Potts on Burbs

Jonathan Potts writes, a propos of a Washington Post story about the "urbanization" of the suburbs:
Wait a second here--If the suburbs are so great, why are they trying to transform themselves into cities? Could it be that high-density, pedestrian-friendly development is a more natural, more hospitable way to live.

But that's not it at all. I've been to Naperville, the west-of-Chicago town that the Post holds up as an exemplar of "urban" suburbia. Naperville is a charming town, but it isn't trying to transform itself into a city. It's taking the local tax base that ordinarily would support real city amenities (services for the working poor, for example) and using that money to transform itself into an urban-environment-without-poor-people. There's a difference.

Given a choice between high-density, pedestrian-oriented development that comes with living among the urban poor, and low-density, car-oriented development that comes with avoiding the urban poor, suburbanites choose the latter in overwhelming numbers. What they really want is the best of both worlds: pedestrian-friendliness and no urban poor. In places like Naperville, and Bethesda, and, yes, Mt. Lebanon, suburbanites seem to get that.

The fact that they create urban spaces doesn't mean that they shouldn't have left the city in the first place, or that fiscal policy shouldn't have subsidized their going. (The subsidy battle regarding places like Naperville was fought and lost many decades ago.) What it means is that people with money want cities to keep poor people in line. What people with money forget is that economic diversity is part of the very definition of a city -- some people live there, some people work there, and those may or may not be the same people. Naperville, nice as it is, is no Chicago.


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