Welcome to Anywhere, America. The houses are identical, two-story buildings covered in clapboard and pinched in by two swathes of tightly mown lawn. The streets are wide and well-maintained. The sidewalks are after-thoughts, stopping and starting at seemingly random intervals. It doesn’t matter where they go or how wide they are because their use is intrinsically marginal. Suburbs were not designed with the pedestrian in mind.
Despite their seeming ubiquity, suburbs are an experiment, just one answer to the question of how to house and organize humanity. It’s easy to forget how quickly we’ve come to this stage. Three centuries ago, the most common profession by far was sustenance farming. Most people were illiterate village dwellers. Today, more than half of the world’s population lives in cities while more than 90% of the world’s young adults are literate. In the past 200 years the global population has septupled.
Conterminously with all of these developments has been the largest migration in human history. Not from country to country or region to region but from the hinterlands to the city. The effects of this demographic transformation are difficult to overstate.
Expanding markets have allowed for spectacularly minute levels of niche specialization. The great sloshing of humanity from village to city has done more to dissolve ancient bonds of fraternity and family than any ancient cultural or religious revolution. From New York to Shanghai to Melbourne and Kinshasa, nowhere has escaped this urbanizing development.
For as long as cities have existed, people have tried to make sense of them. Records stretching back more than 2,500 years extol the tranquility of suburban life beyond the bustling markets of Babylon. Cities necessitated government and new forms of social organization for the building of roads, walls, forts, and other public buildings. By centralizing commerce they increased economic activity and created new opportunities for the collection of taxes. Managing crime, education, and the affairs of the indigent took on a new importance.
Government, civilization, and prosperity found a common genesis in urbanity. Consequently, efficient spatial allocation became increasingly tied to political and economic power.
As the industrial revolution led to an explosion in the number and size of cities, urban improvement took on a greater urgency and slowly solidified into a field of its own.
Two questions would arise to dominate this new field: How can land use efficiency be increased and how can cities be made pleasant and live-able?
For much of the 19th century, industrial cities were awash in air pollution, uncollected garbage, horse manure, and untreated sewage. Poverty and disease were rampant and living conditions were crowded and poor. This proved ripe fodder for the intellectuals who would become the forerunners of today’s urbanism movement. Prominent thinkers like Sir Ebenezer Howard and Le Corbusier advanced novel urban conceptions: vast, decentralized garden cities and towering skyscrapers surrounded by Edenic parks and ringed by endless highways.
Bereft of modern knowledge and experience, these early thinkers fell victim to the hubris of their age. The unfeasibility of planned economies would not be revealed for a number of decades and an enthusiasm for top down planning, a sort of state managed utopianism, was still very much alive.
Their ideas were creative, fantastical, and in many cases dead wrong.
Although these ideas would continue to influence urban planning and development long after the deaths of their creators, they would gradually yield to a more pragmatic, ground-up approach. In 1961, urbanism broke into the mainstream with the publication of Jane Jacobs’s, The Life and Death of Great American Cities. Drawing upon her experiences living in New York City’s Greenwich neighborhood, her success was largely a result of the clarity and minuteness of the countervailing ideas she brought to bear on urban decline.
Unlike Howard and Le Corbusier, she dealt with cities as they were. While Howard and Le Corbusier wanted to raze existing metropolises and build science fiction fantasies over the rubble, Jacobs looked for simple elements of urban success that could be generalized to a wider scale. Like earlier thinkers, her prescriptions included elements of social engineering; however, her advice had a basis beyond her imagination. Her insights were drawn from her observations about the successes and failures of real American cities at the neighborhood level.
As suburbanization increased and the 20th century rolled on, Kenneth T. Jackson renewed interest in the hollowing out of the American city with his 1985 classic, Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. Building on Jacob’s earlier observations and arguments about the nascent decline of the American city, Jackson expanded on the unique causal mechanisms that had caused the spatial footprint of most American cities to balloon in the 19th and 20th centuries.
In the mid-latter half of the twentieth century, the best of urban innovation belonged to Japan, Europe, North America, Australia, and a few outliers such as Hong Kong and Singapore.
From the end of the Cold War to the present day, this trend has been arrested and has begun to reverse. Many of the most exciting innovations and improvements to urban life are now occurring in what were or are still considered developing countries.
Capturing this new spirit and energy is Edward Glaesar, whose 2011 book, The Rise of the City builds on earlier insights into social and spatial aspects of urban planning while presenting a forcible case for viewing cities not just as places to live but as engines of economic growth, prosperity, and scientific innovation.
My own life and development has in many ways paralleled this progression. In the past five years, I’ve moved from the suburb of my birth to America’s fastest growing major city and from there to one of the largest mega-cities on Earth.
Growing up in the expansive suburbs south of Seattle, I felt all too often like an astronaut, rocketing in my parent’s car from home to store, school to home, and school to club. Vast dead areas of tract housing interrupted pedestrian movement.
As I grew older, I came to the resent the needlessly wide distances that isolated me from the greater world. In the eighth grade, I began running to the local library once or twice a week. It was roughly three miles away. After returning my old books, I’d head to the library bathroom to wipe the sweat off of my face with paper towels. It was while I was running back home, my new books bouncing uncomfortably off my back that I thought the whole thing an exercise in inanity, an affront to reason.
Why should I have to walk a mile and a half to buy a gallon of milk, I wondered.
On television and in movies, cities were dense and lively. In real life, they were stultifying and lifeless.
Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier lays out a comprehensive history detailing the evolution of the American suburb.
For most of recorded history, the inner city has played home to the wealthy and elite. Cloistered together well behind the safety of the town walls and within walking distance of church, castle, and market, the inner city long provided all of the accouterments necessary for civilized life. The embryonic suburbs of America’s great cities were more often grim, working class, industrial affairs.
All this began to change not with the arrival of the car but with the widespread adoption of the steam omnibus and later electric trolley in the 19th century. Quickly recognizing their utility, line operators bought up plots of land adjacent to their projected trolley routes in a speculative frenzy. These neighborhoods became America’s inner ring streetcar suburbs. Promising commuters room to stretch out their legs, these railroad suburbs boasted palatial homes and exquisitely maintained park grounds. While time gradually wore down their luster, glimmers of faded elegance can still be found in surviving neighborhoods like Colonial Heights in Yonkers, New York or Shaker Heights, Ohio.
Contrary to popular belief, the first major American suburbs predate Levittown. Concurrently with the introduction of improved mass transit was a new type of housing: balloon frame construction. This innovation transformed home building, shifting it from the preserve of skilled craftsmen to an almost assembly line, do it yourself affair. Whether built by actual construction workers or homeless families, this innovative technique put affordable, detached homes within the grasp of the American working and middle classes.
With these two elements in place, the suburbanization of America’s great cities accelerated throughout the latter half of the 19th and early parts of the 20th century.
The suburbs promised to combine the best of American urbanity with a bucolic, health bolstering environment. In an era of rampant communal disease and over-crowding, where garbage collection and flush toilets lacked their now universal presence, and the EPA was a distant dream, such health concerns were well-founded.
Although suburbanization helped to uncrowd America’s cities, it also created unfamiliar difficulties. While the detached single family home became a castle for the principally male breadwinners to take refuge in from the outside world, for many women it became something of a prison. Betty Friedan’s infamous problem with no name is in part a product of the atomizing effect of suburbs on public life. Side lawns and fences became moats and walls against informal socializing.
Suburbs are a harsh place for those without cars. The mobility of single-car households, the car-less, and children became severely hampered. Children in particular were effected, as they were now almost completely dependent on their parents for travel.
In the suburbs, play is constrained by the edge of the front lawn. Compare this to the city with its bustle and vigor. Small apartments and wide streets naturally produce a greater public arena with a lower barrier to entry for the young.
The vibrant sidewalk play that Jane Jacobs documented in her New York of the 1960s, the great ballet she saw play out in Greenwich village as the housewife, office worker, shop owner, and student mingled in the streets beside her apartment; these were as foreign to me as the moon’s surface.
Not only did the suburbs impose civic and social costs on their inhabitants, they also imposed heavy financial burdens. Public transportation requires a critical mass of users to be viable. When low population densities make mass transit unviable, poverty becomes a critical barrier to mobility. Cars impose heavy upfront costs, not to mention the ongoing cost of insurance, parking, gas, repairs, new tires, and heaven forbid you should get into an accident.
While the exodus from America’s cities to its suburbs predates the arrival of large populations of African Americans into America’s great cities, the role of racial animus in accelerating the process of suburbanization can hardly be overstated.
The second great migration constituted the movement of millions of mostly poor, rural African Americans from the American South to the great cities of the East Coast, Midwest, and West Coast. The resulting racial tensions culminated in a series of urban race riots. An annual affair from the summers of 1964–67, these riots eventually spread to every major city in the continental United States. They reached their apotheosis in the spring of 1968 with the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Redlining, racially restrictive covenants and tacit government discrimination allowed segregation to flourish and provided additional incentive for the construction of new suburbs for fleeing whites.
That the apex of American suburbanization came in the latter half of the 20th century should come as something of a surprise. A clash of ideologies, the Cold War pitted the collectivist, top-down economics of the Soviet Union against American liberalism and penchant for personal choice. Yet many of the policies that fostered suburban development were driven by heavy-handed federal policies and restrictive, localized land use policies.
