Why the suburbs are still central

Where did President Obama and the Democrats lose their way? In the suburbs, argues demographer Joel Kotkin:

Ideologues may set the tone for the national debate, but geography and demography determine elections.

In America, the dominant geography continues to be suburbia — home to at least 60 percent of the population and probably more than that portion of the electorate. Roughly 220 congressional districts, or more than half the nation’s 435, are predominately suburban, according to a 2005 Congressional Quarterly study. This is likely to only increase in the next decade, as Millennials begin en masse to enter their 30s and move to the periphery. [Note from Kyle: Keep this line about the Millennials -- Americans who are in their teens and 20s -- in mind for later.]

Now the earth is shaking under suburban topsoil — in ways that could be harmful to Democratic prospects. “The GOP path to success,” according to a recent Princeton Survey Research Associates study of suburban attitudes, “goes right through the suburbs.”

The connection between suburbs and political victory should have been clear by now. Middle- and working-class suburbanites keyed the surprising election win of Republican Sen. Scott Brown in Massachusetts in January. Suburban voters were also crucial to the 2009 Republican gubernatorial victories in Virginia and New Jersey, two key swing states.

Nationally, suburban approval for the Democrats has dropped to 39 percent this year, from 48 percent two years ago. Disapproval for President Barack Obama is also high — nearly 48 percent of suburbanites disapprove, compared to only 35 percent of urbanites. Even Obama’s strong support among minority suburbanites, a fast-growing group, has declined substantially.

The difference in approval levels from just two years ago is telling, but not exactly unique. Ditto for Kotkin’s observation that the poor economy is still weighing on suburbanites. But, he then writes,

there may be other, perhaps more nuanced, reasons for the administration’s suburban disconnect. Many of the administration’s most high-profile initiatives have tended to reflect the views of urban interests — roughly 20 percent of the population — rather than suburban ones.

When the president visits suburban backyards, it sometimes seems like a visit from a “president from another planet.” After all, as a young man, Obama told The Associated Press: “I’m not interested in the suburbs. The suburbs bore me.”

More recently, Obama made clear that he is more interested in containing suburbia than enhancing it. In Florida last February, the president declared, “the days of building sprawl” are “over.”

Much of the Obama policy agenda — from mass transit and high-speed rail to support for “smart growth” policies — appeals to city planners and urbanistas. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has spoken openly of “coercing” Americans out their cars and the Department of Housing and Urban Development is handing out grants to regions which support densification strategies that amount to forced urbanization of suburbs.

This is a problem since the vast majority of Americans — consistently more than 80 percent — do not prefer to live in dense big cities. Most want a house rather than being forced to live in an apartment. And for all but a handful, a car, not a bus or train, remains not only the preferred way to get to work, but often the only feasible means to get work — mostly in the suburbs.

I think this is a critical point. A big reason the president’s “change” agenda has fizzled is that it wasn’t really change that most Americans believed in.

It is not an accident that, as Kotkin reports, four out of five Americans do not live in urban areas. For the most part, they live elsewhere because they choose to live elsewhere. There may be down sides to those decisions — there are trade-offs in all of life’s big decisions — but those four in five Americans want solutions that fit with the decisions they’ve made. They don’t want to be forced to adapt to someone else’s vision for the way they live.

Kotkin points explicitly to the issue of transportation, and not just in the above quote about Ray LaHood. He also questions why Democrats don’t “offer solutions to suburbanites that go beyond devising their forced conversion to dense urbanity.”

[Democrats] could refocus their efforts on climate change to suburbs-friendly strategies like telecommuting — perhaps the cheapest, quickest and most socially acceptable way to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Outside of greater New York, which has half the nation’s transit users, there are already about as many telecommuters as transit riders. Why not work to expand this phenomena, so well suited to the vast majority of the country?

Now, about those Millennials. Knowing which way this generation is going to turn as they begin to settle down and raise families is crucial to future development — especially in metro Atlanta.

The trend of suburban dominance is not new. A majority of Millennials grew up in suburban, exurban or rural areas.

It’s possible that they will turn against that upbringing and desire to live in smaller, more dense urban developments, skipping the yard work and relying on public parks and public transportation.

Possible — but, I think, unlikely.

I think my own path is more likely. I grew up in a medium-size town, married a girl from Atlanta and shortly thereafter moved to Brussels, a city of more than 1 million people. We lived in a flat, shopped primarily at a small grocery store around the block, and relied on public transportation.

