Last week, Chuck Marohn crossed a line. It’s one thing to tell people that some coffee shops, dress boutiques, and banks need to be arranged differently, it is quite another to suggest that actual individuals may need to live differently as well. Chuck runs headlong into the concept that, for most people, a “solution” to a problem is defined as a thing someone else can do to fix the problem. In comment after comment on his essay in the American Conservative people express their preference for suburban living all the while ignoring almost every point made in the piece. In some cases conservatives complain that any sort of urban living arrangement will empower liberals because cities require functioning governments to exist, in others they completely ignore the facts about the funding of their own suburban infrastructure. Not wanting a thing to be true does not make it false.
The commercial and retail side of the Strongtowns message is going gangbusters, as well it should. It is one thing, however, to point to Taco John’s and an old run-down strip of real estate in a small town and say “put the taco stand here and you won’t have to raise taxes as much”, but it is quite another when you imply that millions of Americans are living beyond their means in terms of the costs their living arrangements make on infrastructure. Thems fightin’ words!
Look at the evidence though.
Take a truly mixed urban neighborhood, like the one pictured here, with some detached, some semi-detached, and some (“…stacked like pancakes!”) apartment style residences.
How many linear feet of sidewalk, and water and sewer infrastructure do they each require? How much in the way of asphalt? What about power lines, gas lines, cable, and telephone?
Look at this suburban neighborhood at the same scale:
Ask the same questions.
In the first people can choose to have greater or lesser amounts of living space, but it’s a fairly straightforward thing to divvy up the cost to each resident. In the latter however, the disconnect between the overall cost to the system and the value of the living space is apparent. Even more clear is just how much more infrastructure each residence requires…to the point that this “much wealthier community” can’t afford sidewalks.
Suburbia is a Ponzi scheme. I will grant that it is much easier for me to see it because I never liked it anyway. That Chuck Marohn, a guy who clearly preferred suburbia, (at least until he realized it was a Ponzi scheme) is the one who saw through the façade of prosperity in “them thar cul-de-sacs” is a credit to his ability to look at the evidence and follow it wherever it leads. In the end his genius reminds me of that of Charles Darwin. In retrospect their revelations are easy to understand and fairly self-evident. Both suggest that certain notions that people have entertained to prop up their world views are false. Both obligate people to reject ideas they would prefer to hold on to for other reasons. In both cases the revealers of truth felt great sympathy for the institutions their understanding would undermine.
As consolation I would tell Chuck that I believe, though it is just a belief, that many people will enjoy living in a reality-based world, where the fanciful notion of the sustainability of infinite horizontal growth is a thing of the past. (Perhaps even many more people than believe that they could live without it.) Once the fantasy is done away with it will become clear that the challenge is to make these more economically sustainable places enjoyable places to live. Perhaps, in the long run, we will be glad to have escaped suburbia and we will wonder what we ever saw in it in the first place.