Law in Contemporary Society

The Suburban Feedback Loop

-- By PaulSmith - 16 Apr 2010

What Suburbs Do


America’s suburbs grew exponentially over the past century. The direct costs of suburbanization are well documented, including environmental degradation, oil and auto-dependency, and high infrastructure costs.

Many suburban economic externalities aren’t internalized to the cost of actually living in the suburbs. Similarly, many of the social costs of suburban living are culturally downplayed. Combined with a limited range of other housing options and a media that portrays the suburban family as the ideal, it seems safe to say that suburban housing demand is propped up by a number of factors.


Both political parties focus intensely on suburban voters. Less attention is paid to the role the suburbs themselves play in forming these voters' political preferences. Suburban and exurban communities create very unique social, physical, and political environments. When compared to their urban counterparts, suburban residents are often more isolated from other economic and racial groups, more auto-dependent, and more reliant on a different set of government services. Though the specific causal relations between these factors and suburban political stances is an issue for debate, studies of political preferences and general election results indicate that suburban voters are more conservative, more supportive of local government over federal government, and less invested in addressing economic disparities through government action.


These conservative and suburban policies themselves serve to perpetuate the suburban ideal while precluding other forms of development. Suburban-centric policies related to zoning, density, and parking often forbid the construction of dense or multi-modal neighborhoods. General conservative policies regarding low gas taxes, preference for highways over mass transit, opposition to school diversity bussing, and lax environmental standards all serve to make suburban living easy and cheap. Even people who would be interested in living in urban, traditional, or otherwise multimodal neighborhoods find themselves pulled away by cheap gas and stratified schools. And even if they still wanted to live elsewhere, they’d probably find few options on the table.

The Feedback Loop

America is very suburban. Suburbia creates a distinct class of more conservative, suburban voters. This electorate in turn enables policies which preclude the development of neighborhoods other than more suburbia. Which create more conservative, suburban voters. Breaking this cycle should be an imperative for anyone interested in advancing long-term progressive politics in America, mitigating the direct negative impacts of suburbia, or improving the quality of life for the elderly, the infirm, and those who would simply choose to live in multi-modal neighborhoods given the option.

Breaking the Cycle

How did we get here?

Many factors perpetuating our own suburban status quo were likely at play perpetuating the pre-suburban status quo. A variety of dramatic societal changes broke that pattern. Cultural perceptions of urbanity as dangerous and dirty pulled people to the suburban promised land. Racism and white flight emptied traditional middle class neighborhoods. The federal government injected incredible amounts of money into the creation of the interstate highway system, politically backed by the oil and automobile lobby and publically justified by national defense concerns. Privately owned mass transit systems were purchased and destroyed by automobile companies.


Many of these forces seem nearly impossible to play in reverse. Big rail isn’t going to buy our highways and destroy them anytime soon. Using racial fear to drive suburbanites into traditional neighborhoods is appalling and impractical. Less outrageous, but still unlikely, is the independent injection of federal money into alternatives to highways. Though the tone has shifted in this regard, any investment is unlikely to match the highway’s force in the 50s and 60s.


Higher gas prices can increase the desirability alternate modes of transportation, and in turn, more multi-modal communities. Increasing the gas tax accomplishes this while internalizing more of the suburbs’ societal costs and simultaneously providing a funding source for more transportation alternatives. However, with so many families already auto-dependent, such policies are generally politically impractical. Broadside attempts to build denser neighborhoods in inner-ring suburbs generally encounter similarly vociferous NIMBY opposition. Meanwhile, projects attempting to build denser, mixed use projects on previously undeveloped greenfields are frequently limited in their effectiveness due to isolation from other multi-modal communities, local regulatory limitations, and poor implementation.


Easy solutions aren't readily apparent. However, one of the most promising opportunities seems to lie in focusing on those who already prefer multimodal neighborhoods, but simply don’t have them as an option. Many of these groups, such as the elderly or the physically handicapped, are by definition highly sympathetic. Serving these groups could provide a base for future development and potentially soften suburban voters perceptions of urban interests, all while providing an increase in quality of life for the currently unserved individuals.

