Author Matthew Stadler is coming to Seattle’s Town Hall next week to talk about a topic that probably will make some folks wince. His claim: suburbs increasingly embody urbane values—in particular, economic and cultural diversity—that are vanishing from the center city. He sees this trend in the riotous hodgepodge that’s grown up in the inner ring of suburbs surrounding Seattle:
Anyone interested in the city—in the close press of strangers, in surprise, class-mixing, cosmopolitanism—has long since left the bourgeois pleasure grounds of the center to explore the urban landscapes springing up in the margins of the metropolitan area. In Seattle, this is as easy as a bus ride to White Center, where Hispanic and Southeast Asian mix with the remaining Scots and Irish, then south into close-packed Des Moines (the state’s fourth most densely populated city), then east through Tukwila and Renton, with its huge Sikh population, then north into Kirkland (home of the region’s only Bollywood cinema) and Bellevue, where the Crossroads shopping center has made a bustling market square inside an old mall—a culinary and cultural entrepÃ´t that draws the Eastside’s considerable Persian population to mix with Japanese, Korean, Anglo, and the area’s upper-class South Indians, who want little to do with their Punjabi cousins in Renton.
Stadler lays out his thesis quite nicely here. He’s a skilled and smooth writer, and while it would be easy to caricature his perspective as reflexively anti-city (or, really, anti-urban elite), that’s a mistake. He’s making a more subtle point: the old idea that “city” and “suburb” are separate and distinct entities—either physically or culturally—no longer holds water. He finds common intellectual ground with a German architect and planner, Thomas Sieverts (more here), who rejects the urban-suburban-exurban distinction in favor of the notion of the “in-between city,” a single entity that encompasses the entire built environment in all its permutations.
Ok, that’s fine—as far as it goes. Obviously, the political boundaries separating “city” from “suburb” are arbitrary, and perhaps not all that helpful in understanding an ever-changing metropolis.
But the unsettling thing about Stadler’s writing is that—as far as I can tell—some of his facts are simply wrong.
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Take his views on transportation. He makes a seemingly plausible claim that “car dependency does not reliably distinguish the suburb from the city.” Maybe that sounds good—but I’m at a loss as to what it means.
Sure, city dwellers often own cars; many have a hard time getting to where they need to go without them. Still, people who live in densely populated urban centers own fewer cars, and drive them less, than people who live in sparsely populated suburbs. That’s not just a conjecture or armchair theorizing—it’s as close to a rock-solid fact as any that I come across in my line of work. I’m a pretty skeptical person, but just about every available scrap of, you know, evidence I’ve found on the subject has convinced me that the built environment—and in particular, the combination of density, street connectivity, abundant transportation choices, and the ample mix of services and homes—has a strong, perhaps even even determinative, effect on how much residents drive. (See here for just one graph on the empirical relationship between driving and residential density; there’s plenty more graphs where that came from.)
So, contra Stadler, the more a place is like a tradtional “city,” the less its residents tend to drive; and car dependence goes hand in hand with “suburbs.” Now, I’m sure there are ways of playing word games to make Stadler’s claim make some sense. Perhaps there are places that have the density and transportation characteristics of a “city,” but is technically considered a “suburb.” Semantic games aside, it seems to me that Stadler’s core claim—that suburbanization doesn’t correlate with car dependence—resides in an “in-between city” of its own: somewhere between falsehood and nonsense.
And unfortunately, that error makes me think twice about other things Stadler writes. For example, he notes that tiny Mabton, Washington is the state’s second-densest municipality—and cites this as evidence that big-city living doesn’t actually equate with density. But look at the map of Mabton (linked above). It’s a tiny, isolated town with tight boundaries and just a few streets. Nobody would plausibly think of it as either a city or a suburb. I can’t see that Mabdon’s nominal density has any relevance to the argument at hand; citing that “fact” does more to confuse the debate than enlighten it. Nothing to see here, folks.
That sort of thing brings me full circle, to the beginning of Stadler’s argument. Remember that first sentence I quoted?
Anyone interested in the city…has long since left the bourgeois pleasure grounds of the center to explore the urban landscapes springing up in the margins of the metropolitan area.
