Suburbs: Bad for the pocketbook

One of the "big trends" of the South since World War II was the shift from a rural, farm-based culture to an urban one. And where urban areas were created, suburbs soon followed. In recent years, suburban growth has slowed nationally, but it's still on the march in the South. As the New York Times reported in 2001,

In the South, however, the amount of rural land that became suburban declined only slightly during the 1990's. In addition, the South's population became more than 19 percent more suburban, by far the greatest such increase in the country, even if it fell short of the 30 percent suburban increase during the 1980's. [...]

9 of the nation's 10 lowest-density metropolitan areas are in ... the "wet Sun Belt" of the South: Raleigh, N.C.; Nashville; Charlotte, N.C.; Greensboro, N.C.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Richmond, Va.; Louisville, Ky.; Oklahoma City and Memphis.

Now, "urban density" and other planning approaches are the name of the game. But on the ground, the 'burbs -- of both the sub- and ex- variety -- are still growing, and combined with decades of previous sprawl, the change to the Southern landscape is enormous.

Sprawl is often packaged by the media as a concern only of latte-drinking and tree-loving whites. But a body of research has grown over the last 10 years showing how sprawl is just as much an issue of racial and economic justice. For example, here are the findings of a recent study about the impact of suburban life on working- and middle-class commuters struggling to make ends meet:

The cost of commuting more than 12 miles often nullifies the savings of cheaper suburban housing, says a new study by the Center for Housing Policy. Low- to moderate-income families are often pushed to outer suburbs by a lack of affordable housing near job centers; then, as public transportation is generally scarce, they drive not only to work, but on nearly every trip and errand. In 28 major metropolitan areas, families earning $20,000 to $50,000 spend an average 29 percent of their annual salary on transportation and 28 percent on housing, the study found. Earth-polluting aside, all that driving is just a damn waste, says Stewart Schwartz of the Coalition for Smarter Growth: "A three-car family puts a lot of money into depreciating assets, instead of into mortgages and college educations."

Tackling such issues requires a belief in the very idea of planning, which runs contrary to the reigning ethos of standing back to let "the market" work its magic. Changing that way of thinking is a tough sell, but when you show people what it does to their bank accounts, the case is more convincing.