Missouri Metro’s weekly podcast, This Week in Urbanism, just released its second episode titled “The Problem with the Suburbs”. You can listen to the podcast on Spotify Fridays at 7AM and supporters on Patreon have exclusive access to the content one day early. If you would like to support the channel, head over to patreon.com/brianadler.
For those who cannot listen to the podcast, below is a text readout of this episode’s contents:
You’re listening to This Week in Urbanism from Missouri-Metro
I’m your host, Brian Adler, and I am excited that you’re joining me for our very second episode. If you’re new here, This Week in Urbanism is designed to bring you up to speed on the latest in urban developments, infrastructure, policy, politics, rumors, and more that influence the urban experience in St. Louis. So, stick around and subscribe so you don’t miss the Friday morning shows as we take you on a journey showing how St. Louis is moving forward. If you want to listen a little early, check out our Patreon supporter page at patreon.com/brianadler to support this podcast.
Today is February 11th, 2022 and I’ve had some great conversations with some of our listeners over the past week and I have some new ideas that I hope to implement over the next several weeks. Most importantly, I want to do more to educate folks who are new to the idea of urbanism and work to build a larger coalition. Whether you’re an environmental activist, affordable housing enthusiast, a pro-growth, market-lovin’ business person, historian, academic, or already a staunch urbanist – I believe there’s a home for you in this big tent of a movement.
I firmly believe that urbanism is both essential and oft forgotten as one of the most important means to combatting climate change, but I also know that the world rightly or wrongly revolves around money. The fact of the matter is that economic growth as we see it today cannot continue inevitably without causing serious harm. That doesn’t mean, however, that we cannot find ways to make money. I will posit over the next however many podcasts that we can grow, and we can grow fast, if we change the rules of our cities. We can make money, support one another, make our cities better, and keep the planet habitable for generations to come. There’s so much we can do, but we have to do it together and build that coalition.
But how do we build a coalition when so many people have never considered urbanism? Although I’m in an Echochamber, residing in academic circles, I have been out enough to see that most people see nothing wrong with single-family zoning, sprawl, cars, parking, or the suburbs more broadly. And, for that matter, why would they? That’s what I want to talk about today. Today’s question is “What’s bad about single family homes, suburbs, and single-family exclusive zoning?”. And, of course, before diving in, I want to be crystal clear that there is nothing inherently wrong about living in a single family dwelling. What I want to make clear is that the market and policy choices that ultimately led to single family homes being the default for cities was (1) founded upon intentional segregation by race, (2) designed to gut urban areas, (3) one of the single biggest causes and contributors to climate change, and (4) costing you and our cities huge, unnecessary sums of money. What we can do about this will come at a later date!
I admittedly have a lofty goal for this single, short podcast, but I think this is really important. We have to first get more people to see the problem with the suburbs before we expect to bring them into our coalition or to support policies that progress urban causes.
So let’s start with our first goal. Calling out the racist intent with single family homes and the suburban sprawl we see today is really rather easy because the effects are still visible and they were literally codified, AKA written down and more recently than you probably thought possible. The US has been selling a uniform “American Dream” for decades that emphasizes a single family home, golden retriever, nuclear family, and a white-picket fence. The GI Bill and introduction of the Federal Housing Administration in the early to mid-1900s laid the groundwork for a white flight to the suburbs. The FHA introduced the practice of redlining in the 1930s, refusing to insure loans in predominantly Black communities that existed near the city center. The GI Bill was, for some time, almost exclusively available for white veterans.
As these early programs introduced another form of institutional racism and segregation, they also ensured that growth sputtered in city centers and occurred almost exclusively on the outskirts – creating what we know today as the suburbs. The FHA subsidized builders who produced massive, soulless subdivisions and many of these included restrictive covenants, which for those who haven’t heard of them before, are deed restrictions that prevented Black, and often other minority groups, from being allowed to purchase any of these homes. In the St. Louis metro area, many of the homes in the suburbs still have these deed restrictions in place even though they are not acted upon or legally enforceable anymore. A recent report from the St. Louis Public Radio showed that over 30,000 properties in St. Louis still have those restrictions.
Again, I want to emphasize that this was not just in St. Louis. This was Federal policy. The FHA had an underwriting manual that said, and I quote “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities”, meaning that they would not insure loans to Black families looking to purchase homes in the suburbs that white Americans were headed toward. Moreover, the FHA recommended actual barriers, like highways and walls, to separate races.
To boil it down, the suburbs were created largely after World War II, white veterans were given huge subsidies through the GI Bill and the FHA to buy suburban homes, which were also subsidized heavily on the manufacturing end, and Federal policy did not stretch to offer the same benefits to Black Americans or veterans. Instead, they were literally denied loans, restricted from suburban neighborhoods, and steered toward communities that looked like them. Yikes.
