Downtown Seattle, 1961
Downtown Seattle, 1961. Photo from the Seattle Municipal Archives.

Something I’ve been following with great interest for a long time is the decline of vehicle miles travelled and the increase in demand for in-city living. There has been a sea change in America’s relationship with low-density, auto-centric “sprawl”, where fewer and fewer Americans are opting for that lifestyle. In Leigh Gallagher’s new book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher tries to explain the causes behind the trends and extrapolate the future of the same.

Gallagher details the public policies that made suburbia and exurbia what they are today. Road polices have long supported highway construction rather than fixing urban streets, while municipal governments have let builders pay the up-front cost of building sewage, electricity and the like out to remote suburbs, but then foot the bill for maintenance. Gallagher also points out how unsustainable those policies are: the low-density construction results in a small tax base trying to pay for a lot of physical infrastructure spread over large distances, and large highways and large distances result in a long commutes that have become very expensive with higher fuel prices.

Gallagher also documents the shifting taste that “millennials” have vis-a-vis their parents. Millennials seem to value cars, space, and privacy less than their parents, while instead putting a premium on human connections and activities. Some of this I attribute to the “end of stuff“, and some of it I attribute to this generation never really experiencing the problems cities had in the 1960s and 1970s. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will hold when millennials children start to attend schools, especially when cities have fallen behind on keeping schools around and up to high standards.

One interesting trend is the “urban-lite” suburbs that have become more popular. While, Downtown Bellevue, downtown Kirkland and Renton Landing don’t look a lot like Sammamish, they also don’t look a lot like the U District, Capitol Hill or Belltown*. This realisation was a bit of a wake-up to me. When the King Farm residents in Maryland fought to route light rail around their walkable development, rather than through it, I really couldn’t understand what was happening. But now it makes a bit more sense: not everyone’s idea of what a good urban area constitutes is the same. A lot of people want to drive to work but walk when they get home.

I mostly enjoyed The End of the Suburbs, but I think a few important topics are missing or given scant attention. First, restrictive zoning rules – usually instituted and administered by the generations before the millenials – have been blocking more housing from being created. The problem has become acute now that at demand is rising. As Seattle has been experiencing, this is turning real city living into an option for only the privileged. Second, while cities and “city-lite” suburbs have been growing, we lack much of the physical infrastructure to make these lifestyle choices scalable to larger populations. The combined effect is one of a dramatic increase in the immiseration of the poor as they are displaced to the less desirable suburbs without the personal capital or the public infrastructure to easily leave for where ever they wish.

We’ll have to wait and see the trends play out. Still, I worry that if we don’t make the choices that allow cities and inner suburbs to scale up, we might end up missing the trends entirely, with low urban population grow due to restrictive zoning used as ammunition to justify more restrictions. It’s up to us to make sure the sea change doesn’t drown the poor along with it.

* Whether or not they look like South Lake Union, is a question I’ll leave for the comments.

91 Replies to “Book Review: The End of the Suburbs”

  1. I wanted to find out what others thought about this book, so I read some Amazon customer reviews. One reader wrote: “The horrors of suburbia are raised to almost mythical levels, while the delights of high-density living strain credulity.” Then another reader wrote: “Many on the political Left have often hated the suburbs for years. In the 60`s and 70`s it was because they were plastic and `isolating,’ when the cities then were becoming dangerous. But, today, they see this low density living as wasteful, socially unhealthy, too heavily reliant on cars and maybe elitist; those nice suburbs closest to the city will be the most expensive to live in. I don’t think it’s a `conspiratorial’ movement on the Left to push urban living, but I do think for many holding this social view point it is a convenient moment. The author is a liberal urban dweller who probably converses with those who view things as she does. Probably doesn’t talk to many who would love to live out in the country woods, as we were when this country was founded.”

    And lest people think the increase demand for in-city living has anything to do with the eight year decline of vehicle miles traveled, experts say that the number one reason for the decline is the gradual retirement of the baby boom generation.

    1. The two trends may well be one and the same, if it is post-Boomers that tend to value urban living more.

    2. Also, suburban in-fill. I remember when my aunt and uncle moved out to Deer Park, Long Island from Brooklyn. You had to walk more than a mile just to get some milk or a soda. And all the work was back in The City — so everyone got on the Long Island Expressway to drive 40 or more miles in and back again.

      Today both my sisters, and their husbands and their adult children live…and work!…on Long Island because of all the business that moved out to the suburbs and to Connecticut, upstate NY, and New Jersey.

      This has been happening in this region for decades. When I moved here Redmond crossroads was literally that! A tavern and not much else. Today, clearly a “suburbanite” can work…and live and play…without ever having to cross a floating bridge to the…um…Westside!

      1. Today, clearly a “suburbanite” can work…and live and play…without ever having to cross a floating bridge to the…um…Westside!

        John,

        Thanks for sharing what is clearly good news for all concerned — including most especially the “Westsiders”. And it is particularly good news for them when that “suburbanite” is named Bailo.

      2. When Bellevue Square opened in the 1950s, one of its selling points was, “Now you can watch a movie or shop without having to go to Seattle!”

    3. he number one reason for the decline [in vehicle miles traveled] is the gradual retirement of the baby boom generation.

