Suburban End Games


Are America’s suburbs facing end times? That’s what a host of recent authors would have you believe.  The declaration comes in variety of guises, from Alan Ehrenhalt’s The Great Inversion (2012), to “the peaking of sprawl” pronounced by urban planner  Christopher Leinberger to, most recently, to Leigh Gallagher’s The End of Suburbs(2013).  Suburbs and sprawl have joined the ranks of “history” and “nature” as fixtures of our lives that teeter on the verge of demise—if we’re to lend credence to this latest clamor from journalists, planners, and academics. 

When you declare the “ending” of a place where you acknowledge over half of Americans now live, just what does that mean?  One sure bet is that their demise won’t prove nearly as definitive or thorough-going as advertised. Looking around the Long Island neighborhood and town where I’ve lived for the last twenty years, I don’t see them vanishing any time soon. Moreover, from my own perspective as a long-time resident as well as historian of such places, the particulars grounding this narrative point to something very different: the rise of conditions, as yet only starting to be realized, for a new suburban progressivism. 

This media wave of talk about suburbs or sprawl “ending” mirrors an earlier one in the decades after World War II, which fleshed out a rise of “mass suburbia.” That earlier wave turned out to be well-nigh mythological in its selectivity, its choice of emphases and its silences.  Embellishing the idea of suburbs as more than just a place, as an entire, distinctive way of life, it built upon age-old notions of suburbs as simply the edges of cities, also a change commencing over two hundred years ago among cities in the industrial West.  Cities began to grow less through the spread of a discrete and distinct rim than via a widening transition zone between city and countryside.  But only after World War II did the idea of “suburbia” congeal into a solid stereotype: those subdivisions of lawns and single family homes occupied by a white middle class.    

Among the earliest discoverers was 1950s Fortune correspondent William Whyte, who found in the suburbs an entire generation of upwardly mobile, affluent, younger families, in search of the American dream.  Journalists concentrated mainly on places that fit this story line, the very largest and newest housing developments around the very largest of cities.   Early coverage celebrating these suburbs classless-ness was quickly followed by more critical accounts.  Commentators such as Whyte and Frederick L. Allen distinguished this “new suburbia” from an older one they preferred, quieter and smaller and more securely elitist.  Sociologists taking a more even-handed approach, such as Herbert Gans and Bennett Berger, also questioned the “myth” of these places’ classlessness, by highlighting more working class homeowners and communities.  The great majority of those moving into such places had also been white, and as the racial imagery of a white “donut” surrounding a black core consolidated with the urban and busing crises over the 1960s and 70s, an ambivalent imagery of postwar “suburbia” stuck.  At once affluent, middle class, and white, but also vaguely declassé, suburbs were self-satisfied and reactionary places that deserved the progressive city-dweller’s disdain. 

As current-day Fortune correspondent and professed “city girl” Leigh Gallagher, makes clear, such attitudes are alive and well, for instance, at cocktail parties where those hearing her book title offer “high fives and hurrahs.”   Today’s literature on suburbia’s end has the distinct ring of wish fulfillment for a long tradition of city-bound suburb-bashers, of a piece with their eagerness finally to declare downtowns “resurgent [as] centers of wealth and culture.”  But just as most characterizations of “suburbia” in the 1950s ignored the pockets of poverty and minority enclaves in its midst, so even the most balanced of today’s expositors of suburbs’ end can be quite selective.  For instance, even though the Charlotte metro area’s 42% growth between 2000 and 2013 came through a momentous build-out of subdivisions and malls, even though the city itself has eagerly annexed nearly 25% more suburban land since 2000, Ehrenhalt dwells solely upon its reconstruction of the downtown.  We hear nothing about how, even with its expanded limits, this city still contains only 31% of the population of this urban region.