It feels like an injustice to move on when there is so much to talk about here, but I want to save some time for the other three points. I think we can come back to the racist themes of city planning and policy frequently on this podcast because they’re so apparent in our history.
Number two – the rush to the suburbs was designed to gut existing urban areas. Some of this is really simple, too. White flight, or the large movement of white families from the cities to the suburbs, must inherently exist to the benefit to one area and to the detriment of the other. The areas they left would be deprived of tax revenue, whether we’re thinking sales taxes or property taxes, and this created positive feedback loops that continually worsened city services like schools, parks, public safety, and more. This also increased vacancy and abandonment. Social scientists have shown a high correlation between increased vacancy and increased crime, not to mention that reduced funding for other social services like schools and infrastructure can have hugely detrimental impacts.
But there was also a more sinister element at play. And trust me, sinister actions toward Black communities were common place in the 1900s. Just look to the burning of “Black Wall Street” in Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1921. One of the most prosperous Black US communities was burned, block by block, by white Americans. Or, we can also see this in the East St. Louis riots in 1917, where White Americans murdered between 39 and 150 Black citizens and burned homes to the ground in 3 days of continued violence.
Sinister actions can be seen even in dull policy, however. Post World War II, planners and policy makers were rushing to eradicate areas that they seemed to believe were slums. These areas were typically very high density within cities and often had large, non-white populations. This was a process called Urban Renewal, and contrary to some popular belief, there was actually some pretty big support for urban renewal, even by some Black Americans, in the early days….but that did not continue for long. While some actual slums were cleared, the US already had policies that were in place and working, like the anti-tenement law of 1901, that were designed to improve living conditions. While there were still high density neighborhoods with poor living conditions, many of the neighborhoods that were bulldozed were actually thriving, predominantly Black, communities.
City planners, while building out the suburbs, wanted their urban areas to be free of density and instead host large monuments, expressways, and institutions. This is an idea that has often been called the City Beautiful movement. In St. Louis, we have a couple of crazy examples of how this played out. To accommodate the Gateway Arch, a massive monument, the City of St. Louis cleared not one, not two, but 37 city blocks by the river in the heart of downtown. This was a real, walkable neighborhood that sat vacant for years until the Arch was completed. Planners chose a monument over thousands of residents. Another neighborhood, Vandeventer Place, was torn down to build a hospital. Or, the neighborhood of Mill Creek, was all bulldozed strictly to clear slums that weren’t actually slums, for industrial uses. The homes of Mill Creek resembled some of the finest homes that we preserve and adore in Lafayette Square today. I encourage you to check out some of the historical archives. What we lost is unimaginable, and few discuss the huge impact these decisions had on the communities that lived there.
So what we can see here, to summarize, is that white Americans moved, Black families couldn’t, and simultaneously their neighborhoods were bulldozed. Not a great combination there.
Let’s do a bit of a 180 now to discuss why we should care about this from an ecological perspective, which, I know, is really quite different from what we were talking about. Let’s first start with some uncomfortable facts. According to the EPA, the transportation sector accounts for 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions. Yikes. That’s huge. Of that amount, 58% can be attributed to light duty vehicles, and 24% to medium and heavy duty trucks.
According to Edmunds.com, the top 3 grossing vehicles sold this last year are, in this order, the Ford F150, the Chevrolet Silverado, and the RAM 1500. These are all pickup trucks, and big ones at that. This is troubling because they’re huge, heavy, and take a whole lot of gas. These are not efficient, and yet they are extraordinarily popular.
This is important because if you live in the suburbs, chances are that you’re going to have to commute via a car. There are a few reasons for that: (1) US cities woefully underfund transit, (2) US Cities tore out transit systems like street trolleys in the early 1900s to accommodate gas-guzzling vehicles (actually, Los Angeles and St. Louis had huge trolley systems, but they’re literally just gone), (3) it’s hard to build transit in low density neighborhoods and not waste a lot of money, and (4) people are unreasonably scared of transit.
Suburbs, naturally, are built along the edges of cities. It’s too expensive to build single family homes on large lots in the middle of cities because there are so many higher and better uses for those areas. So they have to be built far away, and if you live far away, you still have to get to work, to the grocery store, etc. The way to do that is via the highway, and boy, have we built those. Unfortunately, this commute is devastating for your health, our shared health, and our climate.
Okay, so some of you might then reasonably conclude that this will all begin to get better with the onset of electric vehicles. Those of you who pre-ordered the electric F150, those of you who drive Teslas or BMW I3s, this one is going to hurt. Your persona vehicle is still going to have a huge contribution to climate change and cause horrible damage to the environment. Sorry.