      … Which goes hand-in-hand with the reality that their younger replacements simply don’t want to drive as much or as far.

      The retirement of one generation with one set of habits, and their replacement by a new generation with a different set.

      1. No, the gradual retirement of the baby boom generation affects the decline of vehicle miles driven more greatly because of their sheer numbers. It’s not about habits. That’s another reason.

  2. I live in the suburbs, and I honestly feel that if density advocates could, they would literally force me to move into a tiny subdivided apartment in the city. Sort of the reverse of how Cambodia’s Pol Pot forced city dwellers onto farms. I wouldn’t be surprised if their plan for me resembled what I read in the New York Times yesterday is happening in Hong Kong, where it’s now becoming common for 22 men to share a 450-square-foot apartment. Talk about not valuing cars, space, and privacy.

    http://tinyurl.com/mrd7tk2

    1. And, let me guess, anyone to the left of the GOP is an America-hating communist (this includes MLK, of course), right?

    2. The Centrists would use Social Engineering to reduce your living space and raise your rent so they can pocket more of your paycheck. Under the guise of every lofty phrase about urbanism, the reality is they want a bigger slice of your take home pay.

      1. Rents follow the vacancy rate. If rents rise while density rises, it means density isn’t increasing fast enough to meet demand. Blocking density at that point would just make rents rise faster.

      2. So in the last 20 years, you’re saying apartment rents in Seattle have decreased?

        I’d really be interested in knowing how your particular version of cognitive dissonance works. Does your brain just shut off when you hear the word ‘demand’?

        Please, please, please explain to me how you can hold the following two beliefs in your head simultaneously:

        1. People hate density.
        2. Density drives up rents.

      3. @djw

        Don’t bother. You’re engaging with a man who argued that Seattle was “rapidly depopulating” right up until the last census came out.

      4. @John — This is a classic mistake. So classic I had to ask my friends, who are philosophers if there is a phrase for it. It turns out there is: “Ceteris paribus”. I suggest you look it up. It basically means “all other things being equal”. So, yes, all other things being equal rent is cheaper in Seattle because they have built more housing units. But all other things aren’t equal. Lots and lots of people want to live in Seattle. Partly it is because people want to move to the city (the subject of this article) but rent is expensive because people want to move to this city. Our unemployment rate is really low, and despite the weather, people are attracted to this place. In other words, if they had built fewer units, then rent would be even higher. From an economics standpoint, this is where the “demand” part of it comes in.

      5. @RossB

        But no one ever answers my counter argument.

        Beluga caviar and Jasper Johns paintings are expensive.

        But few want them.

      6. To state the blindingly and howlingly obvious, those items are “naturally scarce”. The number of people who want them is greater than their supply, and it’s difficult to just make more. So they’re expensive.

      7. They are expensive (in part) because the very restricted market for those who wish to purchase them is also very wealthy. So that small subset of people then competes amongst itself for luxury goods.

        This, I feel is what happened to most cities — although it has taken Seattle…the (formerly) last middle class city — quite some time to get there.

        So, it’s not about density, transit or apodments, cycletracks or any of that. People don’t just up and spend money for things that benefit the middle class (well, not in this world).

        It’s about seizing prime land currently owned by burghers and old timers and transforming it into high end investment property. I’m sure developers salivate at the thought not of a University District of apodments, but of driving out SFHs with apodments, and then buying up the land and building some luxury condo towers they can sell at millions per unit.

        In the end, maybe it’s all good. Maybe the middle class should move out to the suburbs where costs are lower, and “infrastructure” for bicycling ends up being an empty sidewalk.

    1. I don’t buy totally this. There’s a reason 1 year of email and phone calls won’t close business deals like a hand shake and a shared meal do. People are social, and want to meet face-to-face.

      1. The idea that everyone has to meet face to face with people each and ever day to do business is a notion that has long since gone out the windows. Boeing, a company whose stock is soaring, has built it’s reputation on supply chains…linking global suppliers together to do business across continents.

        Even people who are in any kind of technical work today, may come into the office, sit in front of a computer, and start to do work — that has little or nothing to do with the people sitting next to them, but will be emailing and working with people across town, across the state or across the country.

      2. John,

        And one of the biggest reasons why Boeing is having so many problems, very public problems, with their Dreamliner is that they don’t control the production chain anymore. They’ve outsourced so much of it that when the parts are finally brought to Everett, they pieces don’t fit together like they should. Just look at the battery issue they had, and most recently, the Nowegian plane that had so many problems that they took it out of service and are leasing an Airbus plane to fly it’s long-haul route between Stockholm, New York and Bangkok. When people talk face-to-face, these kind of problems can be fixed before they balloon(or explode?) so big that they become an embarrasment for the company. And don’t forget, China will eventually take the technology that Boeing is using and copy it to make their own planes to sell.

      3. This is the truth. Study afterstudy shows that telecommuting is a death sentence for upward mobility in most careers because of the lack of close face-to-face interaction. Boeing’s 787 rollout was a disaster (how many years late?) because of their distant network of independent subcontractors. Surveys of companies who moved their headquarters, like the ones Whyte did for Rediscovering the Center, find that companies that move to the central city tend to grow, while ones that move to the outer suburbs tend to shrink.

        In the modern business world, physical proximity matters. Period.