While these authors do leaven their arguments with a lot more demographic yeast than their 1950s predecessors, they still leap to generalizations that, in an era of soaring income inequality, bear more scrutiny than they get.   When Gallagher refers to how “we rebuild once or twice a century in this country,” just who is this “we” she means? It is not hard to draw some unsettling answers. As an editor at Fortune, as avowed resident of Greenwich Village, whose one-bedroom rentals are the most expensive in Manhattan, she seems heavily identified with affluent, especially the movers and shakers in the development community.  Whether singling out recent failures of building projects in outer suburbs or exurbs, concentrating on suburban malls that have been abandoned or are being retrofitted, or homing in on downtown reconstructions, “end of suburbs” authors often tacitly adopt a financial standard for future promise: where the most real-estate money is to be made. 

By the same token, this literature of suburbia’s end offers astonishing little reflection on the implications of its favored trends for the ways in which our cities divide the wealthy from the rest.   Today’s declarations of an “end of suburbs” come just as rents in places like Manhattan are hiking out of reach of the merely middle class, generating anxieties tilled, most recently, by Bill de Blasio’s successful campaign for mayor. Yet when Gallagher sweepingly contends that “millenials hate the suburbs,” she doesn’t even ask how many young people are actually going to be able to afford living in cities. And at this point, as well, her definition of “suburbs” itself suddenly narrows: just the subdivisions and malls, not the new “planned community” or the “urbanized small town or suburb” that may lie nearby.

The trend of urbanizing suburbs offers the most compelling angle of this reputed “end” for us actual suburbanites. For a good while in suburbs like my own Long Island, proponents of smart growth and the New Urbanism have pushed for multiuse, for bringing apartments into old town centers, for recreating walkability there.  Having watched and participated in the political rows stirred by such projects, like Avalon Bay’s plan to build an apartment complex near the Huntington train station, I can say this: those people most likely to see these projects as an “end of suburbs” are their opponents.  For the rest of us, their supporters, they look more like diversifying: taking us away from the old “suburbia” stereotypes, but not by leaving subdivisions behind.  All those stores, restaurants, and events available in walkable downtowns have the virtue of enhancing the suburban experience for those of us who remain homeowners, even as they furnish living quarters for renters who might otherwise leave: twenty-somethings, singles, and the elderly.  

That suburbs are also becoming societal repositories for newly arriving immigrants, blacks and other minorities, as well as poverty, does undermine that old “suburbia” imagery, but in ways that stir hopes for suburbs’ future. Largely because of these trends, indexes measuring metropolitan segregation have been gradually declining—and that’s a good thing.  Of course, suburbanites’ reputation for racial animosity is still plenty justified:  just look at Atlanta’s Gwinnett County as depicted by Ehrenhalt, or the hostility found on Long Island to undocumented immigrants. But there’s an as yet little-told story of how suburban opposition to these attitudes has also emerged. When a homeless camp of mostly immigrant workers was discovered in Huntington Station in the early 2000s, a remarkable coalition of social service agencies and churches cobbled together a program for housing and feeding them over the winter that involved over a thousand volunteers. This outpouring crossed lines of class and race, drawing many from the suburban church I attend, which itself is pretty evenly split between blacks and whites.  I don’t think my fellow travelers there, or in pro-immigrant groups like Long Island Wins, would surmise as Gallagher does that ours is some “suburban experiment” that has “failed.”

“The end of suburbs”—it’s a dramatic claim, and as mythological as that old “myth of suburbia,” especially for those of us living in the places that are supposed to be ending. I prefer another narrative, with a more positive spin. The demographic and other changes underway in our suburbs may well wind up breaking the old stereotype in another way, by building the basis for a newly inclusive and forward-looking politics in the suburbs. 

Christopher Sellers is a Professor of History at Stony Brook University and author of Crabgrass Crucible; Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America (2012), He is now writing on, among other things, the historical relationship between suburbanizing, race, and environmentalism around Atlanta. 

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Sellers on Suburbs

Notwithstanding the fact that New Geography (Kotkin, et al) has no interest in objective commentary, and always carrys water for the conventional development industry - i.e., low-density building the same old way - largely single family sprawl across erstwhile farmland or open space - and dealing with local politicians, agency hacks, east zoning codes, and stick-built construction, the market is changing in favor of more efficient, convenient, and interesting close-in city dwelling. NG's constituency is the guys who think inovation means cementitious siding, extra storage space in the (ubiquitous)garage, island kitchens, or a front porch, and that high-density is cluster housing at 8 units per acre.

