Joel Kotkin must know he’s lying. The only conclusion one can draw from his recent Washington Post piece is that he is claiming that a single family home in an automobile oriented environment is not an option for the average American family in much of the United States. The obvious truth is that the “white picket fence” model is very nearly the only option for an American family which is financially viable, geographically available, and socially acceptable.
Kotkin expresses concern specifically for struggling, post industrial communities and about those places his observations couldn’t fall further from the mark. In greater Springfield, for example, there are single family homes at every price point both within the city itself, and in the outlying suburbs and rural areas. Banks are set up to finance those homes, and you can find them nearly everywhere in every city and town. Apart from their ubiquity, no one would ever question your choice of a detached single family home as a parent. Ever. There are better and worse neighborhoods, and more or less affordable communities, but buying a house with a driveway and a yard is undeniably, inarguably, irrefutably, the norm.
The same is true for all but maybe 5 metro areas in the United States and we all know it.
But what if you want to raise a family in an urban place? What if you want that option? In luxury cities, as Kotkin labels them, such as Manhattan, Cambridge, or San Francisco it is true that many families select the walkable, traditional, urban option. It’s expensive, but the idea is that the amenities made available in the public realm in a vibrant city more than make up for the relatively high cost of housing on a square foot basis. In other words people make the same calculation urban dwellers have always made regarding the value of space in closer proximity to the benefits living in a society creates.
In the rest of America our system of infrastructure and finance has so disabled the center city that living there, while easily affordable, is socially unacceptable and perceived to be untenable educationally. That the impediments to urban living are mostly illusory makes their impact on freedom of choice no less real. Anyone being honest about the state of our society will acknowledge that any family of even extremely modest means will do everything possible within their power to place themselves in as suburban a place as possible because the alternative, city living in a dense community, has in many cases been stripped of its value, or even when it has not, it is perceived to have been so stripped. People overextend themselves financially on homes they cannot afford, which further obligates them to live car centered lives involving, often, the purchase, fueling, and maintenance of multiple motor vehicles just to engage in the comings and goings of everyday life.
Because already existing, traditional, walkable places do not exist as an acceptable option for people wanting to raise families, infrastructure is spread out, car use is increased, fossil fuel energy demands skyrocket, and land use for agricultural and recreational use is reduced. All of this makes our economy less efficient while exacerbating its negative environmental impacts at the same time it stratifies and calcifies our society’s racial and class differences. It stresses our different layers of government fiscally as the services they are expected to provide are pushed out to the periphery in a layout which does not allow efficiency.
If real choice is the goal then there will need to be at least as great an effort put into rebuilding America’s center cities as there was into destroying them. Billions of dollars will need to be spent on improvements in urban infrastructure and public transit; nearly as much as has been spent on highways and stroad developments. Finance will need restructuring to facilitate urban development in the same way that mortgage restructuring and the home mortgage interest deduction promoted single family home development in the 20th century. Tax formulas will have to be changed to more accurately reflect the cost to government of maintenance and services that the different living typologies demand.
Then we’ll have a much more level playing field and we’ll see how this:
Fares head to head against this: