I’m not subsidized!

The suburbs are subsidized? I didn’t pay for my split level and my SUV? Not for the gas I consume?

No you didn’t. But why should we care? We need to spend our tax money on something and it may as well be the things that people want, including cars and houses on acreage and cheap energy.

Well there are reasons to care. Besides the rank hypocrisy of the subsidized libertarian, sprawl and its discontents are one of the biggest contributors to public debt.

Here is an excerpt from Chakrabarti’s book A Country of Cities which lists ways to end the subsidies. Prescriptions are: take away subsidies for mortgages in suburban areas; don’t subsidize gas; price gas to include pollution and congestion; percapita distribution of federal monies to multimodal transportation.

Good ideas that few believe and ever fewer want; all the more reason to talk about them:

While the ‘inversion’ is irrefutable and, some would argue, welcome, few examine the potential long-term benefits of this trend – particularly if government rather than promoting suburbanization instead encouraged urbanism, or at least gave it an even chance. The necessary changes would include modifying or curtailing the vast array of  federal policies that currently subsidize suburban America, including: phasing out the federal home mortgage interest deduction (MID); ceasing the backing by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac of large mortgages that otherwise would not be underwritten by the private market; removing subsidies for the oil industry; reclassifying SUVs and minivans as light trucks; allocating federal transportation dollars by population, and distributing those dollars fairly across all modes of transportation, including rail and mass transit, instead of disproportionately funding highways and runways; streamlining the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to drastically reduce the red tape associated with urban development and building large-scale infrastructure; and, finally, pricing fuel to reflect what economists call the ‘negative externalities,’ or the actual price of gas if the societal costs of pollution and congestion were included (many economists put this price at $10 or more per gallon.)

As we will see in the pages that follow, such policy reforms would dramatically improve our economy, our environment, and our chances for equal opportunity. Achieving consensus for these changes, however, would be a tremendous challenge, and would require a recasting of the political spectrum as we know it. People are accustomed to their subsidies, particularly those in the middle class, who tend to believe they are not subsidized at all.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, p 38.


September 13, 2014, 11:28 pm
Filed under: Cities, streets, Suburbs | Tags: , ,

One-Mile Walk in a Compact Neighborhood

A one-mile walk in Seattle’s Phinney Ridge takes you through a grid-like street network with a mix of residences and businesses.

One-Mile Walk in a Sprawling Suburb

A one-mile walk in Bellevue, WA with cul-de-sacs and winding streets has few shops and services within walking distance.

Maps courtesy of Lawrence Frank & Co. and the Sightline Institute

density and co2
May 18, 2014, 11:58 pm
Filed under: Cities, density, Suburbs | Tags: , ,

From Building Hyperdensity and Civic Delight, Vishaan Chakrabarti


gassy suburbs
January 26, 2014, 11:59 am
Filed under: density, Energy, Suburbs | Tags: , , ,

Suburbs make more pollution per capita; it makes sense, fewer people consuming (vastly) more resources: gas, streets, utilities, housing, etc. Here is some proof.

From carbon footprint research at UC Berkley:

A major finding of the research: suburbs account for more greenhouse gas emissions than other areas. In total, suburbs produce about 50% of household emissions, despite housing only 143 million people in total from a U.S. population of 313 million. Inner city residents tend to have lower carbon footprints, because they live in smaller homes and use more public transit. Some urban households produce 50% of the national average, while some suburban households emit double the national average.

A Map Of The Carbon Footprint Of All 31,000 ZIP Codes In The U.S.: This massive interactive tool shows why cities rule, and suburbs are big emissions belchers, Fast Company

a synthetic consequence of history

Twenty years ago I read an op ed in the Globe and Mail that asked the question: what is the biggest public money grab in North America? The answer, the suburb. The suburb, apparently, is a massive welfare program.

In the intervening period I have read precious little on the topic – ie. material specifically tying suburban life to public debt – no doubt because the idea cuts to close to the heart of the truth of how we live. I’m now reading Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities which kicks off with the bold face assertion that how we live is subsidized.

I sometimes like to think about a solution. If there’s a problem, why not? Clearly the solution here is to delink public money from very expensive lifestyle choices: ie. no more oil and gas subsidies, no more massively expensive infrastructure projects and utility grids that serve less than x people per acre, no more big box market subsidies and incentives, raise the level of investment in efficient means of transport (public) and lower that of the much less efficient means (private cars), etc.  (That’s one half of the silver bullet. The other half is to make the city affordable for everyone, which is another big topic for another day.) I know, I know, I’m dreaming. But this dream has to do with that hard nosed topic, money, so maybe …

Here is Chakrabarti:

The suburbs, therefore, are not a mere reflection of the way people want to live, or even a reflection of true market forces, but a synthetic consequence of history. The suburbs are largely a creation of ‘big government,’ and explicit policy-driven, subsidized scheme that has guided how we live, work and play. Over the last century, this has created the most consumption-based economy the planet has known – that is until the music stopped: the twenty-first century debuted in America with an epic collapse of the housing market (particularly the single-family housing market), the rapid acceleration of climate change, and the largest division between rich and poor in the postwar era.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, p 33.

photo: American Palimpsests, © Stacy Arezou Mehrfar

subsidized space

For a country of people who are as interested in money as Americans are, one would think that understanding where debt comes from would be imperative. But in America the pursuit of happiness trumps pretty well everything else and money becomes funny money. So no one sees or talks about the elephant in the room: the obvious link between building inefficient environments and the amount of public and private debt we have. Chakrabarti puts it this way:

As I illustrate throughout these pages, our reckless subsidization of suburban sprawl is arguably the leading cause of our most pressing challenges, from foreclosures, to unemployment, to unfunded schools, to spiraling health-care costs, to climate change, to oil wars. Yet this overarching issue never surfaces in the national discourse. In election after election, our presidential candidates rarely utter the words “city” or suburb” in their speeches, as if the way in which Americans live is irrelevant to the state of the nation.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, p 19

the politics of the suburbs
August 12, 2012, 12:49 pm
Filed under: betaCITY, Cities, density, Energy, Suburbs | Tags: , ,

This description of the establishment and maturation of the American suburb follows an interesting narrative arc:  from consumption, to politicization, to passivity, to stability, to class and racial segregation.

We’ve all heard the story of increased consumption and the evacuation of our city’s cores.  We don’t read much, however, about how land rights activism and conservatism were the direct result of suburbanization.  Nor about the passivity of the new middle class once established in their exurban homes.

From Harvey’s essay, the Right to the City:

The suburbanization of the United States was not merely a matter of new infrastructures. As in Second Empire Paris, it entailed a radical transformation in lifestyles, bringing new products from housing to refrigerators and air conditioners, as well as two cars in the driveway and an enormous increase in the consumption of oil. It also altered the political landscape, as subsidized home-ownership for the middle classes changed the focus of community action towards the defence of property values and individualized identities, turning the suburban vote towards conservative republicanism. Debt-encumbered homeowners, it was argued, were less likely to go on strike. This project successfully absorbed the surplus and assured social stability, albeit at the cost of hollowing out the inner cities and generating urban unrest amongst those, chiefly African-Americans, who were denied access to the new prosperity.

The Right to the City, David Harvey