Of course, there is a market for this stuff, but then, there's a market for methamphetamines as well. The analogy is that what sells is not necessarily good for us. All the ills of the central city have crept into suburbia with a vengeance, and a ten-foot side setback provides no protection whatever. Suburbia has no social reforming value, and its history is definitive in this respect - the good old social engineering of discriminatory zoning, redlining, and CC&Rs included.

D+ on reading comprehension

This being my first post on New Geography, I'm surprised--though guess I shouldn't be--at how little interest respondents like this one have in actually reading what I wrote. My own post came after spending ten years of research and writing a book on postWWII suburbs. I found the very notion of "suburbia" to have been a considerable distortion of the actual range of experiences people had upon moving to urban edges over those decades, which means those whose arguments hinge on those old generalizations (viz., in this post) have much shakier foundations than their authors realize. I encourage anyone genuinely interested in the all the facts and objectivity behind my analysis to consult this work. Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in 20th Century America (UNC Press, 2012)

Even the most cursory look at my post as well as this further evidence will clarify how little sympathy I have for subdivision builders and developers themselves. Unlike this respondent suggests, I am quite friendly to Smart Growth and mixed-use inside suburbs. I have actually fought for it--I wonder if this respondent can say the same.

My greatest sympathy is with that half of America that does live in suburban places. That includes more minorities and poor people than used to be there--though they were actually there before, in "suburbia"-defining times (check out my book). And as I can testify from my own recent experience on Long Island, there CAN be a more reformist and inclusive politics in suburbs. What's also striking is how readily the ideology of commenters here enables them to write off or ignore whatever evidence clashes with their own preferred narratives, even if it is plain as day!

Christopher Sellers
Professor of History
Stony Brook University
Crabgrass Crucible

"Design" and planning is the problem, not "the suburb"

I'm interested to learn of your book and its thesis. Directly relevant to your observations above, is a comment I made on another thread in response to the same commenter as you just responded to:

Among other things, I said:

You need to sort out form, function and process in your mind. I can agree with you on many of the traits you see as admirable in a city. It is just that urban density is irrelevant to most of them.

There is good urban design and bad urban design, in both high density and low density. I have lived all my life in suburbs, and I have never been more than 5 minutes walk away from a post office, a library, a pharmacy, a medical centre, a small supermarket, a church or three, a primary school, a police station, cafes and bars, car repairers, a petrol station, and a cluster of small retailers. 5 minutes drive gets me picture theatres, high schools, accountants and lawyers, trading banks, a large mall, specialist retailers, engineering supplies, electrical supplies, a performing arts auditorium, a town hall, youth group facilities, a skateboarding bowl, swimming pools, gymns, etc etc.

There is absolutely no way I could ever afford the space I want within reach of amenities that are not significantly superior anyway, in a regional CBD. On the very rare occasion there is something superior in the CBD, I will go there specially (eg a world famous string quartet performance). Most of the time I successfully avoid the regional CBD like poison.

You will also be interested in the points that I and several others made on the discussion on THIS thread, one of NG's biggest ever:

The point I most want to note here, is:

".....It is all a question of design, duplication, dispersion and affordability. Affordability is a factor of duplication and dispersion of the right amenities, along with an absence of growth constraints that force the cost of land up. Centralisation and concentration of the right amenities merely results in a strong spatial rationing effect by "ability to pay".......

What a scurrilous comment.

What a scurrilous comment.

I find the NG analyses to be impeccably backed up with data. If you look at my longer comments below, you will see it is not just NG that objectively finds against compulsions to higher density living, it is quite a few academics as well.

In fact there is quite a database of academic work HERE, that advocates of smart growth etc need to engage with:

The defenders of the UGB and the opponents of sprawl need to face a few realities.

