Urban Legends: Why Suburbs, Not Dense Cities, are the Future


The human world is fast becoming an urban world -- and according to many, the faster that happens and the bigger the cities get, the better off we all will be. The old suburban model, with families enjoying their own space in detached houses, is increasingly behind us; we're heading toward heavier reliance on public transit, greater density, and far less personal space. Global cities, even colossal ones like Mumbai and Mexico City, represent our cosmopolitan future, we're now told; they will be nerve centers of international commerce and technological innovation just like the great metropolises of the past -- only with the Internet and smart phones.

According to Columbia University's Saskia Sassen, megacities will inevitably occupy what Vladimir Lenin called the "commanding heights" of the global economy, though instead of making things they'll apparently be specializing in high-end "producer services" -- advertising, law, accounting, and so forth -- for worldwide clients. Other scholars, such as Harvard University's Edward Glaeser, envision universities helping to power the new "skilled city," where high wages and social amenities attract enough talent to enable even higher-cost urban meccas to compete.

The theory goes beyond established Western cities. A recent World Bank report on global megacities insists that when it comes to spurring economic growth, denser is better: "To try to spread out economic activity," the report argues, is to snuff it. Historian Peter Hall seems to be speaking for a whole generation of urbanists when he argues that we are on the cusp of a "coming golden age" of great cities.

The only problem is, these predictions may not be accurate. Yes, the percentage of people living in cities is clearly growing. In 1975, Tokyo was the largest city in the world, with over 26 million residents, and there were only two other cities worldwide with more than 10 million residents. By 2025, the U.N. projects that there may be 27 cities of that size. The proportion of the world's population living in cities, which has already shot up from 14 percent in 1900 to about 50 percent in 2008, could be 70 percent by 2050. But here's what the boosters don't tell you: It's far less clear whether the extreme centralization and concentration advocated by these new urban utopians is inevitable -- and it's not at all clear that it's desirable.

Not all Global Cities are created equal. We can hope the developing-world metropolises of the future will look a lot like the developed-world cities of today, just much, much larger -- but that's not likely to be the case. Today's Third World megacities face basic challenges in feeding their people, getting them to and from work, and maintaining a minimum level of health. In some, like Mumbai, life expectancy is now at least seven years less than the country as a whole. And many of the world's largest advanced cities are nestled in relatively declining economies -- London, Los Angeles, New York, Tokyo. All suffer growing income inequality and outward migration of middle-class families. Even in the best of circumstances, the new age of the megacity might well be an era of unparalleled human congestion and gross inequality.

Perhaps we need to consider another approach. 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?

So how do we get there? First, we need to dismantle some common urban legends.

Perhaps the most damaging misconception of all is the idea that concentration by its very nature creates wealth. Many writers, led by popular theorist Richard Florida, argue that centralized urban areas provide broader cultural opportunities and better access to technology, attracting more innovative, plugged-in people (Florida's "creative class") who will in the long term produce greater economic vibrancy. The hipper the city, the mantra goes, the richer and more successful it will be -- and a number of declining American industrial hubs have tried to rebrand themselves as "creative class" hot spots accordingly.

But this argument, or at least many applications of it, gets things backward. Arts and culture generally do not fuel economic growth by themselves; rather, economic growth tends to create the preconditions for their development. Ancient Athens and Rome didn't start out as undiscovered artist neighborhoods. They were metropolises built on imperial wealth -- largely collected by force from their colonies -- that funded a new class of patrons and consumers of the arts. Renaissance Florence and Amsterdam established themselves as trade centers first and only then began to nurture great artists from their own middle classes and the surrounding regions.

Even modern Los Angeles owes its initial ascendancy as much to agriculture and oil as to Hollywood. Today, its port and related industries employ far more people than the entertainment business does. (In any case, the men who built Hollywood were hardly cultured aesthetes by middle-class American standards; they were furriers, butchers, and petty traders, mostly from hardscrabble backgrounds in the czarist shtetls and back streets of America's tough ethnic ghettos.) New York, now arguably the world's cultural capital, was once dismissed as a boorish, money-obsessed town, much like the contemporary urban critique of Dallas, Houston, or Phoenix.

