The Tacoma Sun


A (Mild) Defense of the ‘Burbs


It’s a somewhat fashionable thing right now to look down your nose at the suburbs. Environmentalists and students of urban studies (rightly) point to the energy wasted by single-family houses and the gas guzzled on the trips to the grocery store.

The critique has been in Hollywood for years, but it’s recently become much more prevalent. Look to the many recent television shows and films that have aimed to “pull back the veil” on suburbia—The X Files, Desperate Housewives, American Beauty, last year’s Little Children and Disturbia (which so obviously wants to indict suburbia, it starts its critique in the title). As far as Hollywood is concerned, the horror is in the suburbs, masked by the cookie cutter houses owned by people desperately trying to fit the mold.

Writing off the suburbs, or painting them all with the same brush, is a bad idea. Those in Tacoma who, like me, want to create a healthy downtown core should recognize that our success downtown is greatly affected by what happens in our suburbs.

I don’t want to get rid of the ‘burbs in favor of high rises. I want to make sure the urban core has a good relationship with them and encourage smart suburban growth. To do that, we need to draw distinctions between the good and the bad suburbs.

The NIMBY Problem

To the suburban dweller, the distinction between a good suburb and a bad suburb is easy: the bad suburb is the development that has leapfrogged past their own and is even farther from the city center than they are. They point across the street, “It’s that development that unnecessarily bulldozed a forest!” and “It’s that development that caused the roads to be filled with traffic.” Many move to the suburbs to “get away from it all,” and once they’ve moved out there, no one else should be allowed to come clog up their little slice of paradise.

I’m exaggerating a bit here, but the point still stands: most suburban communities want further growth curbed. It’s part of a strong NIMBY sentiment common to many suburban dwellers (the very phrase “NIMBY”—Not In My Back Yard—assumes the very suburban concept of a backyard).

The worst form of this NIMBYism results in the creation of a suburban municipality. These new suburban cities usually immediately create zoning laws that prevent the creation of multi-family housing like apartments and duplexes. It doesn’t take long before the city and the suburb are stratified along race and class lines. The city gets poorer, the city’s schools start to decline because their property tax base has dropped, and then even more suburbs want to break away. Consider Detroit: in 1950 it had 1.8 million people. Today it has one half that population (918,000 estimated), even though the entire metropolitan area has grown to 4.4 million. Is it surprising it has a high crime rate and blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings?

This is not necessarily a problem that is either liberal or conservative. Democratic mayor David Rusk in Albuquerque helped launch an aggressive annexation bid that kept Albuquerque growing faster than the city itself, ensuring that suburbs couldn’t break away and take their tax base with them. The Republican-run government in Indianapolis consolidated the City and County government in 1970. In 1975 Anchorage did the same thing and as a result the city became larger than the state of Rhode Island (apparently everything must be XXL in a state the size of Alaska).

Density & Transit

Again, not all suburbs are bad. Older, denser suburbs are more likely to be on historic mass transit lines, or will be good candidates for mass transit in the future. Their age also means that commercial development is more likely to be closer, possibly within walking distance. They are also less likely to secede from their central city.

That’s not even to say all newly-built suburban communities are bad by definition. The town of Dupont, Washington, has worked hard to create a suburban town that also avoids many of the pitfalls of suburban design (or lack of suburban design, if you’re a cynic).

It’s important to point out, too, that living in the suburbs is a trade that suburban residents accept. They are choosing a commute so they may have a backyard, choosing higher transportation so they may have lower housing costs, and choosing to be away from active nightlife so they may have a feeling of security for their family. These are not necessarily bad choices, as many suggest. I would call it a “bad choice” only when it is an unexamined choice. When is the commute so long you never get to play with your kids in the backyard? Is saving 6 hours a week commuting worth a home 700 square feet smaller?

The Future of Suburbia

The April issue of The Atlantic contained an interesting piece on one of the problems that will begin to afflict many suburbs in the coming decades: too much supply. Christopher Leinberger writes, “Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.” This is due to smaller families, rising fuel costs, empty-nesters who are “right-sizing,” and young people who are less likely to seek a home in the suburbs.

Leinberger calls his piece “The Next Slum?” and suggests that the suburbs on the fringes of cities are going to hurt the worst—too much supply will send prices down dramatically in the suburbs, vacant properties will be common, and transportation costs will still be high (without the trade off in “quality of life” to make it more palatable). It’s a startling forecast, but in some parts of the US it’s already started to occur. In a development 7 miles outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of 132 houses are vacant and in foreclosure; vandals and squatters have begun taking over. In Elk Grove, California, 10,000 homes were built in 4 years—some of them valued at $500,000 just a few years ago. Many are empty and the residents still there are starting to see gang activity.