Although Stadler, much to his credit, avoids the overt sneering of many anti-city commentors, the only thing I get out of that sentence is: “all the cool kids are in the suburbs now.” And it belies my own experience: I’m far from cool, but I am interested in the city, and from what I’ve seen the cultural mixing of, say, Seattle’s International District, or certainly in parts of Vancouver and Portland, rivals anything you’ll find in the inner-ring suburbs.
I shouldn’t be too critical of Stadler; I don’t know any more about his work than what I’ve read in The Stranger. And to be charitable, he seems to have found a genuine silver lining to a well-documented trend that’s typically greeted with dismay—that inner-ring suburbs, the first wave of low-density development fueled by the rise of the auto, are losing both wealthier residents and political pull. Folks like Myron Orfield note that this process can create all sorts of strains for a region. But as Stadler notes, it also means that some inner-ring suburbs are becoming more culturally and economically diverse, as real estate that used to be out of reach for recent immigrants is becoming more affordable.
Still, I can’t shake the feeling that Stadler’s seeming disdain for the way center cities are shaping up buys into a long-standing American cultural narrative—city folks, whatever they are doing, whatever their origins and habits, are somehow suspect. A decade or so ago, the trend was to deride center cities as dangerous, unliveable, in terminal decline. Now we’re seeing the opposite trend: anti-urban sentiment is targeted at wealthier new residents, who’ve allegedly “sterilized” the inner city, and sapped it of its cultural vitality. City folk, I’m sure, are guilty of comparable inanities in describing suburbs. I, for one, am tired of the finger pointing; so I’m going to go grab some good Pad Thai around the corner from my (decidedly urban) office, and head home to my formerly-considered-suburban but-now-considered-urban neighborhood, without worrying too much one way or the other about whether either place is in terminal decline.
Back in the late 80’s Richard Morrill a economic geography professor at UW was predicting that the urban blight of the 80’s would migrate to the suburbs as the cities became gentrified. He foresaw the rebounding of the Central District. However his more dire predictions for suburbs have yet to bear out. However, one example of rapid suburban change has been Federal Way. It has become much more economically and racially diverse over 20 years, in some ways resembling what south-end city neighborhoods were back then. I’m sure others here are more well versed on this topic than I, but this idea of an urban enclave with increasingly diverse suburbs has stuck in my head for 20 years so I have to say that much of what Stadler is saying resonates. I agree his views on transportation make no sense – and having a sister-in-law who teaches in the city cultural diversity is not yet lacking in many neighborhoods.Regarding economic diversity, the Seattle Times lists the 8 areas in King County still affordable for those with the median income. By my count only two of these are in Seattle proper. Two may be semi-rural. Here is the list: – South Park/Georgetown – Burien – Boulevard/Riverton – SeaTac – Green River Valley – Des Moines – Twin Lakes – Auburn – Enumclaw
Oops, meant to say “9” areas.
I agree, Arie, there’s a lot that’s right about what Stadler says about diversity & suburbs—it’s pretty well documented that inner-ring suburbs are getting more economically and racially variegated. I don’t have any opinion one way or the other about whether that’s a “good” thing. Lots of folks argue that it is, not because diverse suburbs are inherently better places than more uniform ones, but because it puts more lower-income folks physically nearer to new employment opportunities in the suburbs. In my view, that’s something of a worrisome trend: dispersed jobs lead to more driving lead to higher externalities, such as accidents and climate change & petroleum dependence & so forth.Also, one thing that the housing cost index doesn’t take into account is transportation costs: combining housing + transportation, some “affordable” neighborhoods that require lots of car travel are more expensive than they seem. There’s been some research on this in the Twin Cities; I don’t know how generalizable it is, though.
THe tip-off to the weakness of Stadler’s argument is his misuse of the term “urban landscape” to mean “ethnic diversity.” Crossroads for example is a pure suburban landscape. Is it an improvement? Absolutely. But it is not an urban landscape.