    2. Also, it takes the synergy of face-to-face interactions to generate the most ideas. That’s why the tech industry is concentrated in a few cities even though they should be the ones most able to succeed in rural connectedness. Videoconferences, instant messaging, Twitter, and the like can transmit only a small fraction of human experience. Programmers and tech support people have found that there’s no substitute for in-person collaboration and going to a person’s desk to troubleshoot something. Long-distance technologies can play a supplemental role but can’t replace face-to-face interaction. Cities facilitate the chance encounters that occasionally produce something valuable.

      In the future as virtual reality gets better, it may be able to more effectively replace in-person collaboration. But do you really want to be a couch potato jacked in all day?

      1. John, have you read “ready player one”? I think you’d like it, its about a future where everyone jacks into a global virtual reality network.

      2. Well said, Mike. That has been my experience as well. Furthermore, if machines do more of the work, it is still likely that many of us, if not most of us, will want to experience other people. Look around a city and count the buildings that are entirely based on people getting together with people. Off the top of my head, I’m thinking hospitals, clinics, concert halls, stadiums, bars and theaters. Even movie theaters are as popular as ever, despite the fact that lots of folks have big screen televisions. People predicted they would fade away years ago, when television first caught on, but as you can see, they are still going strong. In other words, people want to be in a city for recreational purposes, and that isn’t changing any time soon.

        Even walking, perhaps the worlds oldest pastime, favors cities. I love to walk in the mountains (which is why I live in this city) but when the clouds move in, I would much rather walk through the city. If we get weather like we do today, I can pop into a pub and find a way to kill the time while waiting for a break in the weather. While there are plenty of “walkable” suburbs, I don’t think any of them hold a candle to a city. You can spend a year in a big city like New York, Paris or Toronto and discover thousands of nooks and crannies worth exploring. I just don’t think there is a suburb anywhere that can match that. Unfortunately, part of the problem with suburbs is that they just don’t have the architectural history that cities have. But more than that, they rarely have the concentration of people. I can open a pub in Fremont and expect dozens of people to walk by. You really can’t expect that in most suburban areas. As a result, a place like Fremont is simply more likely to have a nice range of different places, all of which make for very interesting walking.

      3. Have you ever noticed that two people who know each other will often strike up a conversation if they run into each other and are going the same direction… and when it comes time to go their separate ways they linger for a while, not quite ready to end their conversation? It’s as if our society isn’t providing enough opportunities for their social interaction as they want or need.

    3. This also gets into the left-brain, right-brain view of the world, which I consider the most critical underreported aspect and danger of modern life (see the book “The Master and His Emissary”). The left brain views things in words; in a linear, logical fashion. It analyzes things by breaking them down into parts, and thinks the whole is just the sum of the parts. It makes a model of the world, like a mathematical model. It likes straight lines and order. The right brain, in contrast, looks at the world as a whole, sees relationships between things; focuses on people and animals and their eye/face expressions (to gauge intent and threats); ignores inanimate objects (which don’t have intents); and thinks in images, music, and poetry. The right brain wants both hemispheres to be balanced, because it knows it needs the left brain for close analysis of threats and opportunities. The left brain is prone to hubris, to believing its internal model is the world, to black-and-white absolutism and ideology.

      Computers are a creation of left-brain logic and worldview. They operate in discrete logical units, using an internal model of the world. Teleconferencing transmits images and sound, well enough to understand the words and intonations, and sometimes well enough to see eye expressions, but it’s still incomplete, two-dimensional, like how the world looks if the right brain is disabled. It doesn’t transmit smell or feel or “aura” at all. Parts of the human experience that don’t fit into the computer model are treated as if they don’t exist. This leaves us with a half-experience.

      Left-brain hubris also leads to rigid ideologies in religion and politics, which we’re particularly suffering now in our country and world. It leads to eradicating nature from our human environment: abstract modern art and architecture, and highly processed food. It’s scary to think about the 1960s visions of long-term spaceflights, and how atmospheric nuclear testing might have forced us off the planet: we may find that a 100% man-made environment is hell.

      All this is why telecommunications can’t replace face-to-face interaction, at least for our highest productivity and health. Apologies if I can’t explain it clearly; it’s a complex topic. Paradoxically, rural areas are closer to nature, which is also an advantage. But I don’t think it’s realistic for everyone to move to rural areas, and that would also lose the interaction with many people which I think is important. So we need to keep some non-man-made and human-scaled aspects in our urban environment: plants, real food, animals, classic architecture, walkable design, etc. And keeping computers as a tool rather than letting them take over life.

      1. I’m not saying that the neurons fire more on one side or the other, or that there’s a direct correspondence between the most active hemisphere and somebody’s personality. That’s what studies usually look at, like the one you quote. I’m saying that the two hemispheres have different ways of looking at the world, different values. If we let the one set of values dominate too much, bad things happen.

      2. This also might explain the rationalist, individualist view of human nature that dates back at least to Hobbes (not the tiger) and undergirds capitalism. A lot of the problems capitalism would diagnose in modern society can be chalked up to humans repeatedly and stubbornly refusing to fit its worldview. But the “right brain” continues to defer to the “left brain”, so the left brain still thinks it reigns supreme, so this still hasn’t been properly diagnosed, only patched over at best, and philosophy, which started this mess to begin with and which seems predisposed to attract people who shut off the “right brain” entirely (especially after Descartes), continues to be completely oblivious to it.