1) There is nil evidence from anywhere in the world that “intensification” assists housing affordability under conditions of rationed overall land supply. All that happens when sites are put to more intense use, is that the land owner captures more value. There is simply not the “supply elasticity” provided to keep prices stable at “affordable” levels, in contrast to the supply elasticity that is provided by scale building of new subdivisions on greenfields.

It is often said that NIMBY delays are responsible. Vancouver has enacted some quite draconian over-rides of NIMBY rights that have made no difference to housing affordability and have merely resulted in site owners capturing more value. Singapore has virtually no property rights at all, yet their housing is still in median-multiple-6.5+ territory, and this is for apartments – in contrast to the family homes that affordable, median-multiple-3 markets all offer as standard.

2) The evidence is that higher density cities have worse traffic congestion as well as unaffordable housing. The argument that trip times are shorter even though congestion is worse, is also without basis in real life data. There is not as comprehensive data for this, however the correlations are obvious in what there is.

3) It is highly subjective to claim that “urban sprawl” can have huge costs, environmentally, socially, culturally and economically. So does containment……!!! I would claim that in fact the costs imposed by containment are without a doubt greater than those of sprawl. In fact it would be hard to put a price on the alleged and highly subjective harms of sprawl, even if these had any validity, that could possibly exceed the very real dollar costs of housing imposed by growth containment.
a) “Environmentally”: the only difference between low density and high density is how concentrated or dispersed the environmental impact is. Seeing the only thing that counts is the impact on humans; it needs to be noted that this is worse at high density. There is no proven correlation between density and emissions or energy use; income levels, and the discretionary income left after housing costs, matter far more.
b) “Socially”: systemically unaffordable housing is a social disaster, as is the impact on health outcomes, of local pollution and of overcrowding among low income people. There is also no proof of higher “social cohesion” or “social sustainability” with higher density. The opposite is just as likely to be true; greater inter-neighbour conflict and violent crime.
c) “Culturally”: the old elitist argument. The benefits of “culture” are highly rationed spatially (low decile suburbs get little or no benefit while “downtown” is enjoyed by a small minority who can afford the location) in unaffordable-housing markets; there is an excellent chapter in the "Handbook of Creative Cities" on this, entitled "The Distributional Consequences of Creative Cities".
d) “Economically”: if growth containment was to economic benefit, the UK would be the world’s most productive economy, having contained urban growth the longest and having the highest density cities for their size, in the OECD. As it is, it has a 20% to 40% “productivity gap”, for which it’s growth containment planning system has been identified as the main cause of, in several academic studies. I can provide a separate essay on the reasons for this.
4) There is no evidence that the actual dollar costs of infrastructure are significantly different for sprawl and containment. The very best study is probably “The Costs of Sprawl 2000” (Burcham et al) which identified the cost of infrastructure for “unconstrained growth” as $80 per household per year (the aggregate sums looked a lot more frightening). Young households would certainly prefer to pay $80 per year higher rates to sustain housing affordability that reduces their housing cost outgoings by several thousand dollars per year.

In fact the cost of renewal and expansion of infrastructure and public amenities with increased local density and land values, is almost certainly far more expensive to everyone than just allowing new developments on greenfields. The cost of land acquisition is significantly higher, and disruption of existing economic activity is a crucial overall cost difference.

The problem is threefold, I think. Political ideology. Shamelessly self-interested bureaucrats. Vested interests (big property investors first and foremost, rail infrastructure and rolling stock builders and mass transit unions playing a lesser role). The mainstream media is very responsible for effectively brainwashing the public instead of giving them the truth. This is partly because of ideology among the media’s writers and show hosts, partly because of RE sector sources of advertising revenue, partly because of vested interests of editors themselves (they only need to own one investment property), and partly because of a cosy relationship between bureaucrats and journalists (the latter have not woken up to the fact that bureaucrats are the worst self-interested gougers in the entire system).

It is scandalous that smears are routinely made, such as that by grcarch above, that anti-intensification researchers are "carrying water" for traditional suburban developers, when the zero sum gains made by big property investors, especially in the CBD, are orders of magnitude greater than the modest and honest profits made developers who actually build things, in competition with each other, for fair prices, in response to genuine demand, and provide significant amounts of employment in the process. In contrast, the inflation of economic land rent consequent on "smart growth" and UGB's, is all zero-sum harm to society and the broader economic interest, and is completely "unearned".

