Suburban Sprawl: Making the Best of It



These days, scholars and activists trying to map the ideal form, function, and identity of cities in our globalizing world are mostly advocating for revitalized urban cores. Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, offers a counterpoint in the September-October issue of Foreign Policy, arguing that the creation of a strong ring of suburbs and smaller cities is the best way to ensure healthy economic growth and human well-being.

As unfashionable as it might sound, what if we thought less about the benefits of urban density and more about the many possibilities for proliferating more human-scaled urban centers; what if healthy growth turns out to be best achieved through dispersion, not concentration? Instead of overcrowded cities rimmed by hellish new slums, imagine a world filled with vibrant smaller cities, suburbs, and towns: Which do you think is likelier to produce a higher quality of life, a cleaner environment, and a lifestyle conducive to creative thinking?

Kotkin’s observation of wealth distribution around urban areas is particularly compelling:

Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center . . . In India, the bulk of new tech companies cluster in campus-like developments around—but not necessarily in—Bangalore, Hyderabad, and New Delhi. And let's not forget that Silicon Valley, the granddaddy of global tech centers and still home to the world's largest concentration of high-tech workers, remains essentially a vast suburb. Apple, Google, and Intel don't seem to mind. Those relative few who choose to live in San Francisco can always take the company-provided bus.

Disparity between living conditions in cities and suburbs, Kotkin concludes, is an element missing from the current urban planning discussion. “The goal of urban planners should not be to fulfill their own grandiose visions of megacities on a hill, but to meet the needs of the people living in them, particularly those people suffering from overcrowding, environmental misery, and social inequality. When it comes to exporting our notions to the rest of the globe, we must be aware of our own susceptibility to fashionable theories in urban design—because while the West may be able to live with its mistakes, the developing world doesn't enjoy that luxury.”

Source: Foreign Policy

Image by rxb, licensed under Creative Commons.

8/25/2010 2:16:20 PM

The problem IS overpopulation. We don't need more population growth to artificially boost up an unsustainable economy. Instead of working smarater with what we have, as Pete's comment shows we can do, people like the author of this article keep trying to use the same stinking thinking that got us here in the first place. It's a merry go round ride to nowhere spinning faster and faster trying to justify the fact that we are overpopulating ourselves out of existence. Rather than look at the root of the problems, they keep trying to find solutions to solutions. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over expecting different results.

R Cree
8/25/2010 9:08:49 AM

Having been to a planned high rise community on the side of a hill in a slum area around San Palo, Brazil---and feeling the poverty, almost experiencing the police corruption and sensing the violence and trauma living in such a poor and densely-packed place, it was obvious that the designers and the builders of such urban utopias were never going to live there. Walking through this concrete and steel high rise, I could see that the designers never thought about safety or community or sustainabiliy--no gardens, no common area, no natural way to provide sustainability and protection for the residents. Thankful to drive away from that planned high rise community, I realized the insanity and insensitivity of the designers for the real needs of people--not the designers imposed "idealistic" beliefs. Given me the freedom of the suburbs every time to have the space for sustainability and more flexible social structures not dictated by controlling politicians in cities.

Pete Hart
8/25/2010 8:49:37 AM

I realize that this is a very brief article (or excerpt), but I take umbrage at the phrase "healthy economic growth". I'd like to know what Mr. Kotkin means by it. I don't think we've had anything approaching healthy economic growth since sometime in the 19th century and maybe not even then. Mr. Kotkin mentions social inequality in the cities and higher costs for doing business (and I assume living) in cities. Yes, this may be true of huge cities, but in general, almost all the faults of cities can be attributed to unhealthy business practices and corrupted land use and zoning policiy. I suggest that Mr. Kotkin study Arlington just across the river from Washington, DC for an highly urbanized area that's doing a great job with Smart Growth ideas. And finally, Mr. Kotkin seems to believe that we should welcome a population increase of 100 million. Has he noticed all the furor about climate change, water shortages, etc.? Come on, Mr. Kotkin, you're just another "that's the way we've always done it" guy.

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