Hell or New York City

Green Roofs and Facades: A Habitat Template ApproachA debate about the relative desirability of city and suburban living is spreading through the blogosphere at a surprising clip, given the timelessness of the topic.   It began, as best I can determine, by Duncan “Atrios” Black (a PhD economist) explaining that there are tradeoffs to having a big yard.

[I]f everyone has a big yard the community ceases to be especially walkable. That isn’t to say that you can’t have developments with yards relatively near to retail, so that there is stuff within walking distance. You can still have corner shops or similar, but having sufficient residential density to support significant neighborhood-serving retail isn’t really compatible with everyone has a big yard.

Fellow economist Tyler Cowen passed along the post, headline and all as does econoblogger Megan McArdle (who’s tall and has an MBA), who responds,

Because I’ve always lived in cities, I don’t even understand the utility of the big yards I see in the suburbs.  I get the purpose of a yard for children and dogs to play in, and summers on the patio.  But I don’t get the point of the vast expanses of lawn that lie fallow in the more upscale suburbs.  They require vast upkeep for the benefit of . . . looking at green, empty space.  And the tradeoff seems to be a world where you can’t get anywhere without driving and your neighbors are distant apparitions.  Am I missing something?  Or do others perceive features where I see bugs?

Alex Massie, a journalist with, so far as I’m aware, no academic degrees in economics or business, observes that suburbia is the best real-life choice for many people:

[L]ife in suburbia is in many respects an attempt to split the difference, combining the fresh air, space and privacy of the countryside with the convenience and access to amenities of city life. (Plus, of course, in many American suburbs, better schools than are to be found in the inner-city).

Quite right.

Sure, there are trade-offs, especially for those of us with commutes.  But having grown quite accustomed to the space and privacy suburban living affords, I can’t imagine making the sacrifices required to live in a city full time.

There’s nothing quite like being in your own back yard — especially if it has a nice, high fence.  Neighbors as a distant apparition?  Unless you live in a mansion somewhere, that doesn’t exist in the suburbs.  But, yes, having the next residence 100 feet away — as opposed to sharing walls with them or, worse, having  their floor as your ceiling — is definitely a feature.

Much more living space for your buck?  Feature.

Guaranteed parking space?  Feature.

Having to drive everywhere?  Occasionally, a bug, although driving is itself much more pleasant in the suburbs than the city.   I enjoy having the ability to walk easily to a wide variety of restaurants and so forth and miss the fact that I don’t have that at home. Then again, it’s mighty hard to go grocery shopping on foot even in the best downtown areas, unless one wants to shop every day.  And it’s almost impossible to drive and park in most urban centers.  And don’t get me started on the trade-offs of public transportation.  (Let’s just say that knowing that everyone who’ll be commuting with you has bathed that day is a definite feature.)

Lawns to mow?  That’s a personal preference.  My dad always enjoyed coming home and working out in the yard; I never did.  When I had my first house, I mowed the grass mostly out of courtesy for my neighbors. Now that I’m older and can afford it, I outsource it.   But, yeah, I’d rather have a wide expanse of green vegetation outside my window than, say, winos.

Hank Williams, Jr. captured the sentiment nicely a quarter century ago:  “Just send me to hell or New York City, it would be about the same to me.”

UPDATE:  Two excellent points from the comments.  First, Charles Austin wonders, “Why do some people insist that we all have to enjoy and value the same things?”  Absolutely:  This is simply a matter of personal preference, not a value judgment, and one that I suspect largely depends on what one is used to.

Second, my colleague Dave Schuler points out that all “cities” aren’t Manhattan, Boston, or DC.

I live in a single family home in the city of Chicago (in the city) in the Sauganash neighborhood. I have a nicely sized front yard and back yard. I’m within walking distance of my bank, a Whole Foods grocery store, a drug store (mom and pop, not a chain), one very decent restaurant, two hot dog stands, and a dive.

I suspect the same “best of both worlds” possibilities exist in Minneapolis, Portland, and many other cities.

Photo credit: Urban Habitats

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. I am reminded of Jefferson’s catchy little phrase that ended with “.. and the pursuit of happiness.”

    Why do some people insist that we all have to enjoy and value the same things? Is there a better example of the perils of elitism?

  2. On that “City vs. Suburbs” Debate….

    Or, as James Joyner would have it, “hell or New York City.” The terms are too general for me, inasmuch as a lot of quiet streets lined with condo developments and apartment buildings are still considered “suburbs” by some definitions,……

  3. Anthony says:

    Alex Massie’s piece is excellent, as his output so often is.

    I’m British, so I’m quite willing to accept that the layout may be different in the USA, but I’ve lived the vast bulk of the time since 1991 in a suburban environment where everyone has proper front and back gardens and, often, a two-car drive and I haven’t really experienced the “walkability” problem, unless one really isn’t prepared to walk more than five minutes in any one direction. Yes, if you want to go to the cinema or the theatre and shop for consumer goods at a chain store, you have to either go by car or get the train, but everything for basic day to day living is within maybe a 20 minute walk. I’ve also lived in London for three years and Oxford for one (liking both) and I’ve got to say, for my money suburbia has its real attractions. Call me a philistine, but I think there are real quality of life benefits to be had, not least for the reasons James sets out.

    But, of course, being snobbish about suburbs has been very fashionable for as long as they’ve existed.

  4. sam says:

    Hank Williams, Jr. captured the sentiment nicely a quarter century ago: “Just send me to hell or New York City, it would be about the same to me.”