As Jacobs notes:
Although it represented an extraordinary growth of municipal power, nearly everyone supported zoning. By 1926, seventy six cities had adopted ordinances similar to that of New York. By 1936, 1,322 cities (85 percent of the total) had them, and zoning laws were affecting more property than all national laws relating to business.
There is hardly a greater act of illiberalism than explicitly restricting what other people may or may not do with their property. Between local zoning laws, the Federal Highway Act of 1916, the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, and the mortgage interest deduction, the American government had amassed more than enough carrots and sticks to drive Americans out of the city and into the suburb.
Many traditional methods of farming recognized that diversity is essential to agricultural success. Indigenous North American groups grew maize, beans, and squash together where they could work in concert: the beans fixed nitrogen for the other plants to use, the squash repelled insect invaders and kept the ground cool while the maize provided a trellis for the beans. Taken together, these crops produced something greater than their constituent parts.
By way of contrast, modern monocultures are tenuous creations, dependent on massive amounts of pesticides and fertilizer. They are always at risk of blight and disease.
In the same way, America’s carefully planned cities and suburbs are sustained only through streams of federal largesse. They lack the organic synergy and web of local knowledge that defined America’s earlier cities. They’re an artificial creation, reflecting the whims of the city planner, not the needs of its inhabitants.
Jacobs railed against the sterility of monoculture cities.
There is a quality even meaner than outright ugliness or disorder, and this meaner quality is the dishonest mask of pretended order, achieved by ignoring or suppressing the real order that is struggling to exist and to be served.
America chose to choke off choice as restrictive land use laws, racially biased covenants, and discriminatory lending policies segregated business from business, people from people, and people from business all to disastrous effect.
Describing a city as “an immense laboratory of trial and error,” Jacobs hits on the critical flaw of city planning. Like an overprotective parent, city planners deny cities the opportunity to learn and to grow from experience. If cities are organic constructions, then city planners and zoning activists have turned them into amputees.
The negative effects of these changes are immeasurable: how many hours of lost time, how much excess weight, ill health, strained feelings and foregone opportunities can be attributed to gridlock and excessive commutes? How many chance relationships will never occur because the corner store has been replaced by the vast, impersonal suburban grocery store?
At 18, I moved to Seattle’s University District (U-District) to attend the University of Washington.
The U-District is a perennial dumping ground of the worst that Seattle has to offer. During my tenure at the university, an open-air drug market flourished several blocks north of the University campus. Small children could be seen moving in and out of the informal tent village that had sprung up outside of the U-District post office. Marijuana smoke permeated the surrounding air.
Nonetheless, the neighborhood had much of what Jacob liked and what made cities great: well-used sidewalks and a diversity of uses and users. Numerous restaurants, cinemas, offices, and storefronts lined the streets surrounding the university. The housing stock catered to multiple income levels from the decaying early 20th century houses that rented cheaply by the room to new and suitably expensive apartment buildings.
Short block lengths and numerous alleys fostered retail and pedestrian activity. If not for the comparatively high levels of crime, the transient population, and the overall filthy atmosphere, it would number among the finest neighborhoods in the city.
Overall, I thought it a good change of pace. Now, I could walk four blocks to the grocery store and a few blocks to class. Regular bus and shuttle service connected me to downtown and employment.
Unfortunately, despite its 700,000 inhabitants and compact geography, only a sliver of Seattle’s land is developed to allow for this sort of car-less lifestyle. Strong historical forces have conspired to keep Seattle in a state of arrested development. Among large American cities, Seattle is hardly unique in this regard.
Seattle’s own historical experiences closely mirror those of America’s great cities. Growing rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th century, first on the back of the Alaskan gold rush and later on the success of Boeing, Seattle grew rapidly though annexation, absorbing surrounding cities such as Ballard and West Seattle. With it’s urban population cresting in the 1960s, Seattle’s suburbs siphoned away much of its growth throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
It would only be at the closing of the millennium that Seattle matched its mid-twentieth population peak. While the Seattle metro area’s growth was occurring mainly in Bellevue, Renton, Federal Way, and the dozens of other small patchwork cities surrounding Seattle’s urban core, area voters roundly rejected a heavily federally subsidized subway project, opting instead for its underfunded bus fleet and private vehicles.
Much of Seattle remains suburban. Two thirds of the city’s land is zoned for single family housing, not atypical for a major American city. The few walk-able neighborhoods are either heinously expensive or crime ridden and filthy (in some cases both).
This doesn’t have to be the case.
I’m writing this essay from my apartment on the 34th floor of a residential high-rise just outside of Seoul’s city limits. It is a two minute walk to the grocery store, a three minute walk to the barbershop, a seven minute walk to the subway, and a fifteen minute walk to work. The streets are clean. There is little crime.