But when we moved back to Atlanta — with, importantly, a 3-month-old son — we did not give a moment’s thought to replicating that lifestyle here. Not a single second. We wanted more space (babies are small, but their stuff isn’t), a little bit of distance from neighbors (which makes a big difference in the stress that a crying baby creates), a yard, good schools.

Yes, we ended up in Buckhead rather than Woodstock, but that was mostly because of proximity to family and the fact that, because we were shopping in the wake of  a housing market bust, we were able to afford to buy a home that would have been way out of our price range in normal times. If we decide to move again, we will almost certainly be edging outward, not inward.

I will be surprised if most Millennials don’t travel a similar arc. The big challenge for metro Atlanta — and America more broadly — will be finding a way to accommodate them, rather than trying to “coerce” them into a lifestyle they don’t want, and which will make them less happy.

109 comments Add your comment

Linda

November 1st, 2010
12:36 pm

Nobody has ever moved from Brussles to Woodstock.

A Hearty Cheese Sauce

November 1st, 2010
12:36 pm

Obama is a clueless idiot.

markie mark

November 1st, 2010
12:37 pm

Does this mean you expect the millennials to become more conservative? Some of us grow up, acquire “things” and realize what it takes….others never seem to learn this lesson and stay as liberal as an 18 year old….I have never been able to understand the reasoning behind this…

Ragnar Danneskjöld

November 1st, 2010
12:40 pm

Pretty good argument. I think Kotkin hit the issue with a single word: “coercing.”

iRun

November 1st, 2010
12:42 pm

I didn’t give it a single thought either. I bought a house in the city in one of the few good school districts. Because the suburbs meant driving and I hate driving. I like biking to work. Even if it means my house costs +2x for the same size as my suburban house and my property taxes are 4K a year. But that 4K is because of the good schools.

Most people, Kyle, don’t choose to live in the burbs because it’s a preference. Most live because it’s cheaper. After all, you found all the things you wanted (space, distance, yard, schools) in the city. But you could afford it (and the property taxes, which you conveniently didn’t mention though I know they’re high in Buckhead), housing market downswing or no. Most can’t. And that’s why they live in the burbs.

Other people move to the burbs because they’ve grown up thinking it’s where you’re SUPPOSED to move to once you have kids. And they don’t question it at all. When we decided to move from the burbs to the city it was so we would reduce our car dependency and be closer to our child during the day (ie, we work intown and he’d be in school in the burbs, a 1+ hour drive away). When we told our suburban friends and neighbors about our plan we got a lot of surprised looks. But they like to visit us and let their kids run around the neighborhood with my kid.

CJ

November 1st, 2010
12:46 pm

It’s understandable that Kotkin and Kyle would project their lifestyle preferences onto the rest of society, but it has little to do with the state of politics.

And the notion that “the president’s ‘change’ agenda has fizzled is that it wasn’t really change that most Americans believed in is also nonsense. When only one in ten Americans know that the stimulus included one of the biggest tax cuts in history (which Republicans voted against), when most Americans falsely believe that the stimulus increased the Bush deficit instead of reducing it, when most Americans falsely believe that the stimulus didn’t save jobs when it did, when most Americans don’t know that TARP is likely to return a profit, and when most Americans don’t realize that the Affordable Care Act saves significantly hundreds of billions more than it costs,… we can conclude that the reason that the president’s change agenda hasn’t worked is due to voter ignorance and misinformation.

And such voter ignorance and misinformation arises, in part, out of the hate that’s generated by consistently ridiculous accusations, like the one in this post, that Obama is somehow different than the rest of us.

iRun

November 1st, 2010
12:47 pm

PS. My point is that while technically choosing the suburbs because it’s cheaper is a choice/preference…it really isn’t. People don’t really have unlimited options because you can’t damn the consequences. To say otherwise is rhetoric.

A Hearty Cheese Sauce

November 1st, 2010
12:49 pm

Message to Obama…”Dont spread my wealth, spread my work ethic”.

Jefferson

November 1st, 2010
12:56 pm

What will the dog do if he catches the car?

Kyle Wingfield

November 1st, 2010
1:00 pm

I love it. I write about Obama’s policies “coercing” — his transportation secretary’s word — 80 percent of the people to adopt the lifestyle chosen by the other 20 percent, and CJ accuses me of “projecting [my] lifestyle preferences onto the rest of society.”

And to iRun @ 12:42: Yes, people who make a certain amount of money can afford what amounts to a suburban lifestyle — big house, good yard, good schools — in the city. (But you’re quite wrong to claim — based on what exactly? — that we could have afforded to make that choice even if the housing market had continued to climb, or even flatten, rather than falling.)