The planners and advocates of utopian high intensity cities are without exception too economically illiterate to even realise whose useful idiots they are. No-one with a shred of understanding of economics and markets, including RE markets, would attempt to do anything as stupid as what central urban planners are today.

My recommended fix to satisfy all genuinely concerned parties, would be to mandate from the highest level of government that all "save the planet" central urban plans were to include the compulsory acquisition (eminent domain) of all land zoned for special redevelopment at higher intensities etc. Watch the "support" for "smart growth" evaporate like the morning mist if that ever happened.

Without compulsory acquisition, what happens is exactly what Anthony Downs pointed out in “A Growth Strategy for the Greater Vancouver Region”, 2007:

"......The cost of land poses a key dilemma for urban planners everywhere who want to concentrate jobs together so they can be best served by public transit. Such concentration raises the costs of land near centers; in fact, it would confer a monopoly advantage on landowners who owned such land and could exploit firms trying to locate there. Now firms want to locate elsewhere to cut their land costs.

Planned concentration of jobs in a few centers is not consistent with private ownership and control of land. Some type of collective control over that land would be necessary to prevent monopolistic exploitation of land values. In theory, this could be done with high land taxes in such areas and special zoning rules. But adopting those devices is politically difficult in a free enterprise economy.......

"......A similar but less intensive dilemma concerns land near transit stops, where it would be most efficient to concentrate high-density housing and jobs. That also creates ownership monopolies over such land unless it is specially controlled or taxed. Yet focusing development near transit stops is a key to using more transit....."

Curitiba's famous BRT-based "TOD" experiment in the 1970's was a success precisely because of compulsory acquisition of the land, and the sale or renting of the completed properties at prices that incorporated no "planning gain".


Christopher Sellers may demonstrate his smugness about the inevitability of the triumph of "progressive" politics in suburbia, but the results of last month's elections might want to give him pause--at least for the next four years.

On the very same day that Bill DeBlasio won a resounding victory in NYC, the New York GOP showed impressive resilience in winning county executive races by decisive margins in Westchester, Nassau, and Rockland counties, and GOP governor Chris Christie was re-elected in that ur-suburban state of New Jersey next door by a landslide margin.

The lesson to be learned here is that taxes, schools, and crime still matter. The new regime in NYC will ignore them at its peril.

The "suburban sterility" myth

Robert Fishman, “Megalopolis Unbound”, 1990

I strongly recommend the whole thing. But here is the most relevant portions:

“……..Families create their own "cities" out of the destinations they can reach (usually travelling by car) in a reasonable length of time. Indeed, distance in the new cities is generally measured in terms of time rather than blocks or miles. The supermarket is 10 minutes away. The nearest shopping mall is 30 minutes in an¬other direction, and one's job 40 minutes away by yet another route. The pattern formed by these destinations represents "the city" for that particular family or individual. The more varied one’s destinations, the richer and more diverse is one's personal "city." The new city is a city a la carte.

It can be seen as composed of three overlapping networks, representing the three basic categories of destinations that define each person's city. These are the household network; the network of consumption; and the network of production.

The household network is composed of places that are part of family and personal life…… Its set of destinations include the homes of the children's playmates (which may be down the street or scattered around a county), the daycare center, the schools, a church or synagogue, community centers, and the homes of the parents' friends. Although this net¬work is generally more localized than the other two, it is almost always wider than the traditional urban neigh¬borhood.

The two-parent family with children is the archetypical new-city household, but, especially since 1970, the new city has made a place for others. For single or divorced people, single parents, young childless couples or older "empty nest" couples, widows and widowers, the new city offers a measure or familiarity, and security that many find lack¬ing in the central city. It’s housing is in¬creasingly diverse. No longer confined to single-family homes, it now includes apart-ment towers, town homes and condomini¬ums, and various kinds of retirement hous¬ing, from golf-oriented communities to nursing homes. There are more places to socialize. The same mall that caters essen¬tially to families on weekends and evenings may also serve as an informal community center for older people in the morning, while its bars and restaurants play host to a lively singles scene after the stores close.