No. I spent the day yesterday in a literature search for almost this very thing [amenity provision in built environments] and most of the literature disagrees with you Clark.First, Stadler is reviewing two books. It is his job to make a tapestry & connection between the two, and his Zwischenstadt is your key to his thesis. The two books…er…bookend the two stadts of the zwischen.There is no defending of the argumentation of the Peter Gordons, Joel Kotkins or even the Breugmann that he reviews. He does not imbue big L values or Free Marketeering as provisioning housing. His (about Breugmann) [h]is defense of sprawl is appealing to those of us who root for the underdog, but the dichotomies he relies on, especially the division between urban and suburban, ultimately make the book unsuited for any activity beyond cheerleading. So long as the mythology of the urban center persists, it really doesn’t matter whom we cheer for shows you he doesn’t agree with Breugmann’s book (I read it and it’s cr*p). He is merely reflecting what his happening on the ground – polycentrism driven by land rents and transportation, in addition to attracting knowledge workers with amenities. I’m not sure I can find it quickly, but Waddell et al. over at UrbanSim lab at UW have a paper with graphics that shows the decentralization of Puget Sound population, even the people of color (even though we find that people of color don’t disperse across the landscape as whites do). It’s happening, and it is driven by prices (drive ’til you qualify).People tend to self-sort, and whites especially tend to sort according to income (partially as a result of searching for good schools). If they don’t think of the built environment first when the household makes the decision, well, that’s part of the function of this blog to educate folk as to the wonders of the built environment. But in America, the only thing folk hate worse than sprawl is density.DS
Thanks for taking time to read my review and for improving on it with this informed debate. I thought I’d pitch in by clarifying two things that seem to have not come across clearly in the review.First, my claim that car dependency does not distinsguish the city from the suburb came from noting that between Portland (city) and Washington County (which includes the suburbs of Beaverton, Tigard, etc.) there is a zero-net commute—i.e., traffic is equal in both directions; as many are driving from Portland to get to Washington County as are driving from Washington County to get to Portland. I’m eager to learn if this is a freakish exception or an increasingly common pattern. In either case, it’s a good illustration of the fact that cars are not “a feature of the suburbs” OR “a feature of the city”—they are a feature of the whole fabric, the whole organism.As Thomas Sieverts says “politics must seek to minimize use of the car.” I agree. I myself don’t have a car. But any political debate that locates car dependency as a problem of the suburbs is naive. Car dependency is a problem of the zwischenstadt, as Sieverts has described it, and we must make the zwischenstadt—not “the city” and not “the suburbs”—“the subject of our politics” if we are to make any real progress on that issue.Second, in the discussion of density I meant to dismiss Mabton (and Mattawa and Toppenish) as not relevant to our inquiry because they are small, compact towns, unrelated to this question of the city and its suburbs. Sorry if that wasn’t clear in the review.Third, I am not critical of city slickers. It is exactly that strain in Bruegmann that put me off of his book. I’m just alarmed that our ability to think about the conditions in which we live is still so hobbled by the tired, old tale of the city, its rise or fall. I find Sieverts’s notion of the zwischenstadt much more useful and relevant to every part of what we have called the city and the suburbs.My talk in Seattle, which is an expansion of a talk I gave in Rotterdam last November, attempts to find a history of the zwischenstadt in this region. I think we can begin to assess it as its own subject if we free it from the history of the city (which, here, is a brief history indeed),
Seattle to the east side is also a zero net commute if not flipped. There has been talk of reversing the express lanes on I-90 or splitting them for this reason. (See http://tinyurl.com/ylrtbr)Working in Redmond most of my younger or unmarried colleagues prefer to live in city – even when cheaper housing and alternative urban centers are available nearby. Fortunately many take the bus or bus/bike – 520 traffic is a great incentive to do so. [Clark here—I edited the URL, Arie, since it was so long that it was messing up the HTML. It leads to the same place, though.]