The only way most Americans can afford to live in-town, however, is to sacrifice things like the big house and the good yard — and, in most cases, the good schools. They *choose* to live where they can afford the house, etc. that they want…so, the way I see it, it’s still very much their choice.

HDB

November 1st, 2010
1:00 pm

A Hearty Cheese Sauce

November 1st, 2010
12:49 pm

Message to Republicans: “In order to spread the work ethic, you have to spread the wealth”.

arnold

November 1st, 2010
1:09 pm

When I retired I moved from the city to the country. What the younger generation will live is moot. How they vote is paramount to a politician. The country is getting browner. The country is getting more ethnic than WASP. Who do the WASP’s vote for? Who do the future majority vote for? Does it matter where they live?

Conservatives need to learn to see the future. If they continue as they are now, there will be no future conservatives of any consequence.

Kyle Wingfield

November 1st, 2010
1:17 pm

arnold: Kotkin’s point was that where one lives *does* affect how one votes, because it shapes the way one looks at various issues. Feel free to explain why you think he’s wrong, rather than just saying he is.

Note also that racial minorities are moving to the suburbs in greater numbers — and, according to Kotkin, disapproving of Obama’s policies in greater numbers.

CJ

November 1st, 2010
1:19 pm

…80 percent of the people to adopt the lifestyle chosen by the other 20 percent,…

I love it. Others have addressed the the many reasons that people live in the suburbs (e.g., school quality disparities, housing prices, …) and Kyle continues to assert that his adopting his preferred lifestyle is the one and only reason that folks would make such a choice.

In addition, the implication that Dem policies are intended to “coerce”, but GOP policies are not is another fallacy from the right (there are plenty of examples, but for the record, Obama’s transportation secretary is a Republican).

iRun

November 1st, 2010
1:20 pm

Kyle, you’ve misread…so your address to me may need restating.

You could afford the intown living, including the higher taxes and you chose it. I know the housing market here. It didn’t make a 400K house suddenly become a 150K house. Not in my neighborhood. And CERTAINLY not in Buckhead. More like a 400K house is now a 350K house. But I agree that’s a 50K differences that makes or breaks a sale for many.

But again, setting that price point isn’t really a choice. And you know it.

Most people (I agree not all…there are def some who prefer it) move to the burbs because it’s the only viable option. It’s only a luck few, myself included, who are affluent enough to choose otherwise.

But this doesn’t have to be a point of contention or even a disparity between urbanites and suburbanites. We need better designed suburbs, though, for sure. Heck, your neighborhood used to be a suburb. Mine, too. In addition, Decatur is a suburb. Sure, your neighborhood and mine are now part of the city but they didn’t start out that way. But our neighborhoods and Decatur are examples of good suburbs. If we had more good suburbs, connected to the work centers (and not just City of Atlanta) by true rapid transit there’s a chance I’d still live in the burbs.

When it comes to politics, however, you’re kidding yourself if you think the politicians forget where their votes come from.

arnold

November 1st, 2010
1:21 pm

Keep dreaming Kyle. In your lifetime you will be the minority no matter where you live. Racial and ethnic majorities tend to not be conservatives. Too bad you can’t see past your nose.

A Hearty Cheese Sauce

November 1st, 2010
1:22 pm

I surely wouldnt want to live in that City of Atlanta Crapper.

a crunchy topping

November 1st, 2010
1:41 pm

all the more reason for the rest of us to want to live there.

booger

November 1st, 2010
1:41 pm

CJ,

You sound very defensive. I live in a small town, but have a condo in mid town which my wife and I visit often. When we visit, it’s never more than two or three days, and we are ready to go home. It’s just not a very nice or convienient place to be for long stretches of time. Your conclusion that many people in the suburbs would live in the city if they could afford it is just wrong.

iRun

November 1st, 2010
1:49 pm

booger,

It’s not wrong, just misread. Most people would prefer to live closer to work to reduce the commute, etc. For most people that means moving to town. However, as Atlanta grows some of it’s burbs are becoming mini-city-centers (ie, Alpharetta, parts of Gwinnett), so that is changing.

But we never said that EVERYONE would prefer to live closer to work. Just that most would.

Why keep that midtown condo if you don’t like living there?

Jefferson Jackson

November 1st, 2010
1:54 pm

Not sure I understand Arnold’s use of Engligh here. “Tend to not”??

jconservative

November 1st, 2010
1:59 pm

My experience is that people move to the suburbs for cheaper housing.
Then they throw away the savings on big cars and gasoline for 80 mile
drives to and from work.

But hey, what do I know?

