We Knew Poor Urban Design is Unhealthy, but Anti-American?
Urban planners and social critics have been pointing out how sprawling, auto-dependent development patterns have created the fattest generation in America’s history, and led to the appearance of new diseases like juvenile-onset diabetes, directly linked to children being unable to walk or bike in their communities, now Paul Krugman, fearless economics columnist for the NY Times, lays out the case that sprawl severely limits social mobility–in short, it’s un-American.
“There have been many comparisons of social mobility across countries; all such studies find that these days America, which still thinks of itself as the land of opportunity, actually has more of an inherited class system than other advanced nations.”
The ability to work hard and improve your lot, to expect that your children’s lives will be better than your own isn’t just threatened by declining schools and economic chaos–how your community is built, sprawling with long distance between your home and job opportunity versus compact and diverse with many jobs accessible by transit–can have a big impact on whether you can work your way out of poverty or the working class–or even work at all.
“When the researchers looked for factors that correlate with low or high social mobility, they found, perhaps surprisingly, little direct role for race, one obvious candidate. They did find a significant correlation with the existing level of inequality: “areas with a smaller middle class had lower rates of upward mobility.” This matches what we find in international comparisons, where relatively equal societies like Sweden have much higher mobility than highly unequal America. But they also found a significant negative correlation between residential segregation — different social classes living far apart — and the ability of the poor to rise.”
With all the news about Detroit’s implosion and government bankruptcy, there is the assumption that older, northern (read Democratic) cities are doomed to economic stagnation and poverty because of failed economic theories and outmoded beliefs in the inherent strength of cities (public transit also gets the rap for “exporting crime” to suburbs: see the crazy talk here about light rail being a “crime train”). Krugman cites new studies looking at Atlanta, the poster child of growth (adding a million residents in the last 20 years) done “right,” eg with huge highways shooting into the countryside where subdivision leapfrogs subdivision in a 10 county wide area.
“Yet in one important respect booming Atlanta looks just like Detroit gone bust: both are places where the American dream seems to be dying, where the children of the poor have great difficulty climbing the economic ladder. In fact, upward social mobility — the extent to which children manage to achieve a higher socioeconomic status than their parents — is even lower in Atlanta than it is in Detroit. And it’s far lower in both cities than it is in, say, Boston or San Francisco, even though these cities have much slower growth than Atlanta.
(I)n Atlanta poor and rich neighborhoods are far apart because, basically, everything is far apart; Atlanta is the Sultan of Sprawl, even more spread out than other major Sun Belt cities. This would make an effective public transportation system nearly impossible to operate even if politicians were willing to pay for it, which they aren’t. As a result, disadvantaged workers often find themselves stranded; there may be jobs available somewhere, but they literally can’t get there.”
So, it’s places that practice traditional city development, with jobs close to and even in compactly built neighborhoods, that are the best for our health and our wealth. It’s been cheap and profitable to turn farmland into sprawl (at least to developers, highway builders and the auto-industrial complex) but we are seeing the cost in social disruption, shorter life spans for our children, soaring health care and transportation costs and now, what amounts to a major blow to the American Dream of doing better by working harder. The slums of the future will be those neighborhoods, many in suburbs, that are isolated by sprawl.