      3. That’s what McGilchrist discusses in the book. The first part is brain science and the second part is about the evolution of western society. Periods of rigidity included rationalism in the Middle Ages, the Protestant Reformation, Descartes, and the Communist-Fascist era. In contrast, the Renaissance and Romantic movements were more balanced, open-minded, and full of art. Your statement “humans repeatedly and stubbornly refusing to fit its worldview” expresses it perfectly. The mechanistic (left-brain) worldview reduces people to machines, and if they don’t fit the model they must be forced to conform. The wholistic (right-brain) worldview says, “Wait a minute, people are the whole point of it all!” Negative trends in the current era are the military-industrial complex, rigid ideologies, abstract art, and the digitization of everything. These all may be fine in a balance but not if they go overboard. What worries McGilchrist (and me) is that we may be reaching a point where the mechanistic worldview succeeds in “closing all the exits” from its model — where our environment is 100% man-made and reality is not allowed to intrude. This kind of environment can lead to boredom, alienation, and mental illnesses.

      4. To tie this back all to suburbs and land use and transit, the “traditional compact neighborhood” is the most humane settlement pattern we’ve come up with. Many people are yearning for this, and are frustrated wth the lack of choices in the US. Compact neighborhoods are hard to find outside the northeastern US, and when you do find them they’re so expensive they’re often unaffordable. That means there’s more demand than supply. Walking is the primary means of locomotion humans have evolved with, available to both rich and poor, so if most of your destinations are within walking distance of home, life is sweet. But inevitably you’ll have to travel longer distances sometimes, and that’s where transit comes in. In the suburbs, you may be closer to nature with your large garden — and that’s a good thing, but to get to basic necessities and companionship you have to get in your car — a machine, and one that’s hard for poor people to afford. The lack of nature in the city can be addressed without dismantling the city; e.g., with more P-patches, office-building agriculture experience, and of course more bicycle lanes and transit to the outlying trails. And by eventually converting parking lots to agriculture and to compact buildings. The “large” size of city apartment buildings is also criticized, but this is a detail problem, not an intrinsic city showstopper. As zoning laws start to put pedestrians before cars, and allow multifamily buildings on single-family blocks, and architects rediscover classic design principles over modernism, the need for highrises in a very few areas will diminish.

      5. To also address Bailo’s issue of compact single-family neighborhoods vs compact multi-family neighborhoods, compact single-family neighborhoods in the suburbs would be a welcome alternative. The problem with them in Seattle is that they’re crowding out needed multifamily development for the people who want to live in the city. Most cities Seattle’s size have larger contiguous multifamily districts, but those have been blocked in Seattle by NIMBY homeowners, causing harm to our transit and non-automobile culture. So please, replicate Wallingford in Kent, and allow Wallingford and east Capitol Hill and north Capitol Hill and West Seattle to upzone.

      1. Satellite broadband can cover almost anywhere.

        And looking at rates recently, seems to cost only about $40 a month!

      2. Satellite broadband is not competitive with terrestrial broadband due to the latency issue, which isn’t going to be overcome unless the speed of light changes. But it is affordable, and better than nothing.

      3. Ok, so it’s bad if you want to play GTA5 in your cabin in the Cascades.

        But if you want to order from Amazon, track your retirement investments and email spreadsheets to your boss, then it’s usable.

        Now all I need is a propane fuel cell.

        Oh, what’s this?

        http://www.propane-fuelcell-generator.com/

      4. Satellite “broadband” is about as fast as dial-up in the uplink direction. It’s terrible if you do anything *creative* online — where you send information out to the net.

    4. However, I don’t want to overstate the problems with teleconferencing and remote working. They are substandard at the critical junction stages where decisions are made. But there’s nothing wrong with working remotely one, two, or even four days a week if your task is relatively independent. Those longer-distance commuter trains and regional trains also carry people who come into town once or twice a week or once a month, not just people who come in every Monday-Friday.

  3. Whoa. Wait a minute. Did Andrew Smith just subtly insult the eastside by comparing it to the bland and sterile SLU?

    1. SLU is significantly more dense that DT Bellevue, and it’s more pedestrian friendly, but it’s not exactly the Ave in terms of walkability.

      1. Actually, most of downtown Bellevue’s crossings of I-405 (in fact, all of them except 8th St) are more pedestrian friendly than SLU’s crossings of Aurora (a 3-foot sidewalk right up against speeding cars).

      2. asdf: Wait for the SR99 project to be done. That should drastically improve the pedestrian crossing situation around SLU.

      3. Given that the construction is going on for years, there ought to be some feasible solution for the interim that’s better than what we have now. For instance, how much would it cost to erect a temporary pedestrian bridge over Aurora near Mercer? You could throw down some scaffolding on both ends, throw a piece of wood or metal across, add handrails and a staircase on each end, nail everything into place and you’re done. A structure that only needs to last 5 years doesn’t need to be as overbuilt as a structure intended to last 50.

      4. I wouldn’t worry about soul right now, in either SLU or Bellevue. Soul and community and urban consciousness take time. Both these places will find some soul.