most of my younger or unmarried colleagues prefer to live in city – even when cheaper housing and alternative urban centers are available nearby. Excellent observation Arie, as they likely seek amenities. We must remember that there are different life stages, and different built environments serve different stages for the majority of folks. For example, we find that most folks in the ‘have kids’ demographic that have the ability to choose, choose not to live in traditional denser cities [because they seek school quality, home prices, self-sorting, space buffering of large lots]. The demographic ‘sans kids’ often prefer to choose places with many amenities, and that often is denser environments (and more so now that we provide this sort of built environment). Transportation distance, the urban economic discipline finds, tends not to be a decision factor of locational choice, as most can afford the long drive [the time component makes one choose between competing time demands, and often exercise is dropped, but that’s another topic].DS
Welcome, Mr. Stadler. (And to anyone who’s free next Thursday, consider going to Town Hall—if Mr. Stadler is anywhere near as good a speaker as he is a writer, it should be an interesting evening.)A couple of responses. First, I think it is becoming more common to find 2-way commuting, or “reverse” commutes, even in cities with strong centers. As Arie points out, that’s happening in Seattle; and I’ve heard that it’s becoming far more common in SF as well, though report does make me wonder if that’s really true. But also take a look at this report on commuting from the PSRC—in a nutshell, the Seattle CBD has, by quite a wide margin, the largest share of transit commuters and the smallest share of drive-alone commuters. (Carpoolers tend to be families these days; rates don’t vary much by region.) Transit commuting rates in downtown are 4 and a half times higher than the closest “suburb”—downtown Bellevue, which is barely “suburban”. In other suburbs, the share is even lower. And Larry Frank, a UBC researcher, has found that the single largest determinant of commuting mode in greater Seattle is employment density—that is, people who commute to places where jobs are dense are more likely to take transit. As far as I can tell, that’s because it’s reasonably cost effective to run transit to job centers, but costly to run it to dispersed jobs; plus parking tends to be more expensive in places where jobs are dense. So as far as I can tell, dense job centers affect car commuting rates.More importantly, people tend to overestimate commuting as a share of driving. I can’t recall the figure exactly, but a PSRC study estimated that commuting represents only about a quarter (maybe a third) of all driving in the Puget Sound region. This shouldn’t be too surprising, since under half of the population has a job, counting kids, retirees, non-working spouses and so forth. Even during afternoon rush hour, a minority of vehicles on the road are direct work-to-home commutes (though some may be chained trips—work-school-store-home). Much of the remaining, non-pleasure/vacation driving is influenced by neighborhood design—namely, density and residential & commercial mix.More later, if I’ve got time.
In 1925 Lewis Mumford wrote that “the hope of the city lies outside itself.” Nuff said? Right, so why am I still trying to get my head around the “in-between city”? Even Stadler admits that there is no news in Sieverts’ book. As for the “stunningly simple argument,” well, color me not so stunned (and no, I haven’t read the book). Here’s my take on that argument: Some shit that matters is happening outside of urban centers. And an impressive point indeed it would be if no one else had ever noticed before. But they have, in droves. Is the PSRC planning as if nothing but Seattle enters the equation? Is this a new idea? Mumford continues: “Focus your attention on the cities—in which more than half of us live—and the future is dismal. But lay aside the magnifying glass which reveals, for example, the hopelessness of Broadway and Forty-second Street, take up a reducing glass and look at the entire region in which New York lies. The city falls into focus. Forests in the hill-counties, water-power in the mid-state valleys, farmland in Connecticut, cranberry bogs in New Jersey, enter the picture. To think of all these acres as merely tributary to New York, to trace and strengthen the line of the web in which the spider-city sits unchallenged, is again to miss the clue. But to think of the region as a whole and the city merely as one of its parts—that may hold promise.” (An aside: a few paragraphs later Mumford pretty much nails the modern definition of the triple bottom line, writing “[the regionalist] sees people, industry, and the land as a single unit.”) Sorry, but I do enjoy my Mumford.Fast forward 82 years. I’m left wondering what those who truly understand the significance of the in-between city would have us do differently. For example, is it wrong to try to focus growth in urban centers? Or better yet, what should we do with the viaduct? In the next installment, perhaps: Should all the urban designers and architects take a tip from Sieverts, quit their jobs and get to work writing novels set in the strip malls of Federal Way?
I’m left wondering what those who truly understand the significance of the in-between city would have us do differently. For example, is it wrong to try to focus growth in urban centers? I like the regionalism bit, Dan. Biblius read Babbit’s book about this very thing not too long ago, we missed you at that one. Anyway, we can look at the different PSRC planning/growth scenarios for our clue to the answer. The PSRC understands that the live-work gap is large and some scenarios try to focus growth in rural centers (‘zwischenstÃ¤dten’) to close it; after all, people live far outside of the Seattle CBD, so why not bring living-wage jobs to where the people choose to live? [Transit to areas of low density is considered not viable without subsidy]A problem with this is that in such scenarios, the provision of amenities will cause land rents to be bid up to equilibrium, causing some new immigrants to the area to be forced to look in outlying areas for affordable housing. We can tell people how wonderful it is that transit use is higher in higher density areas and quote certain public planners who say so, but certain public planners also say that transit use from, say, Renton to Seattle CBD takes too long and doesn’t make sense, or that the single most important determinant in Puget Sound area to rise out of poverty is car ownership (why? Transit use from Renton takes too long to CBD). These stark facts are the reason why some dense cities try to mandate provisions for affordable housing via TDRs or some other mechanism in their infill developments. To date they don’t work very well because developers are often uncomfortable building them, as banks are reluctant to lend for such projects. DS
Dano-Just to be clear—Stadler and I probably agree far more than we disagree. And I think his article shows that he’s a supple and nimble thinker, not a dogmatist (like Bruegmann et al). And I completely agree that inner ring suburbs in particular are getting more diverse—which in my mind is largely a function of economic trends (falling real estate values in inner suburbs, relative to center cities, and especially relative to the troughs of the 1970s & 1980s). Basically, as center cities have become more attractive, for a variety of reasons, they’ve also become more expensive—which has pushed some of the diversity that used to be concentrated in the core to the outskirts of town.I guess our fairly narrow points of disagreement are: 1) as I read the essay, Stadler implies that cities as we traditionally conceive of them aren’t uniquely dense. But as of the 2000 census, Seattle had about a sixth of the metro area’s population, but about half of the people living in neighborhoods with densities of 12 people per acre & up; and 80% of the residents living at densities of 40 people per acre and up, with most of the remaining 20% sprinkled among Everett, Tacoma, and tiny slivers in Redmond and Edmonds. So while it’s possible to find a few pockets of higher-density living outside the city center, density was, as of 2000, very clearly linked to proximity to Seattle’s urban core.2) he seems to imply that “city” living doesn’t ease car dependence. But it does—not absolutely & universally, obviously, but certainly in terms of average miles driven, average car ownership rates, average mode splits, and the like. Seattle residents are more likely than other folks in the region to bus to work; Seattle workers, likewise, find more commuting options than other folks.3) Somehow, calling the center city a “bourgeois pleasure ground” rubbed me wrong. Maybe Belltown is. But the ID? All of Capitol Hill? First Hill? Lower Queen Anne? As gussied up as it’s become, I still think that Pike Place Market more than holds its own with the Crossroads Mall for diversity, weirdness, and surprising glimpses of other cultures, both from other parts of the US and internationally.
Well, I was doing the Dan thing and exploring the robustness, Clark, of your statement that as far as I can tell—some of his facts are simply wrong without pointing out that your analysis confused ‘dependency’ with ‘ownership’ ( your 2) just above ). Employment in the CBD isn’t the sole provenance of city-dwellers, and as Arie pointed out somewhere, you’re just as likely to experience a commute in the morning east over the 520 bridge as west. The rest of the premise is held wanting from there, and I explored the underlying economic reasons for locational choice and the resultant car dependency [or not, if you choose to live in the few dense areas served well by public transportation].wrt your 3 points above, Stadler is exploring the framing and social background of ‘urbaneness’ and ‘urbanity’ in the context of vitality, not density per se [Disneyification of developers’ attempts to do CNU or TND – or what I see out here: ‘lifestyle centers’]; rather, density is a metric Stadler chooses to show the two sides of the ‘zwischen’ and how the two sides choose to use metrics. As my and Dan B’s friends discussed about Breugmann’s polemic, it is full of purposely and blatantly cherry-picked ‘number crunching’, which is what Stadler is saying but in a nicer way. Where we disagree, Clark, is when folks will choose to live in greater density. I, personally, think a large fraction of the Murrican populace doesn’t like dense living (Manifest Destiny, picket fences and all that learned acculturation and social conformity), and they won’t do it until our economy allows energy price signals to enter the economy; that is: true energy costs are externalized and until they become internalized and true prices enter the market (thus making 2500sf houses too expensive to heat, affecting transport costs), folks will choose to live in Graham and Yelm and Marysville because they can (I guess I should say Colo Spgs and Aurora and Evergreen now).Regards, sir,DS