I’ve read a lot of books about cities, suburbs, and cars. I don’t screen them to make sure they confirm my beliefs – usually I read books based on a strong recommendation and nothing else, and try not to spoil anything by reading reviews or summaries.
But it’s remarkable how every book I’ve read about suburbs and cars eventually hits the following two points:
Individual homeownership of detached homes is bad.
You can argue about certain fuzzy values that homeownership achieves. But if you look at any metric or dig into any outcome, it’s all downside. It’s bad for the environment, for communities, or nations, for the people living in those homes, for the cities they abandon. The way we don’t tax homeowners is bad, the reasons people buy homes is bad. It’s all downside. I won’t repeat the reasons one by one because virtually every book that discusses suburbanization covers them in detail, including this one.
Homeownership is kind of a bad idea is something that you should have gotten from the article about Vienna in the New York Times. If it makes sense to you, listen to the Henry George program and follow the host’s spicy tweets. I for one want to figure out why this is a wrong idea but I just can’t, which puts me in a weird spot because many of my fellow leftists are surprisingly pro-homeownership because of Marxist and traditional reasons.
And the decline of shared transporation in favor of individual motor vehicles has been a tragedy.
It’s been worse for the environment, encouraged inefficient development patterns, isolated people from each other. It’s a worse deal for governments who struggle to maintain roads, and it’s a worse deal for people who have no other option but to drive.
Anyway, besides those two big points, Crabgrass Kingdom is a pretty good read about the development of suburbs.
I thought that it wandered a little, covering topics that were really fun to read about and very well-researched, but not essential to understanding suburbanization.
Also, this was published in 1987, which was a different time than now: the revitalization of major cities had just begun and the recent history was mostly about dispersion to the suburbs. Jackson fortunately only writes about future predictions in the last chapter and gets about 50% of his predictions right, but most of the book is still relevant.
The newest and most interesting angle for me was about the power of cities to annex nearby towns. I talked with a good friend in city government earlier today to really wrap my head around this, but it’s pretty fascinating.
For example - New York City’s combination of boroughs gives it a larger tax base and it also lets the city build transportation between those boroughs more easily than if they were separate cities. Look at the San Francisco Bay Area and the unevenly and inefficiently distributed public transit. Or the conflict between New York and New Jersey with congestion taxes, or the DC area with the Silver Line, which is finally finished but took much longer to build because it was in Virginia.
Which is interesting! Because suburbs in some ways take advantage of cities, using them for jobs and, via state budgets, subsidies, but if they’re annexed into those cities, their dependence can be more equalized.
There’s also a lot of fun writing about how suburbanization is such a British idea, that US-style suburbs only exist in former British colonies. Those distinctions between European cultures were interesting to learn and I hadn’t really realized them before.
It’s a good book. Unless you’re very interested in cities and suburbs, it’s a little long. I enjoyed it.