New from The Atlantic: TheAtlanticCities.com. Because place matters.

The Future of the City

An Interview With Kevin Drum

Conor Friedersdorf

Kevin Drum lives in Orange County, California and blogs at Mother Jones. He's worth reading daily. In the following Q&A he talks about urban affairs from the perspective of someone who lives in the suburbs.

You've spent your life living in suburbia. Have you ever considered moving to a more urban environment? What stopped you? What is it about living in the suburbs that you prefer?

This is just a matter of laziness. My parents were Angelenos who moved to Orange County in the late 50s for the same reason as everyone else: it was where they could afford a house. I was born and raised here and I've just never had a strong reason to leave. So here I am. If anyone had ever offered me a job somewhere else, I probably wouldn't be here anymore.

Partly this is because I don't have as strong a sense of place as a lot of people. I think living in a city would be great. But I've visited lots of small towns too, and there's a real attraction to that too. Ditto for suburbs. They all have attractions, but frankly, for a person who works at home and doesn't socialize much, it doesn't matter all that much where I live. As long as I have a roof over my head, I'm pretty happy.

In your experience, what are the biggest drawbacks of suburbia? Could they be mitigated by policy changes, or are they an inevitable cost that go along with the benefits of suburban living?

The problems with suburbia are also its greatest attraction: it's bland, safe, quiet, and sprawling. And, generally speaking, cheap. These are all big things that critics mock at their peril. When you hear people lament "cookie cutter stucco houses," for example, there's a condescension there that's really unseemly. The suburban middle class doesn't buy cookie cutter houses because they have no taste, they buy them because that's what they can afford. Hip, creative architecture is a lot of fun, but it's also expensive. A two thousand square foot ranch-style home built on the same plan as fifty other houses in the same neighborhood is pretty affordable.

Could suburbia be changed via policy? Sure. You can change anything via policy eventually. The question is: do suburbanites want change? And the answer, generally speaking, is that they don't: they like safe, quiet, sprawling, cheap, and kid-friendly. They may or may not like bland, but even if they don't they figure it's a small price to pay.

It's worth pointing out, too, that when I say suburbanites "like" this stuff, it's sort of like saying Goldman Sachs "likes" making money. They really, really like it. They aren't being tricked and they don't need their consciousnesses raised. And they can be vicious. Living in suburbia is like living in an entire community full of Sarah Palins: friendly enough if you leave them alone, but pit bulls if you try to change anything they don't like. And remember: these aren't people who are alienated from the system, they are the system. If you try to force change on them, they have the time, the money, the education, and the connections to fight you until you're completely exhausted. And they will. They will never give up.

So that's what you're up against. Maybe policy can change suburbia, but it's going to be a long, hard fight and it's going to take more than judicious, analytic arguments. Oil at $500 a barrel and gasoline at 20 bucks a gallon might help.

The municipality where you live, Irvine, California, is "master planned to within an inch of its life," as you once noted. If you could go back in time and exert influence over that plan, what would you change?

That's a good question. The obvious answer is that it would be nice if the city were more walkable, but the original planners actually did a decent job on that score. My take, unfortunately, is that walkability is practically a binary thing: you either have it or you don't. If you do 90% of the things right, it doesn't matter. Your neighborhood still won't be walkable. You have to do 100% of the things right.

And that's just really tough in a suburban setting. Virtually no one has succeeded in doing it because you run up against a fundamental density constraint. The whole point of suburbia is that it's full of single family houses with their own yards, and if that makes up most of your housing stock then you'll never have the density you need to build a walkable community. All the shuttle buses and front porches in the world won't change that.

And here's the thing: the obvious solution to this would be to take a greenfield site and build it with a lot of density right from the start. That way you aren't trying to change a community that's already built up and set in its ways. But nobody ever does this. Even the most imaginative new urbanist suburbs are still, basically, suburbs. And the reason is that no one will finance a high-density community built from scratch because no one thinks it would be successful. Are they right? I suppose maybe not, but the fact that no one, literally no one, is willing to try it even though a high-density development would be fantastically profitable, sure suggests that it really is a hard sell. City people want real cities, not prepackaged ones. And suburban people want their single-family homes and backyards for the kids. There just doesn't seem to be much demand for anything in between.

On a couple occasions, I've gotten the impression that on reading the work of urban affairs bloggers who live in cities, your attitude is, "There are certain matters that these guys just don't get about suburbia." Assuming I'm right, what are those things?

Yeah, I've probably gotten a little overheated on that subject once or twice. But I do sometimes get the impression that urban bloggers underestimate just how deep the feelings of suburbanites run. They see the blandness of suburbs and can't imagine that anyone truly wants to live there. Or they imagine that suburbanites just don't understand what they're missing. Or that they're misinformed about what cities are really like.

But for the most part they aren't. You can argue until you're blue in the face that density doesn't necessarily lead to more crime or more noise or more traffic or lower property values, but guess what? It just isn't going to fly. Suburbanites are largely people who moved out of cities precisely to get away from all that stuff, and you just can't convince them that if only they adjusted their attitude they'd realize that it's all worth it. A lot of them have lived in cities, they know what cities are like, and they've chosen not to live there.

In addition, there's a point at which you just have to concede that different people like and value different things. If you're young and single, a good nightlife seems like a necessity. When you're married and raising a family, three bedrooms seems more important. If you don't have kids, good schools are an intellectual abstraction. Once you do have kids, suddenly they become the most important thing you can think of -- and the school down the street with metal detectors at the entrance and security guards in the hallways is something you'll sacrifice almost anything to get away from.

Back in 2002, Jonathan Rauch wrote that even if school vouchers don't improve student performance, the policy would be beneficial for its effect on the housing market.

His basic argument was that middle and upper middle class people flee poor neighborhoods served by sub-par schools, and bid up the price of housing in places with good schools. He thought that by decoupling school and housing decisions, you could reverse white flight, improve poor neighborhoods, and lower housing costs.

You're the resident of a city where the schools are excellent, and the housing prices reflect as much. What's your reaction to his argument?


Rauch's argument is aimed mainly at people who live in cities, not at existing suburbanites. He thinks that vouchers might help keep people in cities, and maybe he's right. But how would it affect existing suburbs?

I'm really not sure, but probably in ways that suburbanites wouldn't like. After all, they've already moved to a place with good schools, so they don't need vouchers. And if other people get vouchers, that might mean that lower-income kids will stream into their schools. Or, alternatively, that city schools have the money to bid away the best teachers. Either way, suburbanites would probably view it as a net negative.

Any predictions about what urban affairs trends journalists will be writing about a few decades hence, looking back on the 2010s, 20s and 30s?

You're just looking for wild guesses? Because that's all I have. But I think the whole new urbanist movement will be considered pretty quaint by 2030. Suburbs will still look much like they do today because the infrastructure is simply too built up and too permanent already. And if oil costs $500 a barrel by then, suburbanites will buy electric cars and solar panels for their roofs, and suburban planners will start building usable bus and trolley systems. In any case, I think they'll do that before they'll give up the basic suburban plan.

As for cities, I don't know. I've never lived in a city, after all. But honestly, the basic problems of urban living haven't actually changed all that much in the past two thousand years. In 25 BC Marcus Vitruvius Pollio was writing about central heating, clean water, harmonious design, good building materials, the human dimensions of architecture, and how to design good streets. That all sounds pretty familiar. I have a feeling that urban planners of the year 2030 might well be writing about the same things.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus
The Florida Report - An 8-part video series with Richard Florida The Burden of Home Ownership

The Burden of Home Ownership

Part 8: Richard Florida argues that Americans need to get over their obsession with real estate More in the series »

The Path to Recovery

The Path to Recovery

The rise of megaregions, the decline of home ownership, the shift away from a car culture - these are among the nation's responses to today's economic turmoil. Adapted from Richard Florida's new book, The Great Reset. More »

High Speed Rail All Aboard!

The future of train travel, with The Atlantic's Derek Thompson