With that in mind, it makes me very happy that Washington State adopted the Growth Management Act in 1990 and that Pierce County followed up this past year by adopting Transferable Development Rights to help protect farms and forests. By designating large tracts of land that may not be further developed, the State has taken the first step to curb sprawl. This is actually good for homeowners, suburban homeowners especially. It means that a new development can’t leapfrog past you anymore, unless it had filed its permits more than 10 years ago (which, admittedly, many did). It means that while the local housing supply will keep expanding, the number of large-lot suburban house will not, which will help your property values. It also means that it gets easier for the City and the County to plan where people are going to be, which will help mass transit options improve and become a more viable option for the suburban dweller.

Pierce County expects to add another 250,000 people in the next 12 years according to Washington’s Office of Financial Management. That’s a 40% increase in our population in 12 years. With the limits on growth, we will house those residents by building infill projects within the City of Tacoma and its neighboring towns. More density, more multi-family housing, and (hopefully) better transit to link them all together. Even with that growth, Tacoma’s suburbs won’t go away. But they won’t get bigger either. Creating better transit options into them will help suburbs remain a viable option for certain families and tie them to downtown.

So I don’t want to disparage suburbs or those who want to live in them. I do wish that some of Tacoma’s neighbors—Fife, Lakewood, University Place, and Ruston—would someday consider annexation into Tacoma instead of walling themselves off from us, but I also know that’s probably a long way off. We need to encourage good suburbs and better mass transit options into the densest suburban communities. We need to make sure that sprawl stops, too, and that the forests and farmland in Pierce County can stay rural. If we can effectively keep the suburbs from expanding even farther, Tacoma’s downtown core will grow that much stronger for it.

Erik Hanberg lives and works in downtown Tacoma. He blogs regularly at

published April 21st, 2008

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Andrew Austin // Apr 21, 2008 at 9:54 am

    I like your optimism and this was a very interesting and well-written read, but I think you are looking at a few things through rose colored glasses.

    “With that in mind, it makes me very happy that Washington State adopted the Growth Management Act in 1990.”
    Washington’s Growth Management Act is great in concept, but the problem is it has no teeth. It very little success in curbing sprawl. Anyone who takes a drive in the unincorporated areas of East Pierce County outside of Puyallup and Sumner or Spanaway quickly sees proof of this. The weakness of the growth management act has put is in a situation where policy leaders have to use carrots (tax subsidies, market based purchases of land) to preserve our farms and forests. These carrot methods are useful, but the problem is we there is no stick to compliment the carrot, and thus sprawl continues.

    DuPont…I am not trying to knock DuPont with this or people who choose to live there, but…putting some sidewalks and streetlights around strip malls in a place that a few years ago was swampland is not a success. People in DuPont have to drive to Lakewood or Olympia to go to the grocery store. It was created as a company town to serve state farm and Intel, but it’s turned into a sprawling car-dependent contrived community driven by cheap housing. It’s not something I would point to as a model suburban community.

  • 2 Erik Hanberg // Apr 21, 2008 at 10:37 am

    It’s too bad the Sounder connection to DuPont seems unlikely to succeed. It would have really helped it. It also would have made the Sounder’s cut through Tacoma easier to take.

  • 3 CA // Apr 21, 2008 at 12:36 pm

    Erik, I enjoy all your work online. You’re a smart and reasonable person to dialogue with.

    My problem with suburbia haters like James Howard Kunstler is their portrayal of suburbanites as the original sinners of America. Kunstler in particular, revels in mocking suburia and suburbanites, and reduces them to individuals of questionable intelligence and character. This is not helpful.

    I grew up in Bonney Lake and moved to Tacoma in 2001. I now love the city and wouldnt want to live anywhere but the city. However, people like Kunstler fail to recognize that suburbanites exercise their own free will to live outside our cities, because to them they see a better quality of life in suburbia. You and I would disagree with their conclusion, but who are we to tell them where they should live?

    “I do wish that some of Tacoma’s neighbors—Fife, Lakewood, University Place, and Ruston—would someday consider annexation into Tacoma instead of walling themselves off from us,”

    I agree with you. However, we’re never going to get suburbia to acquiesce to a plan that benefits both of us, if we(urbanites) continue to belittle them(suburbanites).

    This will be solved most efficiently within the market place. Lets create a lively, healthy, affordable, urban environment that people from the suburbs will want to move to. Just like I did.

    great article erik.

  • 4 Erik Hanberg // Apr 21, 2008 at 2:30 pm

    Many thanks, CA!

  • 5 Erik B. // Apr 23, 2008 at 1:20 pm

    Nice article Erik.

