The New Yorker Hearts Suburbs

by Alan Berube | June 23, 2011

Pelham, N.Y. is less than 30 minutes to Midtown Manhattan via MetroNorth -- Wikipedia photo

By most accounts, American cities today are considerably safer, cleaner, wealthier, and better run than a couple of decades ago. The phrase “urban crisis” has lost much of its former currency. More and more international firms have products and practices focused on “cities,” a recognition of cities’ growing market power domestically and globally. And just this week, cities reached the apex of American elite culture--as the subject of an essay in this week’s New Yorker (subscription required for full text).

The occasion is the (somewhat) recent publication of several notable books on the subject of cities, including Richard Florida’s The Great Reset; Ed Glaeser’s Triumph of the City; and John Kasarda/Greg Lindsay’s Aerotropolis. These books on cities are all full of heavy ideas, and five pages in The New Yorker, even in the very capable hands of Nicholas Lemann,can do them only so much justice. 

Unfortunately, Lemann spends a great deal of this limited space fighting an old war about cities versus suburbs. Amid a raft of books about metropolitan areas and globalization, he misses some basic points about urban form and economic value. 

The jumping-off point is his critique of Glaeser: What makes him so sure that sprawl is not a naturally popular and efficient economic form? 

Lemann points to his many years in Pelham, a leafy Westchester County suburb of New York, as evidence of the continued appeal of suburbs. Though it’s not exactly clear what Lemann means by “naturally” popular, he is hardly alone in celebrating this suburban idyll. Indeed, residential preference surveys indicate that most American consumers continue to prefer a detached house in the suburbs. But most also want to be within close distance—increasingly, walking distance—of key services like schools, retail, and even employment. 

In fact, that’s what Pelham offers. It’s got a sleepy historic downtown (the oldest in Westchester County), and it’s just half an hour from there to Grand Central Station on the Metro North. It’s not really “sprawl” at all, of the subdivision/cul-de-sac/strip mall/drive-only variety found throughout many metropolitan areas. The problem is that the market and public policy have conspired to offer a limited number of these denser, well-connected types of suburban communities. Limited supply is one reason why Zillow puts the home value index for Pelham north of $560,000. Expanding housing supply in markets like greater New York is, in fact, one of the issues that arouses Glaeser’s greatest passions.

Lemann’s immediate counterpoint to Manhattan is not Pelham, however, but Joel Garreau’s prototypical “Edge City” of Tyson’s Corner, Virginia. In his telling, it’s one of a number of “mega-malled, pedestrian-unfriendly places which have sprung up all over the country … as a matter of what economists call revealed preference, they’re a big hit.” This is ironic for a couple of reasons. First, as our colleague Rob Lang has convincingly shown, Edge Cities were decidedly not the conventional form of new suburban development in most metropolitan areas in the 1990s. Most remain marked by a low-density, edgeless form fueled by disconnected transportation and land-use policies and cookie-cutter private finance. And second, Tyson’s itself is in the middle of a radical overhaul that will make it much more pedestrian-friendly and transit accessible--more like a real city.

But this is really a sideshow to the larger question about economic efficiency. When Glaeser and other economists talk about “cities,” they don’t just mean Manhattan. They are really referring to the built-up areas that surround and include traditional central cities. Even though Lemann takes great care to actually define the metropolitan areain his essay (“a zone of contiguous settlement—the expanse from the heart of downtown to where open land begins”), he proceeds to overlook the fact that the metro is the fundamental economic geography of our time.

The power of metro areas is not that people exchange ideas as they serendipitously bump into one another on the sidewalk, as in William Whyte’s experiments that Lemann recounts. Rather, cities and suburbs bring similar people and firms close enough together so that they can participate in shared networks that facilitate the flow and exchange of useful information. Indeed, these exchanges happen not only in cities, but also in built-up suburbs around the country—technology in Redmond, WA; entertainment in Santa Monica, CA; pharmaceuticals in Princeton, NJ; government in Fairfax, Virginia. Lemann questions whether city life is “productive or merely interesting,” but Glaeser’s research demonstrates convincingly that working in a big labor market makes people more productive, largely by exposing them to other productive people.

Lemann concludes by observing that, despite all the rhetoric about the economic prowess of cities, most people want simple things out of their home lives--“a neighborhood, a patch of ground, a measure of peace and security, a family, status, dignity”--that they’re more likely to find in suburbs (if they can afford the housing, of course). That will no doubt continue to be the case in 21st century America. The first results from the 2010 Census showed that across the 2000s, suburbs continued to grow faster than central cities. 

But in an era of heightened competition from places across the globe, American suburbs won’t provide those simple pleasures if they aren’t embedded in larger metropolitan markets anchored by strong, economically diverse cities. As New York City goes, so goes Pelham. 

Cities versus suburbs? Get over it. Welcome to the metropolitan century.

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