The Difference Between Cities and Suburbs

January 3, 2005

SUMMARY:  Families move to suburbs because the advantages of the big city - mass transit, culture, and nightlife - no longer outweigh the disadvantages. Cities are noisy, dirty, and crime-ridden. Traffic is terrible, schools and services are poor, and taxes are high. And there's no open space. The seeming "sprawl" of the suburbs accommodates the lifestyle that families want. Increasing the density of the suburbs just forces families even further out in an attempt to retain their suburban lifestyle.

Some advocates of "smart" growth work from the assumption that there is really no difference between a city or a suburb, or, if there is, that a city is the model from which suburban development should proceed. These advocates continually brand suburbs with the epithet "sprawl," implying that suburbs are careless, inefficient, wasteful, and even hostile.

Of course, such views ignore the fact that suburbs came into existence because people, and especially families, wanted to escape from the hostile environment of cities. While it's common to make light of what people want, rather than what their betters know they should want, it's worth noting that from the perspective of the suburban resident, it is the city that is inefficient and wasteful.

Let me begin by citing by bona fides here. I've pretty much always lived in suburbs, first growing up outside of Philadelphia and, for the last 20 years, outside of Washington, DC. However, I spent two very pleasant years in Manhattan as a graduate student, so I know exactly what it's like to live in a big city.

Why do young, single people like big cities? First, cities offer culture and nightlife. Cities are the leading edge of where it's happening. You can (usually) find the best and the most extensive museums, theaters, concert halls, and the like, along with a wide choice of clubs, bars, and restaurants. And the city never sleeps. Want dinner at 11:00? In the suburbs, you're often confined to the late-night drive-through window while cities offer a wide range of restaurants open until the wee hours. And of course all these things bring more young singles who are an attractant all by themselves.

Second, cities usually offer good mass transit systems which provide frequent service for city residents, in addition to commuters into the city. By this I mean that the subways and buses run frequently during the evenings, nights, and weekends when the commuters aren't present, but the young, who often can't afford cars and taxis, need to get out and about. This is where suburban mass transit usually fails. If you want a ride at noon or at midnight, or on the weekend, you may wait for an hour or more to get it in the suburbs.

Formerly, shopping was a major advantage of a big city. I remember as a young boy going with my family to Philadelphia to do our Christmas shopping. On the corner of 8th and Market, you had Gimbels, Strawbridge and Clothier, and Lits. A few blocks up Market you had John Wanamaker. Nothing in the suburbs to match that. Of course, the advent of suburban malls pretty much ended that advantage for cities.

Contrast these advantages of the city with the disadvantages. Cities are noisy. For the same reason you can get dinner at 11:00 PM, the city is noisy at 11:00 PM. Police sirens and fire truck horns are amplified by the urban canyons, and you can hear them all night. There just isn't any quiet in the city. And because of the high density, there isn't any privacy. Neighbors can easily look in the windows of buildings across the street. You can hear what's going on in the apartment beside you, above you, and below you, and they can hear you. Mass transit may be convenient, but it's hardly private. And cities are dirty. A thin layer of dust coats everything. Look at the snow a day after it has fallen.

You can get accustomed to these things, of course. What's harder to take is the crime rate, the poor to abysmal schools, the poor services, and the high taxes. Traffic is always problematic during the work day, and in the nightlife centers of the city, late at night too. Parking is all but impossible unless you have garage space in your building, and even if you find a space on the street, you might consider leaving a sign that says "No radio in car."

Finally, there's no open space. Sure, there are parks. They aren't safe at night, of course, and there are never enough of them. After a winter in the city, you long to get out to the suburbs for the green and the fresh air. Play for children in the city has to be much more structured and supervised. They can't go to a local athletic field for a pickup game, even if one were with walking distance and it were safe for them to walk unsupervised.

And then there's the issue of housing prices. Cities are very expensive places to live. Young singles can live in tiny studio apartments or in group houses if they can find one. Owning a house or renting an apartment big enough for a family, however, is beyond the means of all but the very rich. Cities often try to compensate by imposing rent controls. This distorts the housing market; no one will give up their rent-controlled apartment, so, with the passage of time, it gets even more difficult to find any low priced housing. Landlords won't build new rental housing because of the low rates of return. The original renters, now presumedly better off, hold on to their very low rents. Newcomers to the rental market are left without alternatives.

I hope you see where this is going. Young singles love a city. The very rich, who can afford large condominiums with lots of security, underground parking, and great views also love the city. But families want to live in suburbs with big yards, good schools, and low crime rates. Because they have to go to work early the next day and get the kids off to school, late night dinners and midnight jazz don't do much for them. They make a conscious decision to avoid the city except for the occasional cultural activity.

The point here is that urbanizing a suburb with higher density will destroy the very characteristics that make it desirable for families. Traffic, crime, poor schools, and high taxes will encourage families to move even further out to new suburbs to retain the quality of life that they came to the suburbs for. What will remain will have the worst characteristics of both the city and suburb - high crime, poor schools, high taxes, traffic, and no culture or nightlife.

Arguably, then, urbanizing suburbs and forcing families further out does exactly what the smart growthers say they want to prevent. It turns farms and forests on the suburban periphery into more suburbs and further jams the roads as the residents of these new suburbs commute to the old suburbs and the city for their jobs. Smart growthers say that better planning and design will keep people in place close in. I'll look at how that works in another article.

This article can be found at
Go to the next article, "Walkable Communities:  Can You Get There from Here?"

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