Back to the ‘Burbs

Edward Glaeser and Jim Woods examine Joel Kotkin's pro-suburb argument.


All common wisdom deserves to be challenged, and Joel Kotkin’s essay usefully challenges the prevailing optimism about the future of cities (“Urban Legends,” September/October 2010). Kotkin is right that cities have costs, as well as benefits. If two people live close enough together to trade or exchange ideas, they are also close enough to infect or rob each other, and that helps explain high mortality and crime rates that have often appeared in big cities. He is also right to emphasize that wealthy people often enjoy living at the lower suburban densities made possible by the automobile, while still enjoying the benefits of locating in a large urban agglomeration.

But India and China are not yet rich enough to have suburbs on the U.S. scale, and these countries will not become rich without urbanization. Concentrating humanity in cities enables the flow of knowledge and industrial development that helps turn poor countries into rich countries. There are good reasons why there is no such thing as a rich rural country.

Moreover, it is a mistake to see urban poverty as a sign of urban failure. Cities don’t make people poor; they attract poor people. The vast numbers of poor people in Mumbai’s Dharavi slum have chosen that place for its economic opportunity, just as earlier generations chose the industrial slums of New York and London. There is no reason to think that these decisions are unwise.

National policy has no business encouraging or discouraging the growth of either cities or suburbs, but currently the United States is wildly pro-suburb with its subsidies for homeownership and highways. The appeal of suburbia should not lead our government to encourage people to borrow like crazy to live in vast houses and take longer commutes.

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics
Harvard University
Cambridge, Mass.


I fully agree with Joel Kotkin that much of the “urbanist” literature about large-scale migration back into core cites is overhyped. But at least in the United States, where political decision-making by state and local governments is much more dispersed than in other countries, the concept of urban-suburban competition is becoming increasingly obsolete.

In my experience as the city manager of a smaller suburban community in the Denver metropolitan region, the real goal is to work toward both a healthy central core and viable suburbs. In the Denver region, for example, there are more than 50 cities and county governments that have cooperatively planned and financed regional systems for transportation, sports facilities, and arts, cultural, and scientific facilities. Citizens in my community very much value their lower-density, small-scale neighborhoods, but they also seem to value a strong and vibrant Denver as the urban heart of the region. Even in the decidedly “nonurban” Texas cities admired by Kotkin, there are efforts at intercity cooperation on large-scale infrastructure projects such as high-speed rail.

Perhaps the dispersion model supported by Kotkin can be combined with the growing urbanization trends described by Parag Khanna in the same Foreign Policy issue to produce a blended vision of future urban regions.

Jim Woods
City Manager
Littleton, Colo.

Joel Kotkin replies:

As much as I respect Edward Glaeser’s opinions, I do think “wildly pro-suburb” is a bit much. The majority of U.S. highway funding comes from gas taxes, so they aren’t subsidized by nonusers. This is not the case for mass-transit systems, most of which are completely dependent on subsidies, including from gas taxes. This is a canard of urbanists.

As for longer commutes, our research shows that many suburban areas have shorter average commutes, particularly those near job centers. For example, commutes in many parts of what might be seen as suburban Los Angeles are as short as or shorter than those experienced by many inner-city residents in terms of time. As more jobs shift to the suburbs, redesigning these communities to make them more sustainable makes more sense than spending huge sums to revive the 19th-century city. That would go against both the trend of technology and vast consumer preference.

As for developing countries, I did not say that cities create poverty, but that they are incubating it. A strategy of decentralization in places like India — that is, encouraging smaller cities as well as village revival — seems a reasonable response to the misery and potential instability of vast urban slums.

It is also interesting to note that many of India’s high-value activities (for example, the auto, film, and software industries) are moving to either smaller cities in Gujarat or suburban campuses. Although a small elite (the financial sector, for example) may need a lot of close contact, this is not required for many business-service and high-tech activities.

As for Woods’s remarks, I think this is a reasonable assumption. But I do worry greatly about the loss of local control, not only for suburbs, but for cities as well. Each shares some commonalities, but also differences. What makes a city core successful does not necessarily work in a suburb.

Some coordination is good; too much might not allow for diversity of solutions and experimentation. Democracy is a value unto itself, even if not widely appreciated by the current planning community.

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