        As for infrastructure and walkability, crossing 405 and Aurora really isn’t the point. The streets and intersections right at the core of downtown Bellevue are often pretty lousy places to walk. SLU has some really bad intersections and roads around its edges, but in the middle it’s pretty good, and it will improve tangibly when the Mercer/Aurora work is done.

    2. Really wish we had preserved more of the old facades down in SLU, as was done with Bravehorse building.

  4. @Andrew — Did the author of the book mention television much? I think this had a big effect in the attitude towards cities.

    Generally speaking, cities are inherently more popular. The main reason to go out to the suburbs was to get a better deal, or escape the bad parts of the city. In some cities, these bad parts were industrial, and are generally not as big of a deal anymore. For example, people don’t flee Tacoma because of its aroma (nor its arsenic).

    Another reason people disliked the city was because of racial strife and crime. This was overblown for years and greatly exaggerated. People have a hard time judging risk. Even now, there are people who are afraid of terrorists, but not automobiles or obesity. You can guess which one is more likely to kill you.

    This is where television comes in. What “Will and Grace” did for gay rights, “Seinfeld”, “The Cosby Show” and especially “Friends” did for cities. Here were television shows set in the city, which portrayed the city as normal, not scary. Unlike “Good Times” or “All in the Family”, these were not rough and tumble, controversial shows. These were feel good shows. “Friends” was probably the most influential. Here was a show that relied heavily on being easy on the eyes and fun. It didn’t have the laughs of “Seinfeld” but it didn’t need them. It was enough to watch the pretty people hang out in pretty places while you waited for something mildly amusing. I can’t help but think that this got a lot of people to reconsider the idea of living in a big city. And if you can handle living in a big city, then living in a small city is just fine.

    As I mentioned, though, another big reason people moved (and still move now) to the suburbs is because it is cheaper out there. Not always, of course. Big houses on big lots can be expensive, forcing an individual to choose between buying an expensive little house in the city or a slightly less expensive, but much bigger house in the suburbs. For many, this is exactly what they want — more house and more yard. For those, the suburbs will always be appealing. For for those who just want something cheaper, it is a shame that the lots in most suburbs are really big.

    One more reason folks moved to the suburbs is to get closer to nature. Unfortunately, as with much of suburban development, the desire to avoid a problem just made things worse. The desire to get close to nature, unfortunately, simply hurts it. This is similar to what happened in the 70’s; white flight just made the racial strife worse. As the modern environmental movement has focused less on the “Whole Earth Catalog”, hippie style rural commune and more towards a Greenwich Village, bohemian model, more people have embraced the latter. For every organic farmer (and there are plenty) there are a dozen environmentalists living in the city, eating that organic food and trying to reduce their carbon footprint. Simply driving less (which is a lot easier in the city) is a good start if that is your goal.

    1. You’ve got a lot of interesting points. The book describes some of the cultural associations you mention, in particular Seinfeld and Friends showing the cities as fun places, as opposed to “death wish” and “the streets of san francisco” of a generation earlier, though those examples aren’t drawn so explicitly.

      I would like to say that the Greenwich Village bohemian model you describe scales a lot better than the “whole earth catalog” does.

    2. Christopher Leinberger has discussed television’s influence in “The Option of Urbanism”. I grew up believing that “Leave It to Beaver” and “Bewitched” reflected how people lived then. But actually they reflected how a few people lived and the rest aspired to live. House construction ceased during the Depression and WWII, so people in the early 1950s lived in 1920s housing: the cities and streetcar suburbs urbanists find appealing. Suburbanization swung into high gear in the 1950s but it took thirty years to build out. It was only in the 1970s and 80s that the majority lived in the suburbs. That’s when the suburbs went from aspirational to normal and then tiresome, which led to the backlash in the 1990s with Seinfeld and the like. Again, some people spontaneously moved to the city or never left (like the families who have lived in Mt Baker for decades), but TV shows inspired more people to do so.

  5. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will hold when millennials children start to attend schools, especially when cities have fallen behind on keeping schools around and up to high standards.

    I have kids in Seattle Public Schools and, overall, I’m pretty happy with the quality of education that my kids receive. There still are plenty of areas for improvement, but I wouldn’t consider moving to the suburbs for the sake of my kid’s education.

    I think more than half of my car trips are related to school and school activities. If schools and public transportation were more closely linked, the annual VMT might drop significantly.

    1. I dunno, I have read a lot of bad stuff about math and science education in Seattle public schools. I also remember when I moved from Australian here I was three years ahead of my grade in math.

      I’ll be sending my daughter to private school

      1. It really depends on which Seattle School you are looking at. Performance from one school to another varies widely. Like, really widely. There’s no need to go to the private market if you “shop around” within the school district first, and get your kid signed up for the right school.

        They are troubleingly trying to transition to “discovery” math education, which isn’t effective, but this fad has hit every district in the area, including the much heralded Lake Washington (a decade ago!).

      2. Roosevelt was great for me and helped set the stage for the routes of intellectual discovery I’m following now in college. Something tells me that wouldn’t have happened at Chief Sealth or Rainier Beach. Garfield, maybe. The good news is that if middle-class families move near light rail it could improve the school situation on its own, starting with Franklin.