Despite the overall desirability of my neighborhood and otherwise high consumer prices, rent is relatively tame, in large part because of expansive supply.
As Edward Glaesar notes in The Triumph of the City, one of the most effective ways to bring down housing prices is simply to expand the supply of housing. What this means in real terms is relaxing height restrictions to ease the vertical growth of housing stock.
Seoul is a city designed with the human in mind. While car ownership is high, it’s largely unnecessary given Seoul’s well-developed mass-transit system.
Meanwhile, high levels of population density have allowed commerce to flourish and niche specialization to develop. The latter is particularly important because highly specialized skills need a deep pool of users to develop and be sustained.
In societies that experience population decline or dispersion, it’s not uncommon to see innovation retrograde. As Matt Ridley recounts in The Rational Optimist, Tasmanian technology degraded as the critical mass necessary to sustain specialized knowledge and skills collapsed.
Although Americans often associate high levels of human density with the overcrowding of Hell’s Kitchen and other 19th century New York slum districts, this isn’t necessarily always the case.
Greater density doesn’t mean declining living standards. If anything, it may well be the reverse. As Jacobs notes, rising incomes can reduce crowding until a positive equilibrium is achieved. When people are no longer mired in poverty, their horizon to choose opens up.
Of course, Seoul is not perfect. As Jacobs notes:
It follows, however that densities can get too high if they reach a point at which, for any reason, they begin to repress diversity instead of to stimulate it.
One of the great disappointments of Seoul is the sheer monotony of the skyline. Identical white towers march on for miles in every direction.
A central thesis of The Death and Life of Great American Cities is that diversity is central to optimal urban performance. Aside from being more pleasing to the eye, diverse buildings provide a number of entry points into the housing market. Older housing stock is almost always more affordable than newer housing stock.
While Seoul’s apartment buildings are relatively affordable for the family, they are often too expensive for young adults and lower-income individuals. This poses a problem for economic mobility and may produce something of a drag effect on labor development and utility.
However, for all of its faults, Seoul, and cities like it, are positive engines in the evolution of humanity. Moreover, by connecting labor to capital, reducing transportation costs, and allowing niche specialization to take place, cities may just be the greatest anti-poverty generator to exist today.
It’s fortunate, then, that there’s no indication that humanity’s drift towards the city will reverse anytime soon.
Despite the growing sophistication of communication technology and a move towards remote work within some industries, it’s unlikely that a mass exodus from the city to the suburb or the city to the country will occur.
If anything, current trends suggest that the opposite is happening. As Jackson predicted, Americans have begun to drift from the suburbs back to the city. A growing interest in the economic and cultural benefits of urban life has brought a steady stream of youthful energy back into America’s cities over the past decade.
As Americans rediscover the joys of city living, it’s important that they take a step back to ponder the mistakes of the past century. To fix the American city, four principal improvements must be made: improve mass transit, relax height restrictions, encourage mixed-use zoning, and encourage a diversity of building types and ages.
One of the striking take aways from Alexis de Tocqueville’s The Old Regime and the Revolution is that complex social systems need multiple, interlocking, and opposing elements. Human power is like a great cistern. When dispersed, it serves to hold up the ground above it. However, when power is concentrated, the ground collapses and a sinkhole is formed.
It’s important to take this into account when approaching Jacobs’s call to develop a horizontal, technocratic bureaucracy responsive to local needs towards the end of The Death and Life of Great American Cities.
While the use of local knowledge and energy is essential to the integrity of any neighborhood, it must be balanced against the needs of the wider community. When local needs are ignored, we get costly and underutilized parks, stifling land use policies, and localized brain drain.
However, when local needs are given too much priority, then roads and subways are not built, height restrictions are kept in force (needlessly driving up the cost of living), and land use segregation diminishes opportunities for economic growth. All of these practices impose heavy costs on new comers and choke off economic and geographic mobility.
To mediate between these concerns, we need to foster multiple centers of power and concern for urban development.
For inspiration, America must look beyond its borders. While a leading innovator in urbanity for much of the 19th and 20th century, America is increasingly a laggard in the application of best design, practice, and implementation of new technology.
Leapfrogging is a term used to describe the tendency of developing countries to skip over past, inferior modes of technology and right to the cutting edge of modern tech. From the beginning of the 20th century to almost its close, the tallest buildings in the world had always been American. Since 1996, none have.
By copying the comprehensive, interlocking transit systems of Hong Kong, Seoul, and Singapore, American cities can return to the forefront of mass transit innovation. By emulating the vertical growth of the leading cities of East Asia and the Middle East, we can put downward pressure on rising housing prices and office rents.
If the future is to be urban, let us learn from the mistakes of the past century and make the future more comfortable, inclusive, and efficient. •
All images by Isabella Akhtarshenas.