ATLBadger

November 1st, 2010
2:06 pm

Thank goodness Atlanta has Decatur, the only “suburb” of Atlanta that’s worth living in….

markie mark

November 1st, 2010
2:07 pm

@ CJ – “When only one in ten Americans know that the stimulus included one of the biggest tax cuts in history”….your right…I did miss that. Where do you find that?

booger

November 1st, 2010
2:15 pm

iRun,

If you read my comments over, you will see that I never said “everyone” would prefer to live in the city, I said that the conclusion that many only live in the suburbs because of cost is wrong. I keep the condo because it’s fun for a get awy spot, but I could not even imagine living there.

carlosgvv

November 1st, 2010
2:16 pm

Where did President Obama and the Democrats lose their way? By actually beleiving in these troubled times the Republicans would put the interests of the American people first and ideology second. Bad mistake. Especially when you realize their ideology is complete submission and loyality to Big Business. Too late, for this election anyway, for the Democrats to realize just how totaly owned by Corporate money the Republicans are.

Libby

November 1st, 2010
2:18 pm

When I lived in Atlanta I lived in the city and in the suburbs. I was never robbed in the suburbs – but was robbed 6 times in the city – guess where I’d rather live!

booger

November 1st, 2010
3:00 pm

Kyle,

This is a very interesting take on the problems the Dems. are facing only two years after having the world by the tail. If you look at the make up of Obama’s advisors and staff however, it is not hard to see why the suburbs, and I would add rural and small town populations have been ignored. He has spent his life in urban environments, has his roots in community activism, and is surrounded by people who are just like him. This is the same reason he doesn’t have a feel for what it takes to get businesses rolling again. These are foreign territories to him and his staff, and he mistakenly believes that they will respond to stimuli the same way he does. Look for him to diversify his staff over the next two years.

A Hearty Cheese Sauce

November 1st, 2010
3:03 pm

“In order to spread the work ethic, you have to spread the wealth”.

Im afraid that isnt quite how it works. But you already knew that.

A Hearty Cheese Sauce

November 1st, 2010
3:12 pm

Ms Tucker and Mr Bookman are gonna be reeling come Weds….tee hee.

Guy Incognito

November 1st, 2010
3:16 pm

Hmmm, ATLBadger throwin out the love for Di<hater. Let me guess, you used to live in Madison, WI.

Jefferson

November 1st, 2010
3:18 pm

The GOP will be just as smug and petty come Wed, they just won’t do anything. Give them a total majority and they will expand gov’t and run up deficits like before, but say they won’t.

CJ

November 1st, 2010
3:19 pm

MM at 2:07,

There are several online media sources, but you can start with http://www.recovery.gov. There you’ll find that the $787 billion stimulus was actually $288 billion in tax cuts (more than a third of the stimulus) plus $496 billion in spending (e.g., roads, railroads, teachers, police).

CJ

November 1st, 2010
3:34 pm

booger: “This is a very interesting take on the problems the Dems are facing….[President Obama] has spent his life in urban environments, has his roots in community activism, and is surrounded by people who are just like him.

Well played, Kyle. If booger’s comment is any indication, then you’ve accomplished precisely what you set out to do. Obama is one of “them” while enter ethically-challenged, multi-millionaire, Republican politician here is one of us.

Right out of the GOP play book.

Intown

November 1st, 2010
3:37 pm

Kyle: I don’t know what Millenials will do. But, I assure you, every yuppie Atlanta Gen X’er I know (with & without young children) who grew up in the suburbs of various cities around the United States prefers to live intown than in the suburbs. The ONLY reason the ones who live in the suburbs “chose” to live there is because they thought they could not afford the space they wanted intown.

Intown

November 1st, 2010
3:40 pm

Also, I don’t think an urban agenda necessarily conflicts with suburban interests. Right now, suburbanites are stuck with few transit options. Investing in mass transportation infrastructure will help surbanites, especially if it brings mass transit to them.

Interesting column nonetheless.

Thurston B. Howell III

November 1st, 2010
3:42 pm

Suburbs allow one to use a three car garage for plastic kids junk while parking the car in the driveway. Suburban lawns are perfect for the once-in-a-lifetime use of the trampoline and the brillantly colored swingsets that are never used. Oh yeah, don’t forget your Scott’s turfbuilder.

