions of the unwilling in dense urban areas.

That “edict” is what Kurtz says Obama is hoping by stealth to achieve.

These two articles raise an interesting question: how far will the anti-sprawl activists, including our President, go to try to impose their vision of urban life on the vast majority of Americans?

I should mention that I’m a committed urbanist. My wife and I have almost always lived in urban environments, and the very short stint we did in the suburbs was unpleasant. Our kids are urbanists, too, and can navigate public transportation and frenetic downtown intersections with the best of them. We love the dense urban environment that Kurtz accuses Obama of trying to force all Americans into. We love the movement, the diversity, the sidewalks, the noise, the lights, the walkability, the cosmopolitan mix. That said, I recognize I’m in the minority, and I’m fine with that. American aspiration has long been tied to having your own detached, single-family home. And so it should be. I don’t have to enjoy suburban life to die defending my fellow citizens’ right to live there without being coerced to support the pipe dreams of elite ideologues.