Sadly, cities desperate to reverse their slides have been quick to buy into the simplistic idea that by merely branding themselves "creative" they can renew their dying economies; think of Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Michigan's bid to market Detroit as a "cool city," and similar efforts in the washed-up industrial towns of the British north. Being told you live in a "European Capital of Culture," as Liverpool was in 2008, means little when your city has no jobs and people are leaving by the busload.

Even legitimate cultural meccas aren't insulated from economic turmoil. Berlin -- beloved by writers, artists, tourists, and romantic expatriates -- has cultural institutions that would put any wannabe European Capital of Culture to shame, as well as a thriving underground art and music scene. Yet for all its bohemian spirit, Berlin is also deeply in debt and suffers from unemployment far higher than Germany's national average, with rates reaching 14 percent. A full quarter of its workers, many of them living in wretched immigrant ghettos, earn less than 900 euros a month; compare that with Frankfurt, a smaller city more known for its skyscrapers and airport terminals than for any major cultural output, but which boasts one of Germany's lowest unemployment rates and by some estimates the highest per capita income of any European city. No wonder Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit once described his city as "poor but sexy."

Culture, media, and other "creative" industries, important as they are for a city's continued prosperity, simply do not spark an economy on their own. It turns out to be the comparatively boring, old-fashioned industries, such as trade in goods, manufacturing, energy, and agriculture, that drive the world's fastest-rising cities. In the 1960s and 1970s, the industrial capitals of Seoul and Tokyo developed their economies far faster than Cairo and Jakarta, which never created advanced industrial bases. China's great coastal urban centers, notably Guangzhou, Shanghai, and Shenzhen, are replicating this pattern with big business in steel, textiles, garments, and electronics, and the country's vast interior is now poised to repeat it once again. Fossil fuels -- not art galleries -- have powered the growth of several of the world's fastest-rising urban areas, including Abu Dhabi, Houston, Moscow, and Perth.

It's only after urban centers achieve economic success that they tend to look toward the higher-end amenities the creative-classers love. When Abu Dhabi decided to import its fancy Guggenheim and Louvre satellite museums, it was already, according to Fortune magazine, the world's richest city. Beijing, Houston, Shanghai, and Singapore are opening or expanding schools for the arts, museums, and gallery districts. But they paid for them the old-fashioned way.

Nor is the much-vaunted "urban core" the only game in town. Innovators of all kinds seek to avoid the high property prices, overcrowding, and often harsh anti-business climates of the city center. Britain's recent strides in technology and design-led manufacturing have been concentrated not in London, but along the outer reaches of the Thames Valley and the areas around Cambridge. It's the same story in continental Europe, from the exurban Grand-Couronne outside of Paris to the "edge cities" that have sprung up around Amsterdam and Rotterdam. 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.

In fact, the suburbs are not as terrible as urban boosters frequently insist.

Consider the environment. We tend to associate suburbia with carbon dioxide-producing sprawl and urban areas with sustainability and green living. But though it's true that urban residents use less gas to get to work than their suburban or rural counterparts, when it comes to overall energy use the picture gets more complicated. Studies in Australia and Spain have found that when you factor in apartment common areas, second residences, consumption, and air travel, urban residents can easily use more energy than their less densely packed neighbors. Moreover, studies around the world -- from Beijing and Rome to London and Vancouver -- have found that packed concentrations of concrete, asphalt, steel, and glass produce what are known as "heat islands," generating 6 to 10 degrees Celsius more heat than surrounding areas and extending as far as twice a city's political boundaries.

When it comes to inequality, cities might even be the problem. In the West, the largest cities today also tend to suffer the most extreme polarization of incomes. In 1980, Manhattan ranked 17th among U.S. counties for income disparity; by 2007 it was first, with the top fifth of wage earners earning 52 times what the bottom fifth earned. In Toronto between 1970 and 2001, according to one recent study, middle-income neighborhoods shrank by half, dropping from two-thirds of the city to one-third, while poor districts more than doubled to 40 percent. By 2020, middle-class neighborhoods could fall to about 10 percent.

Cities often offer a raw deal for the working class, which ends up squeezed by a lethal combination of chronically high housing costs and chronically low opportunity in economies dominated by finance and other elite industries. Once the cost of living is factored in, more than half the children in inner London live in poverty, the highest level in Britain, according to a Greater London Authority study. More than 1 million Londoners were on public support in 2002, in a city of roughly 8 million.