Kyle Wingfield

November 1st, 2010
3:43 pm

Intown: The question is, how many people will be able to “afford the space they want intown”? By definition, there’s a limited amount of space…and my impression is that LaHood, et al. are not advocating that everyone live in a house with their own backyard. They’re talking about much more dense housing, and my prediction is that that kind of dense housing will never be more than slightly more popular with families than it’s been in the past.

booger

November 1st, 2010
3:49 pm

CJ,

My how you distort. My comments did not indicate that all that is urban is bad. I basically said Obama should broden his horizon’s and get advisors from various backgrounds. I do not think a president and cabinet of all farmers would be a good idea either.

Recent Grad

November 1st, 2010
4:03 pm

I think Mr. Kotkin makes a very good point but I also think many pundits greatly underestimate how many people are vehemently against this new health care bill. The bill is convoluted enough to have something to anger just about everyone.

Linda

November 1st, 2010
4:13 pm

CJ @ 12:46, You concluded “that the reason that the president’s change agenda hasn’t worked is due to voter ignorance & misinformation.”

I submit that one of the many reasons the president’s hopey, changie thingie hasn’t worked is due to the fact that he & his minions have continued to call voters ignorant & misinformed. Conservatives, independents, Tea Party members, & yes, even Democrats, anyone who disagrees with his agenda, have been called every name on the book, except who we really are: conservatives who believe in limited govt., fiscal responsibility, the Constitution & the free market. There’s only so many times & only a certain length of time that you can bash voters & expect them to support you.

My middle name is David

November 1st, 2010
4:31 pm

I had a condo in town for 11 years. I got in at the right time and I got out at the right time.

My life is much better OTP.

CJ

November 1st, 2010
4:37 pm

Forgive me, “progressives want to destroy our country” Linda.

What should I call voters who received a tax cut, but insist that they received a tax increase? Should I just call them Tea Partiers and let the “ignorant and misinformed” part be implied?

For the record, no you’re not conservative; no you don’t believe in limited government; no you don’t believe in fiscal responsibility, the Constitution, or the free market. I’m sorry, but you can’t believe in these things while supporting the policies and people that you regularly advocate in the comments section of Kyle’s blog.

muslim nucular bomb: muscular bombs

November 1st, 2010
4:38 pm

The fate of the Democrats depends on how Generatin Screech will vote tomorrow.

Democrats will be saved by the liberty bell.

muslim nucular bomb: muscular bombs

November 1st, 2010
4:40 pm

Generation Screech includes that portion of the population who came of age when the tv show “Saved by the bell” was in vogue, and the song “Vogue” by Madonna was a hit.

muslim nucular bomb: muscular bombs

November 1st, 2010
4:41 pm

Generation Screech is now fully in control of our country, and the Chinese are building a super navy………

muslim nucular bomb: muscular bombs

November 1st, 2010
4:44 pm

Polling data from Generation Screech shows that half will vote democrat and half willl vote half-empty, and the other half will vote half-full.

I Report (-: You Whine )-: mmm, mmmm, mmmmm! Just sayin...

November 1st, 2010
4:56 pm

The muslims/ liberals want us all crammed into the big cities for a reason, just pointing out…

TjAtl

November 1st, 2010
5:39 pm

It would appear we’re arguing gross generalizations. There are a wealth of housing options between “dense urban living” and half-acre plus single family lots.

They can also all be mixed in together, in the city and in the burbs, along with community-serving businesses and recreational opportunities to create communities for the full life cycle. So a college grad can find a place to live near their family and not be bored to tears, their parents can downsize when they don’t need the big house anymore, and not have to uproot from their community.

When people in policy positions decry “sprawl”, they don’t mean that you shouldn’t be able to have that house with the yard if you want it. (though it makes for a darn good slug fest if you take it that way)
They mean that there are ways to do it without building cul de sac subdivisions the size of small towns. (Then joining them with other similar subdivisions, widening the “main road” and putting in strip shopping centers to service them). That growth pattern has failed time after time — and by failed I mean that it leads to excruciating traffic largely due to the lack of street connections, more expensive infrastructure, and a host of other things I can bore you with if asked.

But of course, none of that makes good material for one-line zingers.

Linda

November 1st, 2010
6:14 pm

CJ @ 4:37, Are you attempting to compare what little ole me said about progressives to what our president, his cabinet, the Dems. in the House & Senate & his liberal followers have said about conservative voters who disagree with him? His last accusation was to call us “enemies.” We’re not. We are patriots.
I stand by what I said in an earlier post, that progressives want to destroy our country. The main reason voters have turned against the president & his policies is because of his progressive/socialist agenda. Evidently you are a progressive. Otherwise, you would have not been so offended with my statement. What I do not understand is why an individual could be a progressive. What’s in it for you? Are you an Obama plant on this site?
Disagreeing that I & others are not conservative is, in your favorite word, nonsense.