Young people without children have also been increasingly drawn towards traditional neighborhoods. Investigation into motives at play in this return could provide valuable insight. (Is it Sienfeld and Friends? Or is it more intrinsic to life in the suburbs?). Meanwhile, establishing strategies to keep these individuals in traditional neighborhoods after they have children could yield dividends. Will programs mandating certain percentages of child-friendly apartments and day-care space in new city-center development help retain young families (see Vancouver)? Or do we just need to a new sitcom where the happy nuclear family lives over a pharmacy and walks to the grocery store?

Appealing to suburban political goals when implementing traditionally urban policies offers some hope, and has experienced some success. Emphasizing mass transit investments as traffic-reducing mechanisms can help garner suburban support and funding, even thought they potentially undermine suburban dominance.


Potential solutions aren’t clear – but understanding the political and societal ramifications of allowing the suburban cycle to continue unchecked makes breaking the cycle imperative. Understanding the way suburban interests seek to perpetuate themselves will make any strategy much more likely to succeed in the long run.

Editorial Response:

Hey Paul.

I've thought about this paper for a while. I enjoyed reading it, and I thought it was exceedingly well-written. Nevertheless, I think the paper has two major weaknesses, and both boil down to the same solution--narrowing your scope will make for a stronger paper.

The first weakness is structural. I don't think you have enough space to effectively deal with all of the topics you raise. The progression from explanatory background to possible solutions does justice to neither topic. As such, the thrust of the paper winds up muted, and the reader isn't given enough time or incentive to get invested in the topic.

At the same time, I think certain substantive elements of your argument present challenges. A portion of your argument against suburbs relies upon the practical considerations of their detrimental effect on sustainability and energy use. I think this is the wrong approach, because it ties the strength of your argument to temporary realities. If cars become more fuel efficient, or cease to use gasoline, suburbs become more legitimate. Yet, given that automobile transportation only accounts for 20% of U.S. polution, is the concern really energy use? Also, consider that the energy sector is the largest polluter at 40%, that mass transit tends to use electricity in lieu of fuel, and that electricity is only as clean as the powerplant producing it. Would expanding mass transit really be a panacea for the polluting effects of suburbs? As a rhetorical strategy, I think focusing on the economic/environmental costs of suburbia isn't the best use of your space, as the improvement one would see in a shift towards mass-transit is arguably but a matter of degree. More importantly, it leaves the validity of your position dependent upon mutable facts.

I'm also not sure how effective the "solutions" part of your paper is. Because the essay is split between two topics, I don't think you had enough room to really do justice to the bottom section. At the same time, I think the topic may not be worth bringing up. As you noted, there aren't any easy solutions for shifting people away from suburbs. As such, I think the time spent on that topic doesn't particularly help your paper, and I think it takes up space which could be put towards more valuable use.

I have a few solutions.


I think you should cut the paragraph on "impossibilities." It doesn't add to your argument, because the topics discussed are common-sense issues. For example, I don't think your readers need to be convinced that scaring people back into the cities through racial fear is not a viable method of reform.

I think the paragraph on "The Feedback Loop" should get more prominent billing. That paragraph distills the heart of your argument, and answers basic questions about why suburbs are detrimental and why I should care. I think that should be your intro.


I think you should reorient your paper around the political issue. Unlike the environmental concerns, the influence that suburbs may hold on our nation's voting patterns and political identities has no expiration date. So long as suburbs exist, the political ramifications raised by homogenous community living will remain relevant. Additionally, I think it's an issue that a lot of us might not be familiar with (I wasn't), and I think there seems to be legitimate debate regarding the extent to which suburban living controls voter preferences.

As such, I think you could have a much tighter paper if you scaled back your paper, and focused solely on the issue of how, and to what extent, suburbs impact voting and political identity. I thought your argument came through clearest when you were talking about how suburbs have direct ramifications for the future of progressive politics. Given that you only have a thousand words to work with, I think simply proving this proposition would both make for an interesting paper and get the most milage out of the space constraints.

You are entitled to restrict access to your paper if you want to. But we all derive immense benefit from reading one another's work, and I hope you won't feel the need unless the subject matter is personal and its disclosure would be harmful or undesirable. To restrict access to your paper simply delete the "#" on the next line:

# * Set ALLOWTOPICVIEW = TWikiAdminGroup, PaulSmith

Note: TWiki has strict formatting rules. Make sure you preserve the three spaces, asterisk, and extra space at the beginning of that line. If you wish to give access to any other users simply add them to the comma separated list


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r3 - 13 Jan 2012 - 23:34:43 - IanSullivan
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