The network of consumption— Mallopolis, in economist James Millar's phrase—comprises essentially the shop¬ping centers and malls which, as Frank Lloyd Wright predicted, have located themselves at the strategic crossroads of the highway system. It also includes movie theaters, restaurants, health clubs, playing fields and other recre¬ational facilities, and perhaps a second home 30 to 100 miles away.

Although this network serves much the same function as the old downtown, it is scattered, and each consumer is free, to work out his particular set of preferences from the vast menu of offerings presented by Mallopolis.

Finally, there is the network of produc¬tion. It includes the place of employment of one or both spouses. It also includes the suppliers—from computer-chip manufac¬turers to janitorial services—which these enterprises rely upon. Information comes instantaneously from around the world while raw materials, spare parts, and other necessities are trucked in from the firms that cluster along nearby highways.

This network minimizes the traditional distinction between the white-collar world of administration and the blue-collar world of production. Both functions co-exist in virtually every "executive office park." Its most successful enterprises are those where research and development and spe¬cialized techniques of production are inti¬mately intertwined: pharmaceuticals, for example, or electronics. Conversely, its most routinized labor can be found in the so-called "back-offices," data-processing centers that perform tasks once done at a downtown corporate headquarters.

Each of these networks has its own spatial logic, for example, primary schools are distributed around the region in response to the school-age population; shopping malls reflect population density, wealth, and the road system; large firms locate where their workers and their suppliers can easily reach them. But because the net¬works overlap, the pattern on the ground is one of juxtaposition and interpenetration. Instead of the logical division of functions of the old metropolis, one finds a post-mod¬ern, post-urban collage.
in some places, a particularly active lo¬cale like Tysons Corner, in Fairfax County, Virginia, may draw together elements from different networks—shopping malls and of¬fices—to form an approximation of an old downtown.……

“…….Women have been a not-so-hidden force behind the new city's economic success. Since 1957, the proportion of married women aged 27 to 54 with jobs has grown from 33 percent to 68 percent. More than half of all women with children aged three years or younger are now employed outside the home. Much of the economic life of the new city, espe¬cially with its concentration on retail trade and back-office data processing, would be impossible without these new workers. Indeed, the presence of employment oppor¬tunities so close to home—convenient, with decent pay and flexible schedules—is surely responsible for part of the remark¬able influx of married women into the work force (although the plentiful supply of workers could just as easily be said to have attracted employers). The outcome is more than a little ironic, considering the fact that the bedroom suburb had originally been designed to separate women from the cor¬ruptions of the world of work.

The new city thus decisively breaks with the older suburban pattern that restricted married middle-class women with children to a life of neighborhood-oriented do¬mesticity. Women still work closer to home than men do, and they still bear most of the responsibility for childcare and housekeep¬ing, but, in contrast to the old metropolis, the economic and spatial structure of the new city tends to equalize gender roles.

Indeed, one can argue that the new city has largely been built on the earnings of two-income families and thus reflects their needs more closely than did either the ur¬ban core or the traditional bedroom suburb One large housing developer, Scarborough Corporation of Marlton, New Jersey, found that 72 percent of its customers dur¬ing the mid-1980s were two-income cou¬ples, compared to less than 30 percent a decade earlier. Accordingly, the firm rede¬signed some of its houses, substituting a "study-office" for the "sewing room," scaling down the formal living room and enlarging the family room, providing more pantry space to cut down on trips to the supermarket, and selecting building materi¬als to minimize maintenance.

In other ways, both trivial and impor¬tant, the new city has responded to the changing character of families with more flexibility than critics of "the suburbs" are willing to admit. Encouraged by women's groups and planning boards, some developers have set aside space for day-care cen¬ters in new office complexes. There are ex-tended school days for "latch-key" children and, during the summer, recreation pro-grams. And only in the new city can one find an extensive array of Pizza Huts, Sizzler's, Denny's, and other inexpensive "family-style" restaurants which, though they may not delight Julia Child, are many a parent's salvation at the end of a hard day at the office.

