Rush to Suburbia
By Kenneth T. Jackson
This week in
Istanbul, experts from around the globe are attending a United Nations
conference on urbanization. The timing is propitious, because in
the next few years the world will pass a historic milestone. For
the first time, half the earth's population, or more than three
billion people, will be living in cities.
At the turn
of the century, only 14 percent of us called a city home and just
11 places on the planet had a million inhabitants. Now there are
400 cities with populations of at least one million and 20 megacities
of more than 10 million.
But while cities
around the world are becoming denser, those in the United States
are moving in the opposite direction. The typical model here is
a doughnut, emptiness and desolation at the center and growth on
Many of the
great downtown department stores, including Hudson's in Detroit
and Goldsmith's in Memphis, are now closed.
megamalls, discount centers and factory outlets are springing up
every day on the peripheries of America's cities.
cities are still thriving, of the 25 largest cities in 1950, 18
have lost population. For example, from 1950 to 1990, Baltimore
lost 22 percent of its population, Philadelphia 23 percent, Chicago
25 percent, Boston 28 percent, Detroit 44 percent and Cleveland
45 percent. (It's true that many cities, Houston, San Diego, Dallas
and Phoenix, among them, have grown since 1950, but that is largely
because they have annexed their outlying territories. New York City,
unique as always, has the same number of people, although its boundaries
during the same period, the suburbs gained more than 75 million
people. In 1990, our nation became the first in history to have
more suburbanites than city and rural dwellers combined. Why should
Americans care whether Portland, Me., or Portland, Ore., is losing
inhabitants? Because our system of governance balkanizes social
responsibility in our country, a nation divided by race and income.
Only in America
are schools, police and fire protection and other services financed
largely by local taxes. When middle- and upper-class families flee
from the cities, they take with them needed tax revenues.
In Europe, Australia
and Japan, such functions are essentially the responsibility of
national or at least regional governments. In any of these places,
moving from a city to a suburb does not have much impact on a citizen's
taxes or on the quality of services. Americans tend to regard a
move to the suburbs as natural, even inevitable, when people are
given choices about where to live. But in fact the pattern arises
not because land is abundant and cheap (which it is) and not because
we have racial and economic divides (which we do) but largely because
we have made a series of public policy decisions that other countries
have not made.
First, the tax
code allows us to deduct mortgage interest and property taxes for
both first and second homes. Most other advanced nations do not
is essentially not taxed in this country. The 12-country European
Union, which has fewer vehicles on the road than the United States
does, takes in more than five times as much in gasoline taxes as
America does. Our gasoline is cheap compared to that in other advanced
industrialized nations, so living in the suburbs, without public
transportation, is an attractive option.
Third, the United
States has long had a policy, unique in the developed world, of
making the provision of public housing voluntary. For the most part,
communities across the country can choose to apply, or not, for
public housing. The result of this is that the central cities have
become the homes of the poor while the suburbs have become places
to escape the poor.
the French, British, Germans and Japanese spread public housing
around. Indeed, in many countries a demonstrably higher proportion
of public housing units go to the periphery than to central city,
and this discourages middle?class urban flight.
the United States, government at all levels has affected cities
by what it has not done. In Europe, land is regarded as a scarce
resource that has to be controlled in the public interest rather
than exploited for private gain. Thus, governments have acted to
preserve open space and deter suburban sprawl.
There are other
policies, too, that work against urban areas in the United States,
but the larger point is clear: American cities operate under a series
of unusual handicaps.
St. Louis offers
an extreme example of the consequences of all this. Once the fourth
largest city in the nation, the so-called Gateway to the West has
become a ghost of its former self. In 1950, it had 857,000 people;
by 1990, the population had dwindled to 397,000. Many of its old
neighborhoods have become dispiriting collections of eviscerated
homes and vacant lots. Aging warehouses and grimy loft factories
are now open to the sky; weeds cover once busy railroad sidings.
Will the experience
of St. Louis, become typical of other cities in the 21st century?
In recent years,
such prominent authors as Paul Hawken, John Naisbitt and Alvin Toffler
have predicted that cities are doomed and that new telecommunications
have made human interaction unnecessary. In the future, they suggest,
our journey to work will be from the breakfast table to the home
computer. There, in splendid isolation, we will work, shop and play
futurists are correct, and the cities of our time, like conquered
Carthage, will be razed and sowed with salt.
But I doubt
it. It is more likely that New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco,
Boston and a dozen or so other places will remain great cities well
into the next millennium, despite government policies that cripple
the same catalytic mixing of people that creates urban problems
and fuels urban conflict also spurs the initiative, innovation and
collaboration that taken together move civilization forward. Quite
simply, metropolitan centers are the most complex creations of the
human mind, and they will not easily yield their roles as marketplaces
Cities are places
where individuals of different bents and pursuits rub shoulders,
where most human achievements have been created. Whereas village
and rural life, as well as life in the modern shopping mall, is
characterized by the endless repetition of similar events, cities
remain centers of diversity and opportunity. If they express some
of the worst tendencies of modern society, they also represent much
of the best.
As Charles E.
Merriam, a professor at the University of Chicago, told the United
States Conference of Mayors in 1934: "The trouble with Lot's
wife was that she looked backward and saw Sodom and Gomorrah. If
she had looked forward, she would have seen that heaven is also
a pictured as a city."
T. Jackson, a professor of history at Columbia University, is editor
of ``The Encyclopedia of New York City'' and author of ``Crabgrass
Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States.''
1996 The New York Times 6/9/96