The disparities are even starker in Asia. Shenzhen and Hong Kong, for instance, have among the most skewed income distributions in the region. A relatively small number of skilled professionals and investors are doing very well, yet millions are migrating to urban slums in places like Mumbai not because they've all suddenly become "knowledge workers," but because of the changing economics of farming. And by the way, Mumbai's slums are still expanding as a proportion of the city's overall population -- even as India's nationwide poverty rate has fallen from one in three Indians to one in five over the last two decades. Forty years ago, slum dwellers accounted for one in six Mumbaikars. Now they are a majority.

To their credit, talented new urbanists have had moderate success in turning smaller cities like Chattanooga and Hamburg into marginally more pleasant places to live. But grandiose theorists, with their focus on footloose elites and telecommuting technogeniuses, have no practical answers for the real problems that plague places like Mumbai, let alone Cairo, Jakarta, Manila, Nairobi, or any other 21st-century megacity: rampant crime, crushing poverty, choking pollution. It's time for a completely different approach, one that abandons the long-held assumption that scale and growth go hand in hand.

Throughout the long history of urban development, the size of a city roughly correlated with its wealth, standard of living, and political strength. The greatest and most powerful cities were almost always the largest in population: Babylon, Rome, Alexandria, Baghdad, Delhi, London, or New York.

But bigger might no longer mean better. The most advantaged city of the future could well turn out to be a much smaller one. Cities today are expanding at an unparalleled rate when it comes to size, but wealth, power, and general well-being lag behind. With the exception of Los Angeles, New York, and Tokyo, most cities of 10 million or more are relatively poor, with a low standard of living and little strategic influence. The cities that do have influence, modern infrastructure, and relatively high per capita income, by contrast, are often wealthy small cities like Abu Dhabi or hard-charging up-and-comers such as Singapore. Their efficient, agile economies can outpace lumbering megacities financially, while also maintaining a high quality of life. With almost 5 million residents, for example, Singapore isn't at the top of the list in terms of population. But its GDP is much higher than that of larger cities like Cairo, Lagos, and Manila. Singapore boasts a per capita income of almost $50,000, one of the highest in the world, roughly the same as America's or Norway's. With one of the world's three largest ports, a zippy and safe subway system, and an impressive skyline, Singapore is easily the cleanest, most efficient big city in all of Asia. Other smaller-scaled cities like Austin, Monterrey, and Tel Aviv have enjoyed similar success.

It turns out that the rise of the megacity is by no means inevitable -- and it might not even be happening. Shlomo Angel, an adjunct professor at New York University's Wagner School, has demonstrated that as the world's urban population exploded from 1960 to 2000, the percentage living in the 100 largest megacities actually declined from nearly 30 percent to closer to 25 percent. Even the widely cited 2009 World Bank report on megacities, a staunchly pro-urban document, acknowledges that as societies become wealthier, they inevitably begin to deconcentrate, with the middle classes moving to the periphery. Urban population densities have been on the decline since the 19th century, Angel notes, as people have sought out cheaper and more appealing homes beyond city limits. In fact, despite all the "back to the city" hype of the past decade, more than 80 percent of new metropolitan growth in the United States since 2000 has been in suburbs.

And that's not such a bad thing. Ultimately, dispersion -- both city to suburb and megacity to small city -- holds out some intriguing solutions to current urban problems. The idea took hold during the initial golden age of industrial growth -- the English 19th century -- when suburban "garden cities" were established around London's borders. The great early 20th-century visionary Ebenezer Howard saw this as a means to create a "new civilization" superior to the crowded, dirty, and congested cities of his day. It was an ideal that attracted a wide range of thinkers, including Friedrich Engels and H.G. Wells.

More recently, a network of smaller cities in the Netherlands has helped create a smartly distributed national economy. Amsterdam, for example, has low-density areas between its core and its corporate centers. It has kept the great Dutch city both livable and competitive. American urbanists are trying to bring the same thinking to the United States. Delore Zimmerman, of the North Dakota-based Praxis Strategy Group, has helped foster high-tech-oriented development in small towns and cities from the Red River Valley in North Dakota and Minnesota to the Wenatchee region in Washington State. The outcome has been promising: Both areas are reviving from periods of economic and demographic decline.