When Frank Lloyd Wright envisioned Broadacre City, he failed to consider the role of the old centralized industrial cities in the new world of the future. He simply assumed that the old cities would disappear once the conditions that had created them were gone. The reality has not been so sim¬ple. Just as the industrial metropolis grew up around the older mercantile city, so the new city of our time has surrounded the old metropolis. What was once the sole center is now one point of concentration.

In general, the skyscraper cores of the central cities have adapted to this change and prospered. Even a decentralized region needs a "headquarters," a place of high sta¬tus and high rents where the movers-and-shakers can rub shoulders and meet for power lunches. By contrast, the old factory zones have not found a function in the new environment. As a result, the central city has reverted to what it was before industri¬alization: a site for high-level administration and luxury consumption, where some of the wealthiest members of society live in close proximity to many of the poorest.

The recent boom in downtown office construction should not conceal the fact that downtown prosperity rests on a much narrower base than it did in its heyday during the 1920s. Most of the retail trade has fled to the malls; the grand old movie pal¬aces and many of the nightspots are gone. Only the expansion of corporate headquar¬ters, law firms, banks and investment houses, advertising agencies, and other cor¬porate and governmental services has kept the downtown towers filled, and even in these fields there have been major leakages of back-office employment to the new city. Nevertheless, this employment base has enabled most core areas to retain an array of specialized shops, restaurants, and cultural activities unequalled in their region. This in turn encourages both the gentrification of surrounding residential neighborhoods and the renaissance of the core as a tourist and convention center……”

Utopian elitists versus reality

A lot of this anti-suburban propaganda and spin is pure ideology and elitism.

Patrick Troy (Australian National University), "The Perils of Urban Consolidation" - published 1996.

".....the yearning by some commentators and policy advisors to return to some halcyon past, such urban lifestyles (eating out, engaging in the pursuits of a romanticised cafe society, enjoying the morning coffee over newspapers, exploring antique shops, bookshops and art galleries) never were the daily life experience of more than a small minority.......The proliferation of coffee shops, bistros, restaurants and sidewalk cafes in parts of our cities over recent years is a response to changing social behaviour, increasing affluence, the commodification of leisure, and to the needs of tourists, but most of us use them only on special occasions or as part of our recreation.......The street gangs and their associated territorial disputes now evident in some American cities mostly come from high density environments but proponents of high density presumably do not wish to argue that they are a result of density......."

Troy points out that much of the cultural and social arguments surrounding this issue (activities for youth, etc) do not need to relate to urban form at all. Also, the often alleged benefit of "community", does not eventuate in real life in high density communities, where people react to preserve the lesser privacy and personal space they have, withdrawing from contact with others and limiting personal interactions. Furthermore, higher density living often involves a need for tenants associations etc to negotiate rules that inevitably lead to disagreements and ill feeling, on such things as the playing of music, the keeping of pets, and how community space is to be used. Community space and local amenities are often already inadequate for higher numbers of residents, and opportunity for privacy often is minimal. Troy also points out that requiring people to keep moving as their household size and circumstances change, is an effect that undermines the development of "community".

“Neighbourly problems in neighbourhood context: Understanding how neighbourhoods influence the prevalence of neighbourly problems and complaints”
Lynda Cheshire, Robin Fitzgerald, Andrew Clarke and Stephanie Raymond
School of Social Science, The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia
Aug 2013
From the conclusion:
“…..neighbourhoods experiencing above average levels of densification through urban consolidation are more likely to exhibit problems of neighbour conduct, with residents often viewing their neighbours as excessively noisy, unruly and anti-social. Here, the causes are likely to be found in the close proximity within which people play out their private lives, often separated only by walls or ceilings.

But they may also be informed by a broader set of moral judgements about the inhabitants of high and medium density living – typically young people and renters – whose transient lifestyle may clash with that of an older, owner-occupier demographic…..”