    2. Seattle schools are average. They only look bad because some of the best schools in the country are right next door: Bellevue, Lake Washington, Shoreline, and Northshore. But even these suburban districts do not compare to the kind of education you get in Canada, Europe, or I guess Australia. Their high schools give what we would consider a second-year college education, and their students turn out more informed in history and geography and science and have better job skills. Some American private schools like Lakeside might compare, but not public schools, even suburban ones.

      1. Seattle has lots of good public schools that rank up there with the best of them. The catch is Seattle also has more than its share of crappy schools which pull the district-wide average down. But students don’t attend this hypothetical “average Seattle school”, they attend a real-world one.

        That there is crappy schools sells the kids attending them short, and that *is* a major problem, but it is *not* the case that a family must live in the suburbs to have access to quality public schools.

    3. Seattle schools are very good in general. As is often the case, the measurements don’t take into account the children. No one wants to say it, but the problem with American kids is not the teachers, but the American kids. Put it this way — American kids lead the world in obesity — is that the fault of the teachers? Of course not. Show me a kid that is really, truly, ready to learn and I’ll show you a kid that will do well in just about any school in this city. There are exceptions, of course. If the school has too many problem kids, then the teacher spends her time dealing with those kids instead of teaching. But again, this is more the problem with the kids, than the teachers. Luckily for Seattle, this sort of tipping point (too many problem kids) is rare.

      The kids aren’t great students in large part because we have a substandard society. We used to have a middle class that was the envy of the world, but that isn’t the case anymore. Is it any wonder that Finland (a Scandinavian country) leads the world in student performance? Part of that, without a doubt, is due to the teachers, but a lot of it is due to the government run social system that prevents kids from suffering (in part by helping their parents do a good job in raising them). Meanwhile, about 20% of the kids live in households that struggle getting food on the table. Even if they manage to eat every day, you have to wonder what that does to the parents. It can’t be good. This is just food, mind you; a relatively easy problem to solve. Add in homelessness, abusive relationships, substance abuse, and well, you get the picture. I’m not saying Finland has solved the problem — I’m just saying that there are lot less kids living in cars in Finland. My guess is that unlike Seattle, the typical Finnish school district doesn’t have a program like this: http://www.seattleschools.org/modules/cms/pages.phtml?sessionid=&pageid=219317

      Back to Seattle Public Schools, they do just fine. They compete well in just about every academic or cultural contest there is (chess, debate, mock trials, music and sports). OK, they don’t that well in football. If your kid plans on being an all pro lineman, I suggest you send him to Bellevue. But if your kid wants to be a chess grand master, I suggest Seattle.

      1. When our kid was ready for school a lot of our friends moved reflexively to the suburbs for the “better” schools. What they found was that what the suburban districts lacked was a lot of choice. If you didn’t live in just the right place for the school your kid needed, you had trouble. One family moved from Woodinville to Oak Harbor because they couldn’t find the right school in the first district. We spent the time to research the schools in Seattle and although our kid ended up taking long bus rides, he got a wonderful education and we didn’t have to move at all.

      2. “No one wants to say it, but the problem with American kids is not the teachers, but the American kids.”

        I wouldn’t have put it this way – it sounds like you’re blaming the kids for their own poor performance, and that impression continues a bit later – but I get the gist of it. One class in college assigned me a reading from Johnathan Kozol’s “Amazing Grace” describing the plight of the NYC public school system and poor minorities in the early 90s. One thing that came up was that even schools in relatively well-off neighborhoods were “segregated” (Kozol’s shock-value term), because as soon as a few poor students started being bused there, otherwise well-meaning parents saw that the school was supposedly getting worse and pulled their kids out to attend private school, which resulted in more poor blacks moving in, which resulted in more white flight, and so on. Kozol’s point is that student performance measures aren’t the objective measure of school OR student quality we like to think they are.

        Which is not to say that schools with predominantly poor students do worse than schools with predominantly rich students by virtue of that fact alone. Not only were NYC schools suffering from chronic underfunding at the time Kozol wrote, but for whatever reason, the best teachers tend to take jobs at the “best” schools teaching the “best” students where they’re least needed and where it’s least challenging, in hopes of helping the “best” students reach their potential and not wasting effort on the lesser students. Doubtless programs like Teach for America have had an impact on things since then, but I’ve wondered if we should have a “teacher draft” where schools take turns picking where each teacher will teach, roughly leveling out school quality.

        But yeah, in light of this the desire by so many families to go where the “best schools” are is just sickening.

      3. The problem with schools where I live is not the kids, and it’s not the teachers. And it’s mostly not the parents, though it is partly the parents.

        The problem is mostly the administrators.

        Now, I live in a bizarre place, but I suspect that this is not really very unusual. Administrators are the problem with most corporations in the US — they are the problem with most universities and colleges — why should primary and secondary school be immune to this problem?

    4. There is so much more opportunity for cultural enrichment in the city, in the arts, history, sciences. We have great libraries and places like Town Hall in Seattle, and I think just taking public transportation is an enriching, educational experience (coming from someone who didn’t ride a city bus until college). If a parent is committed enough to move to the suburbs for education, they should be able to stay in the city and make sure their child gets a well-rounded education through both school and taking advantage of these opportunities.

