“California Declares War on Suburbia,” blared the headline from The Wall Street Journal this week. Quick, kids! To the bunker!
The bomb thrower of the hour was Wendell Cox, a vociferous libertarian opinionater who has made a career of defending America’s suburban status quo. His target: state legislation aimed at curbing greenhouse gases and stemming the tide of suburban sprawl.
“California has declared war on the most popular housing choice, the single family, detached home,” he shrieked, “all in the name of saving the planet.”
Saving the planet? What. Ever. Gimme my McMansion in the ’burbs and a nice little doomsday condo. The rest of y’all can go to hell.
If Cox’s (and the Journal’s) aim was to give us all a little comic relief, they succeeded. Josh Stephens wrote a fantastic – and gut-bustingly funny – point-by-point rebuttal called, “Wendell Cox Launches Attack on Regional Planning, Common Sense.” But if the aim was to foster some intelligent dialogue about where we’re headed in California or the country, Cox gets a big fail.
Saying that California, or the entire nation, has declared war on the suburbs? That’s like a spoiled frat boy whining that his parents have declared war on his trust fund because they’ve cut him back to just a keg of beer and a pound of weed each week.
First off, Cox dramatically exaggerates what planners are actually trying to do. He claims that new master plans would force new “hyperdensity development” into narrow corridors along mass transit lines. Stephens bats down that distortion:
“Hyperdensity”? Hyperdensity is Hong Kong. It’s Mumbai. It’s a Hunger Games screening on opening night. The notion that Cox thinks anyplace in California could ever be hyperdense is enough to forever disregard him.
Cox’s biggest lie, though, is his suggestion that the suburbs are the last bastion of affordable living in the United States: “If the planners have their way,” he writes, “the state’s famously unaffordable housing could become even more unaffordable.”
To suggest that suburban existence is cheap is to ignore a host of other costs that come with living on the fringe. Factor in the costs of owning and operating a couple of cars, and even “low-income housing” in the ’burbs quickly soars out of reach for many families.
Even if suburban housing costs are relatively low, somebody has to pay to maintain all those bloody roads. Consider, too, the health costs that come from living in communities built for cars rather than human beings. And don’t even get me started on the bills that are coming due from all the greenhouse gases we pump into the atmosphere while we drive to the big box and to work.
Society as a whole has been shouldering the skyrocketing costs of suburban sprawl. All California wants to do is take a few of its generous underwriting dollars and put them toward something less expensive, and more sustainable in the long-term. Smart thinking in a time when the state budget is in the tank.
The same is true on the federal level, where the Obama administration has also been accused of waging a war on the ’burbs. Under President Obama, key federal agencies have begun to shift away from subsidizing sprawl and toward reviving cities and creating dense, walkable, transit-friendly communities. But to suggest that Obama and Co. are leading some covert campaign to destroy suburbia is to vastly overestimate the administration’s ability (or desire) to reengineer American government and society.
The roughly $200 million that the administration has doled out to smart growth initiatives over the past two years seems like a lot until you compare it, say, to the more than $40 billion that we spend annually on federal highways. (And where do you suppose those highways go?) Even that paltry sum was apparently too much for the Tea Party, which zeroed out the budget of the administration’s Sustainable Communities Initiative this winter.
But the most irksome part of the “War on Suburbia” rhetoric is the notion that people cannot, or do not change. I give Cox and his co-conspirators this: Americans are a recalcitrant lot, rarely willing to give up their daily conveniences to serve a bigger cause. Still, a number of indicators suggests that there is a shift underway: The housing market in the exurban fringe has bitten the dust. Young people are spurning cars in favor of biking and walking and riding the bus. And surveys suggest that, if they had the chance, many Americans would give up the ranch house on the cul-de-sac for a more urban existence.
Will we Americans change our ways in time to avert climatalogical disaster? I’m not putting any money on it. But in the meantime, I’m all for putting a few more of our tax dollars toward more walking-friendly, city-style development, whether that’s in city centers or the suburbs.
That’s not waging war on suburbia. It’s just being a little smarter about where we put our money. Because frankly, we’ve got a lot bigger things to worry about than imaginary battles and black-helicopter conspiracy theories.