Wednesday, July 7, 2010

America to Suburbia: Let's Just be Friends

In the Wall Street Journal, Joel Kotkin argues that America’s love affair with suburbia hasn’t ended, and that the talk about urban revival – a hot topic on this blog – is “wishful thinking.”

In part, Mr. Kotkin bases his argument on falling condominium prices. But his examples are markets like Miami and Las Vegas that were characterized by years of overbuilding and investor-led price increases during the housing bubble. He also uses the fall-off in condo construction as proof that urban revival is overblown. But with residential construction at a near standstill, it seems strange to think that recent activity reveals consumer desires.

Kotkin cites the fact that people are still moving out to the suburbs, including immigrants. He’s right. Just keep in mind it’s often the lower-income households who are fleeing to affordability that they can’t find close to work. That’s not evidence that urban revival isn’t real. It’s a reminder that sprawl, in the long term, isn’t sustainable.

Mr. Kotkin’s primary evidence that the move back to the city is exaggerated is that consumer surveys consistently show a preference for suburban living. But the real issue is that our society has come to associate high-quality, affordable homes with the suburbs. What would happen if we started building good, affordable homes near public transit, great schools, and employment centers, rather than in isolated, unsustainable, sprawling neighborhoods?  It seems like we should find out.

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