  6. The suburbs won’t end, but they will become more dense. Areas which have been dedicated to car strips will be razed and rebuilt with medium density (four to six story) housing over new walkable retail.

    There will still be parking lots in the new developments, but they’ll be smaller, because the businesses will be primarily supported — like those in urban neighborhoods — by the people above them.

    Eventually, the car-dependent people in the spaces between the new centers will have a hard time getting their needs met, as is appropriate since they’re the ones ruining the planet for everyone else.

    1. This is the compact neighborhoods argument.

      If you think that density promotes better living, then why not build density — in the middle of Nebraska, where it can be done cheaply.

      Then use the Internet to link it up — with other rural densities.

      1. It’s more efficient to build density where the infrastructure already exists, or can be easily upgraded, than to build all-new infrastructure out in the rural areas.

        This is why rural zoning is ultra low-density, to prevent large populations from springing up where there’s no infrastructure.

      2. If you think that density promotes better living, then why not build density — in the middle of Nebraska, where it can be done cheaply.

        Even taking into account land prices, it’s generally cheaper to build infill density where public services already exist, then to plop down buildings and infrastructure in the middle of nowhere.

        The list of things that you have to provide to a new community is almost endless. Electricity, water, sewer, roads, emergency services… the marginal cost of providing these services to a new building in an existing city or suburb is far, far lower than the cost of providing them to a greenfield development.

      3. This is where NIMBY’s come in. NIMBY’s oppose infill development and, in the process, drive development to undeveloped exurban areas where there are no NIMBY’s around to oppose it. The result is that the supply of urban housing stays the same as the overall human population grows and everyone who isn’t rich has no choice but sprawl.

      4. If you think that density promotes better living, then why not build density — in the middle of Nebraska, where it can be done cheaply.

        Just a reminder that <em<in this very thread John Bailo accused others of “social engineering”.

        How about we have cities where people choose to move and build them, John? Why do you hate freedom?

      5. John,

        I respect your question; I think it’s a good one. But the clear answer is “because nobody wants to live in Nebraska”. The place got settled because the land was free, and since the sunset of the Homestead Act people have been moving away whenever an opportunity presented itself.

        I don’t want to dis Nebraska too much; the Platte River during the Crane migration is a wondrous place to be. But most of the year it’s soul-deadingly boring. “Nebraska” ought to be in the list of definitions for the word “same”.

  7. Having worked in a company office in snohomish county for a few years, I’m convinced that regardless of the added expense of fuel and distance traveled as time goes on, there will be a significant number of people that will hold on to suburban living: Many of them appreciate the perceived normalcy, the homogeneity–in race and politics, the (perceived superiority) of the school systems, have a fear of crime resulting from living in a more diverse populace, and the multi-car garage and the backyard space for the kids to play and to have bbq’s. The emotional and psychological attachments among them are too strong to get them to leave short of desperate circumstances–but these types would most likely end up in rural rather than urban locations.

    1. Well, yes, I seriously doubt anyone would claim otherwise. This is a generational change; people rarely suddenly change their own preferences dramatically at mid-life.

    2. Not too fast with the claims of Seattle being more diverse than the suburbs. Bellevue has for a decade been far more racially diverse than Seattle. Redmond likely shows the same, as might Issaquah. Seattle is a white bred city with tiny pockets of “diversity”.

      1. For better or worse, white people in the US tend to be richer than non-whites, especially underrepresented minorities. And Seattle is an expensive city.

        If you look at the parts of Seattle that are cheaper (e.g. Rainier Valley), they are much more diverse than the rest of the city. But we’ll see how long it stays that way…

      2. Aleks, I think this goes further than socioeconomic status. Sure, I’ll give you that ethnically diverse areas in Seattle–such as Rainier Beach or the Central District–are also historically cheaper. But that doesn’t go to explain why fantastically expensive Bellevue is so diverse.

        The answer is pretty simple, in my mind. A bunch of people move from all over the world to work at Microsoft (and now Google.) They look at the cost/benefit of living in Seattle and commuting to the Eastside and decide to live on the Eastside. Seattle’s wonderful–I’d live there if I could–but it’s not worth the commute. (It’s also not worth the cars parked all over the street, but that’s a different matter.)

      3. But Snohomish is seriously homogeneous whitey mcwhiteyville, staid, conservative, and they like it that way. I’m not saying all suburbs are like this, but many are.

      4. Aleks, I think this goes further than socioeconomic status. Sure, I’ll give you that ethnically diverse areas in Seattle–such as Rainier Beach or the Central District–are also historically cheaper. But that doesn’t go to explain why fantastically expensive Bellevue is so diverse.

        It’s not correct to say that Bellevue is “fantastically expensive”. There are expensive parts of Bellevue, like downtown and the McMansion subdivisions, and they’re predominately white. There are also parts of Bellevue that have lots of underrepresented minorities, like Crossroads and Factoria, and they’re actually fairly poor (or “affordable”, if you prefer).

        Also, keep in mind that there’s a difference between “minorities” and “underrepresented minorities”. I guarantee that if you look at a map of Bellevue’s Hispanic or black populations, you’ll find a map that correlates pretty well with poverty and (inversely) with average rents.

      1. The reality is more like one garage with a car or cars in the driveway—-They make their illusions fit the reality as much as possible.