    If I ever win the lottery big time, hell here I come. I’ve never been in a more exciting place than New York City. Of course, I grew up in Los Angeles…

  5. William d'Inger says:

    I hate it whenever this subject rears its ugly head. It’s almost always a case of someone trying to force their lifestyle upon everybody else. The public transportation, bicycle, walk, mom and pop store, health food, recycle, dolphin loving, global warming, florescent lighting, solar and wind power, Prius driving people are the worst. They demand, in the name of their Mother Goddess Earth, that we conform to their utopian urban dream.

    Personally, I don’t care whether people live urban, suburban, exurban, rural or wilderness lifestyles. What I care about most is that people have the freedom to chose for themselves.

  6. James Joyner says:

    I’ve never been in a more exciting place than New York City.

    Ah, but do you really want excitement in your everyday existence? Especially with so much tradeoff in terms of cost, privacy, and living space?

    It’s a fantastic place to visit and I’m sure I’ll do it many more times. But I wouldn’t want to live there.

    Now, perhaps, on a Donald Trump level income, where one can pay to avoid all the inconveniences, that might change.

  7. Dave Schuler says:

    Hmmm. I live in a single family home in the city of Chicago (in the city) in the Sauganash neighborhood. I have a nicely sized front yard and back yard. I’m within walking distance of my bank, a Whole Foods grocery store, a drug store (mom and pop, not a chain), one very decent restaurant, two hot dog stands, and a dive.

    I know and value my neighbors and we’re a varied bunch (although predominantly Catholic): Polish immigrants, Mexican immigrants, Filipino immigrants, Irish-Americans, and me (mostly Swiss and Irish–long time American).

  8. Fausta says:

    I earned my MBA while working in NYC and living in Convent Station NJ, the best of both worlds. It’s all a matter of what your priorities are with your time and with your lifestyle.

  9. graywolf says:

    I lived in NYC (the upper East Side) for 10 years.
    The saddest years of my life.
    Its like living in an anthill.
    EVERYthing’s a hassle, unless you’re Donald Trump or living in a huge coop on Fifth or Park.
    Excitement?
    I was there before Guiliani. I had my fill of excitement.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Having a large, chemical free yard in the ‘burbs is a great pleasure. On a given day, we get 15 or so bird species, half a dozen squirrels, and the raccoons & opossums at night.

    Lawns tend to be water/chemical intensive and sterile.

  11. Dodd says:

    I live in a single family home in the city of Chicago (in the city) in the Sauganash neighborhood. I have a nicely sized front yard and back yard

    Same here. I also own a turn of the (19th) century Victorian in the city (“Old Louisville”). I have a deck, a backyard plenty big enough for my dog to run around, and off street parking. There’s a park across the street and several small stores and restaurants (even bars, were I so inclined) within walking distance. And I have a 7 minute commute to my office downtown. As far as I’m concerned, I have the best of both worlds.

  12. William d'Inger says:

    This is simply a matter of personal preference, not a value judgment, and one that I suspect largely depends on what one is used to.

    Aye, but there’s the rub, James. My country friends consider it a preference whereas my urban friends consider it value judgment. The country folks say, “You would enjoy it out here.” The city folks say, “Why do you drive that stinking, inefficient, polluting automobile everywhere you inconsiderate suburban jerk?” Around here the “debate” is always started by the city dweller intent on forcing his way of life on everybody else. I have never once had a country friend bring up the subject except in response to accusations by urbanites.

  13. DL says:

    Charles You hit the nail on the head. This is the major characteristic of liberalism. They demand (and will codify into law if they can) that everyone do as they do. It is about the power or “perceived perfection” What starts as “If they only knew what I know” then morphs into “they must do what I do.”

    You can spot them in first grade!

  14. sam says:

    I’ve never been in a more exciting place than New York City.

    Ah, but do you really want excitement in your everyday existence? Especially with so much tradeoff in terms of cost, privacy, and living space?

    Yes. But note that I wrote “win lottery bigtime”.

    Graywolf is right, you’d better have a Trump-sized income. Actually, I’d probably move to the Boston area, maybe Cambridge. And try to buy one of those big houses on Brattle street. I went to grad school in that area, and, as I said, I grew up in LA. When I got to place where I found didn’t need a car, well, that was liberation, baby! YMMV… 🙂

  15. sam says:

    That reminds me. I thought I’d share my favorite Cambridge story with you folks.

    Daniel Ellsberg held his first press conference after he leaked the Pentagon Papers at a hotel in Cambridge (I think the hotel’s now a Harvard dorm.) I went to press conference. Two elderly women were sitting in front of me, and I heard one say to the other, “Oh, yes, he’s much better looking than Norman Mailer.”

  16. Bithead says:

    A debate about the relative desirability of city and suburban living is spreading through the blogosphere at a surprising clip, given the timelessness of the topic.

    It doesn’t suprise me.
    I suppose and assume the subject is on a lot of minds of late, given their (IMV, accurate) perception that if Obama makes it into the White House our energy situation will impose a move to the city for many folks.

    … as the UN desires.

  17. Floyd says:

    It is my sincere hope that city dweller’s remain content,even ecstatic, with their place of residence,being a rural dweller myself. I need no more company.
    An occasional visit each with the other is more than sufficient.

  18. […] in NYC is a “matter of personal preference and not a value judgment”. Depending on what you are accustomed to you may think LIFE in NYC is the greatest. As someone who […]