But the dispersion model holds out even more hope for the developing world, where an alternative to megacities is an even more urgent necessity. Ashok R. Datar, chairman of the Mumbai Environmental Social Network and a longtime advisor to the Ambani corporate group, suggests that slowing migration to urban slums represents the most practical strategy for relieving Mumbai's relentless poverty. His plan is similar to Zimmerman's: By bolstering local industries, you can stanch the flow of job seekers to major city centers, maintaining a greater balance between rural areas and cities and avoiding the severe overcrowding that plagues Mumbai right now.

Between the 19th century, when Charles Dickens described London as a "sooty spectre" that haunted and deformed its inhabitants, and the present, something has been lost from our discussion of cities: the human element. 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.

This article originally appeared at Foreign Policy

Joel Kotkin is executive editor of NewGeography.com and is a distinguished presidential fellow in urban futures at Chapman University. He is author of The City: A Global History. His newest book is The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, released in February, 2010.

Photo: Mugley

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Good post but I was

Good post but I was wondering if you could write a litte more on this subject? I’d be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit further. Appreciate it!

Nice post! This is a very

Nice post! This is a very nice blog that I will definitively come back to more times this year! Thanks for informative post.
Full Bektizane Article

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The gruesome scene Tuesday was a sharp escalation in drug violence in Veracruz , which sits on an important route for drugs and Central American migrants heading north.



The suburbs seem more attractive to me, probably because I value my own space. However I always prefer to stay closer to the big city living in the personal house. hyip monitor

I want there to be equal access.

I'm for the big urban city and I love it, but I can't help but think that it's so very class segregated.

I don't see it being affordable for the average person. I don't see realtors or even the environmental movement working to make it more affordable for the working class or even average middle class person.

Of course I don't want sprawl, but if people can't afford to live in the urban centers then we're going to have sprawl, just all the poor people will be on the outside and all the people with more money will live on the inside with all the resources and transit and good schools... Are we saying we don't want all the people with money sprawled out and the other people don't matter? What is that, how is that better? We need to come up with some good, reasonable solutions for people who have less money, which in LA adds up to alot of people.

The average Angeleno makes 20k per year. That's nothing.

What are we doing to do with those people who can't afford to pay 2000+ rents, yes the rents are going down, but so is that person's salary.

And what are people going to do for money? Everyone can't just teach or serve drinks at a bar, what are those people in the middle going to do for money to pay rent. I don't see actual jobs being created for people in the middle.

Spurious reasoning

Well, Kotkin makes a lot of good points in the service of a bad argument.

“When you factor in apartment common areas, second residences, consumption, and air travel, urban residents can easily use more energy than their less densely packed neighbors”

Are these not also things suburbanites have and do? Spurious.

Also, he says that urban heat islands are six to ten degress celsius hotter than outlying areas. This is ridiculous on the face of it. Maybe one or two degrees. (A look at any regional weather map should put the lie to this.)

I am deeply concerned about excessive gentrification pricing the middle and working-class out of big cities, though traditionally in North America, suburbia has been the stronghold of the middle-class and wealthy, so I don’t really think Kotkin is too concerned about that.

Kotkin is right that real innovation is priced out of many of our expensive urban centres, but he’s wrong that the solution lies in traditional suburbia. He was closer to being on the nose when he suggested that “Instead of overcrowded cities rimmed by hellish new slums, imagine a world filled with vibrant smaller cities…”

But those smaller cities should still be compact, walkable, throughly urban. I’m a die-hard urbanite myself, and still I have no interest in living in some enormous Richard Florida-esque megalopolis of tens of millions of people. But a densely populated urban centre of one million? Sure.

The facts are: there are too many of us to live in dispersed suburban areas. It’s not about moving everyone downtown. It’s about densifying the suburbs we already have, and if we must build new communities, building them densely as well. To spread the worldwide population over a suburban landscape would require the wholesale destruction of vast swathes of natural and agricultural land. It’s just not tenable.

Large cities

In addition to the other problems of large cities such as noise and crowding and cost there is an inherent vulnerability to disruption of the supply chain. In the USA we are accustomed to stability. In other areas of the world stability is not quite so certain. If the population of the USA grows exponentially even the USA may become less stable.