To access your lovely suburban house, the city has to build a road to get there. It also has to build an absolutely insane amount of utility connections: Sewers, fiberoptic cables, electric, gas, etc. A lot of people don’t realize this, but development and expansion is crazy expensive, and the entire city’s tax base usually subsidizes these single family developments in most subdivisions. Then, of course, there’s the cost to maintain the roads. To police the roads. To maintain the utilities. In fact, cities often take out debt to build further into the suburbs, which can only be paid if they continue to grow, out into the suburbs. It is extremely unsustainable. And, of course. All of that asphalt, all of that square footage and the energy it takes to heat and cool it, and all of that water usage for those lawns, it adds up. So your electric vehicle is still going to use those road and utility and energy networks, and with how heavy electric vehicles are, road maintenance will have to increase too. Not to mention that the recycling of batteries is disastrous and that the chemicals can have horrendous consequences.
No, no matter how you put it, living out there is unsustainable. Electric vehicles don’t change that even if they’re marginally better. These developments still contribute to automobile dependency, which ultimately contribute to climate change. A great study from the University of Ottawa (and yes, I know this is a Canadian institution, but they have similar zoning) suggested that suburban families usually drive 3x more on average than those who live in urban centers.
In the interest of time, I think I should move on to number four: discussing how single family homes cost our cities a ton of money. I already touched on this a moment ago with the road and utility connections, but there are also huge opportunity costs, negative externalities on other communities, and costs that you, yourself will bear when trying to buy into the crazy market.
I think I’ll start with how you will lose money first and foremost. That same study suggests that people who live in the suburbs will generally spend, on average, a little over $3400 in annual costs that are borne due to their location in the suburbs. That is compared to an average cost of a home in an urban area of $1400. So what costs more? Everything. Transportation (think car repairs, gas, miles, depreciation, no bus or train access), fire and police, trash, roads (this one was over 10X as much), water, school bussing, and more. You’ll pay for that directly and indirectly. Unfortunately, we’ll also pay for that if you live in the same municipal boundaries, subsidizing the higher costs by your side.
OF course, you’ll also feel these costs when you’re trying to buy a house in the first place. Because of single family zoning, you’ll find that properties tend to only have, well, one house. This creates huge inventory issues, something that buyers are feeling right now across the country. With decreased supply and stagnant or upward demand, which is likely with population growth, then prices will considerably increase.
One thing that I want to hit home here is that, perhaps single family usage can be okay, but our zoning laws are really messed up. In Los Angeles, apartments are banned, literally banned by zoning, on approximately 80% of all residential land. That means that even if a developer bought your property, they could not build apartments on it. That means that, save for only a few areas, they cannot build dense housing at all. This also can create huge competition for the areas in which developers can build, driving up costs, and making it just about impossible to feasibly build anything less than market rate or luxury units because developers cannot make any profit doing affordable housing. Los Angeles is not unique, in fact, many Western cities are some of the worst in this regard. They lack a middle housing of medium density that can often be found in legacy cities.
So if you’re wondering why there’s a housing shortage, single family zones are one of the foremost causes. When you can’t build anything with density in most of the city, how are you supposed to provide affordable housing for your citizens? You can’t. It’s almost impossible. These rules disadvantage those already struggling the most, and planners and citizens alike do their best to preserve the status quo – preventing condos or apartments being built next to them all the time. The amount of effort that goes into preserving communities for only those who live there now, and not to welcoming more in the future, is astonishing. Of course, this also amounts to humungous opportunity costs. There is so much value that could be created for residents and developers alike if our zoning rules allowed for it. Then, the buildings that result would have retail opportunities for small businesses, offices, and help create more walkable communities. The value is there, but we aren’t allowing it to take place.
How are you supposed to fight climate change like this?
Well, you’re going to have to fight to change these policies.
That’s why this episode, and admittedly a pretty feisty one, is designed to get you on board. I want you to realize how important this topic is. Urbanism is a tool we can use to change our cities for the better. To make our communities more welcoming. To grow our economically equitably and environmentally. It is one of the best tools we have, and here’s what you can do:
- Go to your city council meetings and fight for smart density and walkable cities
- Welcome more neighbors, because while you own your house, you have no right to your entire neighborhood, not if you want to create a more active, diverse, affordable, and inclusionary community. Not if you want to fight climate change.
- Use transit if you can, when you can
- Vote for pro density candidates
- Show up to zoning commission, planning commission, or similar meetings. Usually only those who are angry show up. Let’s change that. If you’re in St. Louis, ask me when, and ask me how, and I’ll be the first to join you.
This Week in Urbanism, I want you to help me create a better world. Let’s get on this, together. Next week we’re going to keep the conversation going, and hopefully have a few exciting developments to showcase. Also be on the lookout for some interviews with local leaders and academics in the near future. Have a great day, St. Louis. To the rest of the country, we’re here in the middle, finding our place in the 21st century. Get ready.