"Attitudes towards compact city living: Towards a greater understanding of residential behaviour"
Peter Howley, TEAGASC, Dublin, 2008
From the Conclusion:
"Compact city policies are designed to meet the primary sustainability aims of ending car dependence and hence pollution, and minimising the loss of open countryside and habitats to development. The onus on the planning systems of most advanced capitalist societies to develop a more sustainable urban development pattern has resulted in an ever increasing emphasis on policies to increase residential densities.

Residential preferences appear to be at variance with this policy agenda as an ever increasing share of individuals are residing in lover density locations outside the central area of cities. This is by no means an Irish phenomenon, as declining residential densities in the central area of cities coupled with population expansion on the urban fringe has been symptomatic of most or the worlds advanced capitalist societies for the greater part of the last century. Despite the general trend towards urban sprawl, in recent times many cities have been successful in attracting large numbers of residents back into the central area. While this is likely to be a good starting point in urban consolidation efforts, questions still remain relating to the livability implications of such developments. For instance, this paper demonstrates that the residential preferences of individuals living in new relatively high density residential environments in the central area of Dublin city are weighted towards (ultimately) buying in lover density areas. This raises a number of questions relating to developing more sustainable patterns of urban development if these residential preferences manifest themselves into actual behaviour. While policymakers stress the need for compaction, current residential preferences if unchecked will lead to further sprawling development patterns. In this context, policy makers need to consider not just the environmental impacts of the residential communities they are building but also the wider liveability implications of high density living. Respondents perceive the main benefit of urban living to be greater accessibility levels and better social life, whereas the limitations relate to cost of living, lack of space, transport related issues, noise and pollution......"

"Social Interaction and Urban Sprawl"
Jan K. Brueckner and Ann G. Largey (2006)

“Various authors, most notably Putnam (2000), have argued that low-density living reduces social interaction, and this argument has been used to buttress criticisms of urban sprawl……
…….The key element in this argument is a positive link between social interaction and neighbourhood density, and our paper tests empirically for such a link. The results are unfavorable: whether the focus is friendship-oriented social interaction or measures of group involvement, the empirical results show a negative, rather than positive, effect of density on interaction.
The paper’s findings therefore imply that social-interaction effects cannot be credibly included in the panoply of criticisms directed toward urban sprawl. In fact, the results suggest an opposite line of argument. With a negative effect of density on interaction, individual space consumption would tend to be too low rather than too high, tending to make cities inefficiently compact, as explained in section 2. Thus, the empirical results suggest that social-interaction effects may counteract, rather than exacerbate, the well-recognized forces (such as unpriced traffic congestion) that cause cities to overexpand…..”

Joshua D. Gottlieb and Edward L. Glaeser. "Urban Resurgence and the Consumer City" (2006)

From Section IV: Cities, Sprawl and Social Capital:
“……..while density is correlated with consumer amenities, we show that it is not correlated with social capital and that there is no evidence that sprawl has hurt civic engagement……
“…….The problem with Putnam’s logic (“Bowling Alone”, 2000) is that sprawl is not responsible for longer commutes and that, in fact, commutes are actually shorter in low-density metropolitan areas. Lower density, sprawling areas are not associated with longer commutes, rather they are associated with shorter commutes. As such, it shouldn’t surprise us that these places have more social capital. The longer commutes in dense places discussed in section II should deter social engagement. While high-density living is certainly a plus for many forms of social connection, civic associations do not seem to thrive in higher density areas. Within metropolitan areas, there is no connection between central city residence and most forms of social capital. Across metropolitan areas, density is associated with less, not more social capital, perhaps in part because density is associated with longer commutes. Sprawl may have negative consequences along other dimensions, but it cannot be credited with killing social capital…..”

See also:

"Social sustainability and urban form: evidence from five British cities" (2009)
Glen Bramley, Nicola Dempsey, Sinead Power, Caroline Brown, David Watkins

"Urban form and social sustainability: the role of density and housing type" (2009)
Glen Bramley, Sinéad Power