How would a city of ten million or more fare in a general strike or civil war? What effort would be required to reactivate the water or electrical system or the food supply chain after an earthquake or flood. These are things that are not likely to happen tomorrow in any particular city. Over a hundred years or more major disruptions are likely to happen in several large cities.

It is just easier to handle a disaster when it is not concentrated and impacting millions of people simultaneously.

The answer is also not in building so that a $30,000.00 automobile is as essential to every person as a leg.

Perhaps the best solution for the future would be dense small cities and towns. The plague of long commutes would be minimized and people could enjoy a walk to work and to urban amenities like parks and neighborhood restaurants. The farmer and some portion of the food supply could be as close as five miles away.

Some of us can remember when there was no gasoline at gasoline stations for days at a time. We need more resiliency in our infrastructure and living arrangements so that sudden changes are manageable.

bad comparison on urban vs. suburban carbon footprint


Excellent piece. I do have one important comment, though:

Your remark about the "complicated" energy usage between urban vs. suburban people is very skewed, and measures apples against oranges. Why do "consumption, air travel, and second homes" merit consideration here? Suburbanites buy these things too. You need to control the study for income. A correct study would compare the impact of a single family, whose income holds constant, deciding to live in the city vs. suburbs.

I guarantee that you will find that the urban living arrangement consumes less energy (with less driving, lack of lawns/landscaping, less square footage of living space to furnish, etc). The energy consumption of common spaces in apartment buildings, especially when aggregated over a large number of residents, will not come close to compensating for these suburban consumer needs.

Pro-suburbanists like yourself and Wendell Cox routinely cite these studies to downplay the societal benefits of urban living, without making this crucial control for income.

Great Article

Great article as always. Allow me to indulge in a little anecdote on these "Global" mega cities. My fiance and I live in Hoboken, NJ, a densely populated, yuppie bastion across the Hudson River from Manhattan. However, after 3 years are living here, we are moving back out to the suburbs where we grew up. New York City (and Hoboken as essentially a "6th Borough") has gotten so outrageously expensive that is impossible to live a decent lifestyle. Everything from housing, food, taxes, goods, etc. is just so costly that it is impossible to save money for the long run. Obviously Manhattan is much worse but I don't think many people understand how expensive it is now to live in decent areas of even Hoboken, Jersey City and Brooklyn.

Growing up in the New York City suburbs (I grew up in Morris County, about 28 miles west of the City), you never truly realize how well the middle class lives compared to middle class New Yorkers in Queens, Brooklyn and even parts of Staten Island. However, this problem of mobility has also creeped up into the professional upper middle class. My co-worker has recently moved out of the Upper East Side with his wife and young son to a New Jersey suburb and was shocked at how much better his lifestyle is. He also said that moving into a single family housing neighborhod from his high-rise apartment rental was the first time he actually met his neighbors in five years.

If you want to see how impossible it is for working, middle and upper middle class to live a decent lifestyle in New York, just go on Trulia.com and see how expensive even Archie Bunker-type houses are in "middle class" neighborhoods like Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. Also, with the recent subway service cuts, it's now an hour and 15 minute subway ride from Bay Ridge to Midtown.

Let's face it, many of the Western "Global Cities" like New York, London, Berlin are basically plagrounds for the financial and creative elite, employing vast amounts of low-skilled foreign labor. I'm not here to bash immigrants or anything of that nature, but that's just the reality of many of these cities today. There just is alot more social equity and cohension in these smaller cities and suburbs than the "Global Cities." Unfortunately, this is a reality that someone like Michael Bloomberg doesn't understand. We'll see if it's substainable...

Its just as bad in San Francisco.

And the entire Bay Area for that matter. My wife and I have lived here for about 10 years. Actually we live in the nearby East Bay because SF is too expensive to rent or buy. Your average boring 2 bedroom "starter" home in most of the Bay Area is still pushing half a million and in SF you can expect to pay close to a million.

I sort of gave up trying to figure out why the prices are as high as they are. We actually do quite well ourselves. But enough is enough. We're giving it a few more years then heading out to TX like about 70% of the 30-somethings we know are doing.