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Beltway Confidential

A common delusion: Only the US has sprawl

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Beltway Confidential,Michael Barone,United States,Analysis

“The stroller ban: are cities anti-kid?” is an interesting and thoughtful article by Ashley McGuire. She and her husband are expecting a child and are moving from the Northern Virginia suburbs to the District of Columbia: the opposite, she notes, of the usual trend of young parents or soon-to-be parents leaving the central city for the suburbs. She would like central cities to be more kid-friendly and notes, accurately, that one reason they aren’t is that real estate in low-crime central city neighborhoods tends to be expensive. I wish her and her family the best.

She is under one delusion, however, the delusion that suburban sprawl is strictly an American phenomenon. “Look around the world,” she writes. “In most countries, families have no choice but to make do in cities. And they do so happily. They learn to live with less. They walk and take public transportation. Children share rooms. Everyone survives.” She should know better, since elsewhere in her article she quotes Joel Kotkin, whose newgeography.com blog shows that her assumption is incorrect. One example: this blogpost on a recent Eurostat report on European metropolitan area populations. It shows that in the two largest metro areas the vast majority of people live not in the central cities but in the suburbs: 76% in metro London, 82% in metro Paris. That pattern is not completely uniform, but I suspect that those metro areas that are the exception to this rule the city limits stretch out into what is recognizably suburban territory, as is the case in some cities in this country (Houston, Jacksonville, Louisville). Sprawl is not strictly an American phenomenon. There’s lots of sprawl in Europe.

I think Ashley McGuire is not the only thoughtful, knowledgeable and intelligent American who is under that delusion. I suspect most such people are. The reason is that our exposure to Europe — what we learn about it in schools, what we see when we travel there — is concentrated in the historic cores of central cities. When we visit London we go to the Houses of Parliament, the Tower of London, the theater district. When we visit Paris we see the Louvre, the Boulevard St. Germain, Les Invalides. We get around those cities in the Tube and the Metro and are amazed at how many people use them and how frequently the trains run. We assume everyone in metro London and metro Paris lives in the same type of surroundings.

We don’t travel out to the generally not-very-interesting and devoid-of-historical-interest suburbs where most people live. The reason that they’re uninteresting is that they’re a lot like our suburbs. Most people live in detached houses, with smaller numbers in apartments; most households have cars and use them every day; most people shop in malls (English high street retail is dying, Environment Minister Nicholas Boles recently proclaimed). Yes, the Europeans tend to have somewhat more restrictive zoning laws than most American suburbs and, yes, you can find low- and high-rise apartments in European suburbs. But there are plenty of them these days in American suburbs too, as anyone driving around Northern Virginia can see. Ashley McGuire is not as alone in the world as she supposes; young families in Europe face the same kind of choices she describes.

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