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Reports of the Death of the Suburbs Are Premature

Apr 10


“The American suburb as we know it is dying,” says Time magazine. They are going to turn into the next slums, says the Atlantic Monthly. Both articles cite research by a planning professor named Arthur Nelson, who claims that by 2025 the U.S. will have 22 million “surplus” homes on large (over 1/6th acre) lots.

Nelson supposedly calculates this in a 2006 paper published in the Journal of the American Planning Association (JAPA). Table 4 in the paper says that 38 percent of Americans prefer multi-family housing, 37 percent prefer homes on small (less than one-sixth acre) lots, and only 25 percent prefer homes on large lots. A note to the table says it “is based on interpretations of surveys by Myers and Gearin (2001).”

Those turn out to be rather loose interpretations. The Myers and Gearin paper includes the following quotes and summaries of public surveys:

“Americans overwhelmingly prefer a single-family home on a large lot.” “83 percent of respondents in the 1999 National Association of Home Builders Smart Growth Survey prefer a single-family detached home in the suburbs.” “74 percent of respondents in the 1998 Vermonters Attitudes on Sprawl Survey preferred a home in an outlying area with a larger lot.” “73 percent of the 1995 American Lives New Urbanism Study respondents prefer suburban developments with large lots.”

These surveys don’t provide much support for a claim that only one out of four Americans want to live in a home on a large lot — it’s more like three out of four. In fact, the main point of the Myers and Gearin article is that there is a market for multifamily and small lots, though it is small.

The information used by Nelson “may not be terribly reliable,” comments Emil Malizia, a planning professor who must be famous at the University of North Carolina for understatements, in the same issue of JAPA (and found at the end of Nelson’s paper). “The samples are self selected, . . . the responses may be heavily influenced by the data collection method,” and “people often do not behave in ways that are consistent with the preferences or opinions they express.”

In short, Nelson’s “surplus of 22 million large-lot homes” is just one more example of junk planning science. Of course, Nelson makes this claim to justify planners’ efforts to “rebuild America” using a smart-growth “template.” Just Google Nelson’s name and thesis and you’ll find how eagerly the planners lap up this hogwash.

The suburbs may not be dying, but planners are doing their best to kill them.

Reprinted from The Antiplanner