    DuPont…I am not trying to knock DuPont with this or people who choose to live there, but…putting some sidewalks and streetlights around strip malls in a place that a few years ago was swampland is not a success.

    That’s because they misunderstand what it means to be a walkable community.

    Just because there are sidewalks does not mean an area is walkable.

    The scale of the area has to be human sized for anyone to walk there. The question comes down to” how many places are within walking 5 minute walking distance?

    The problems with the suburbs is that by definition, all of the uses are spread out too far to walk to. That makes car use mandatory for each and every use. If you don’t have a car you are basically stranded.

    That is why suburbia is often cited as being polluting and non-sustainable when gas prices continue to increase (there is a finite amount of oil).

    Besides the “end of oil” concerns, more people are realizing that if you are forced to drive to nearly every function, community and civic life is very difficult to achieve. Yes, you may run into someone at the mall that you know on a Saturday, but it is statistically unlikely.

  • 6 marco // Apr 24, 2008 at 7:31 pm

    Do any of our famed “green” Tacoma City Council members including Ms. Anderson even take the bus to their council meetings?

    It is about time the council starts to practice what they preach!!!

  • 7 Mofo from the Hood // Apr 26, 2008 at 4:16 pm

    Look across Commencement Bay from Tacoma, a hundred-plus year old city trying to rebuild itself, and try to imagine that thirty years ago the view toward most of Brown’s Point and Northeast Tacoma was a green landscape.

    In the past ten years alone the feverish construction of hundreds of homes there have added nothing to the landscape but proof of the crassness and greed of selfish people.

    Such blatant landscape devastation, by any account, is indefensible.

  • 8 CA // Apr 27, 2008 at 10:01 pm

    “In the past ten years alone the feverish construction of hundreds of homes there have added nothing to the landscape but proof of the crassness and greed of selfish people.”

    It’s called capitalism and free will.

  • 9 Mofo from the Hood // Apr 28, 2008 at 7:42 am

    Free will is a moral power, an ability to choose.

    Just because someone has the ability to devastate a landscape doesn’t mean that they should devastate it, or that that would even want to.

    The landscape of Brown’s Point and Northeast Tacoma shows the effect of a conscience informed by capitalism? Maybe, but even though that process of devastation was justified by law, the choice was indefensible.

    How does one defend that choice with respect to all the governmental and cultural pressures to live environmentally responsible? To choose to live in the most efficient manner with respect to limited resources?

    We still live in a throw-away society. Trash Tacoma or whatever established settlement and move on to some other landscape in the name of capitalism or probably more so in the name of personal autonomy. Independant choices as such happen all the time and within legal systems devised by courts and lawyers.

    It was not inevitable that the landscape of Brown’s Point and Northeast Tacoma would be sheared for no apparent reason other than personal aggrandizement. And, by any account, such blatant devastation is indefensible.

  • 10 Mofo from the Hood // Apr 28, 2008 at 9:21 am

    CA @3: Regarding your comment about people excercising their free will to live wherever they want, and who are we to tell them where they should live:

    Is anything wrong with anything?

  • 11 CA // Apr 28, 2008 at 12:15 pm

    At one time Manhattan Island was a purely natural, undeveloped tract of land. Is it now indefensibile?

    Mofo, I do support some regulation of development. For example I dont support unrestricted development in national parks, federal/state forests and parks, wetlands, and any other protected areas.

    But the type of restrictions you seem to be advocating, and the developments you label as indefensible, would require coercive actions by the state to a degree which I could not support. That certainly is something wrong, with something.

    Mofo, neither you nor I know what is best for suburbanites. They alone know what is best for their families and the style of living they desire. I dont like the prevailing wisdom that somehow urbanites know better, and suburbanites are the only ones damaging the environment.

  • 12 Mofo from the Hood // Apr 28, 2008 at 2:51 pm

    Manhattan Island and Tacoma are two established settlements that were redeveloped from natural tracts of land.

    Was either technological redevelopment of the landscape needed? For example, was there a natural catastrophe or biological threat to humanity elsewhere to justify the new settlements of Manhattan Island and Tacoma? Not that’s clear to me.

    So, initally the redevelopments were indefensible.

    Do suburbanites or anyone else always know what’s best? No. The daily news can confirm that.

    The prevailing wisdom is that the point of studying wisdom is to teach.

    If you or I have a mind that is capable of understanding the prevailing wisdom, say about the democratic control of political and economic power, then should we inform ignorant suburbanites and others? Yes.

    Would such wisdom prevent redevelopments such as Manhattan Island and Tacoma? Or Brown’s Point and Northeast Tacoma? If each case was considered in a functioning democracy, then the each area might look much different today.

    Each area might look worse.

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