  8. I don’t know if we will see an end to suburbs. Afterall, in many metros around the US manufacturing hubs (i.e. Boeing, BMW North America, and even Ford) popped up in “suburbs” of the major commercial center (Seattle, Greenville-Spartanburg, and Detroit, respectively). Additionally, employers sought cheap land to expand their suburban “sustainable” campuses containing behemoth parking lots. Now places like Microsoft have buried much of their parking, but with Metro shunning its development, workers drive and city residents opt for the “Connector.”

    The massive expanses where large tracts of farmland are converted to planned cookie-cutter homes may be coming to a close, but I am seeing a flight of middle income workers that can’t afford rents and have a family. The Seattle Times even published a story on the issue. A number of my coworkers are moving further from work extending their commutes due to large rent increases. While I grasp the concept of supply and demand, I don’t believe that many families with pre-teen children will jump onto the bandwagon into living in Seattle.

  9. On the generational shift among the generation I refuse to call “millennials” (seriously, even Generation X, who got their name based on their lack of an identity, at least got an original name based on their own unique circumstances), I think part of it is larger historical developments, especially the end of the Cold War. When baby boomers went through their superliberal stage it was a semi-conscious rebellion against the culture of their parents and a knee-jerk reaction against the Vietnam War, and the idealism of the sixties died pretty hard and left them cold, cynical, disillusioned yuppies. I was not yet a year old when Reagan’s term ended, barely six months old when Bush I was elected; I’ve lived my entire life in the era after the Reagan Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall. My generation grew up without “communism” and “socialism” provoking the sort of instant, visceral reaction it did in the baby boomers and their parents, so we could look at Marx’s theories with a fresh, properly critical eye. The baby boomers fought for equality for blacks without really confronting America’s class structure; my generation sat through Martin Luther King day assemblies and grew up to find out about the increasing gap between rich and poor in the post-civil rights era.

    For these reasons and others, my generation developed a certain cynicism about the American culture of rugged individualism that the baby boomers never did. The end of the Cold War also allowed us to broach the notion that maybe there was something to be said for sticking together and not going it alone without immediately being branded an anti-American communist, not that it’s stopped some on the right, and social media has brought us closer to our friends, real or fake, than anyone coming after the great migration to the suburbs after World War II.

    And don’t slight the role we’ve played in the end of stuff. For a variety of reasons ranging from the decreased need for stuff you link to to an increased environmental awareness that’s been with us from birth and hammered home with the spectre of global warming, my generation has increasingly taken the words of Thoreau to heart: “simplify, simplify”. My generation doesn’t believe in buying a bunch of crap we’ll never use and then looking for bigger houses to fit it all. In fact, we don’t believe in the “bigger is better” mentality at all; if all our stuff will fit in a small apartment we’re completely fine with that. Global warming in particular has us a lot more skeptical of, or at least accepting of settling for less than, the suburban vision of “mobility” where you basically are what you drive; the individualistic appeal of cars also holds a lot less appeal compared to other, more social modes.

    And Generation X may have had an impact on our attitudes as well, through shows like “Friends”, “Seinfeld” and “Frasier” that glorified the life of the young, urban, childless professional, as opposed to the nuclear family of sitcoms past, from “Leave It to Beaver” to “The Cosby Show”. Gen-X also gave us a cynical perspective on that ideal through “The Simpsons”.

    I actually think those that would be more individualistic are being pushed out here. As someone with Asperger’s Syndrome and in particular an acute sensitivity to noise, I would still prefer to live somewhere with a modicum of privacy, someplace where the only sources of noise are people I live with and know, where I can do my own thing with a minimum of distractions. I’d also want to spend as little time as possible on mass transit where I’m stuck with other people and their conversations and their leaky headphones that drive me crazy but other people can’t even hear. But even then, all my other preferences are decidedly urban; I’d prefer to walk everywhere (it astounds me that as many people know how to drive as do, it seems like it would be really hard with precise timing) and live in as small a space as possible, even if one isolated from raucous neighbors and nightlife, only moving to a bigger place to start a family.

    1. Another factor? Feminism. Not to reduce things too much to stereotypes, but women tend to be more social and cooperative compared to more individualistic and competitive men. Now that women have started having more of a voice and impact on culture and the economy, old assumptions about capitalism are being upended.

    2. ” (it astounds me that as many people know how to drive as do, it seems like it would be really hard with precise timing)”

      On my last intercity drive, I concluded that of the people who ARE driving, maybe one out of ten actually knows HOW to drive.

      We need to revoke lots and lots of drivers licenses. There are WAAAAY too many extremely dangerous drivers on the roads.

  10. I don’t agree with the Andrew Smith’s conclusion about what happened in King Farm of Rockville, MD.

    Quote: “When the King Farm residents in Maryland foug’ht to route light rail around their walkable development, rather than through it, I really couldn’t understand what was happening. But now it makes a bit more sense: not everyone’s idea of what a good urban area constitutes is the same. A lot of people want to drive to work but walk when they get home”

    I have been a resident of King Farm since 2004. I was a supporter of the light rail going through King Farm. Most residents opposed it for the same “suburban” reason that they didn’t want such public transportation in their midst. King Farm residents don’t “walk” when they get home after taking the Metro from DC to Shady Grove station, they take the free King Farm shuttle!

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