A Preference For Suburbs? Seems Not

Restrictions through planning skewer true choice


It was an argument that played out in the three-year Unitary Plan debate with some (like Councillor Dick Quax) saying that we the people have a preference for suburbs over high density urban living while others say the opposite.

The argument is played across the United States as well as metropolitan areas are confronted with urban areas under regeneration pressures while their suburban areas are plain broke and in a state of degradation as City finances can not keep up with suburbia upkeep. It is the opposite to the post-War situation where suburbs were touted as the new paradise as urban cores hollowed out and faced also then a state of degradation.

The argument ties in with my upcoming post outlining the urban core being the home of the rich while the suburbs are the home of the poor (the exact opposite of the White Flight syndrome of the 50s-80s)(see: THE NEW MYTHOLOGY OF RICH CITIES AND POOR SUBURBS for the Strong Town article I will be taking the post on).


Back to the current matter of whether there is a true preference for suburbs by citizen choice or whether that preference is “made up” by elites through the Planning processes.

From Strong Towns:


Joe Cortright is a Strong Towns member and writer for City Observatory. This article is republished from City Observatory with permission.

“People can only choose from among the options presented to them.”


One of the chief arguments in favor of the suburbs is simply that that is where millions and millions of people actually live. If so many Americans live in suburbs, this must be proof that they actually prefer suburban locations to urban ones. The counterargument, of course, is that people can only choose from among the options presented to them. And the options for most people are not evenly split between cities and suburbs, for a variety of reasons, including the subsidization of highways and parking, school policies, and the continuing legacies of racism, redlining, and segregation. One of the biggest reasons, of course, is restrictive zoning, which prohibits the construction of new urban neighborhoods all over the country.

But does zoning really act as a constraint on more compact, urban housing? Sure, some skeptics might say, it appears that local zoning laws prohibit denser housing and walkable retail districts. But in fact, city governments pass such strict laws because that’s what their constituents want. Especially within a metropolitan region with many different suburban municipalities, these governments are essentially competing for residents and businesses. If there were real demand for denser, walkable neighborhoods, wouldn’t some municipalities figure out that they could attract those people by allowing that type of development?

A 2005 study by Jonathan Levine—and explored further in Levine’s 2006 book, Zoned Out—seeks to answer this question. Are local governments just responding to “market” demand in ensuring that new development is low-density and auto-oriented? Or is there really pent-up demand for more urban neighborhoods that can’t be satisfied because of zoning?


This is an important wrinkle to the “revealed preference” arguments of many defenders of the suburban status quo. Recent Census population figures sparked what were only the latest of a long line of scuffles over whether, or to what extent, the “back to the city” movement is real. But if Levine’s argument is correct, measuring demand for urban areas simply by how many people end up living there is flawed, because some people who would like to live in more compact neighborhoods can’t do so because there aren’t enough to go around.


…….And how well did these preferences match actual behavior? Well, in Boston—where neighborhoods in the three most urban categories made up over half of all housing—83 percent of people with strong preferences for urban neighborhoods lived in one of these three urban zones. In Atlanta—where the same top three urban categories make up barely over 10 percent of all housing—just 48 percent of people with strong preferences for urban neighborhoods lived in an urban zone.


This seems like strong evidence that there is a “shortage of cities” in Atlanta. Why, otherwise, would there be such a gap between the number of people who satisfy their preferences for urban neighborhoods in the Boston and Atlanta metro areas—and much smaller gaps between people who can satisfy their preferences for more car-oriented areas?

If this is correct, it helps explain other issues we see. If urban neighborhoods are undersupplied compared to demand for them, we would expect to see urban housing go to the people willing to outbid other households, increasing prices relative to auto-oriented neighborhoods, which are more plentiful. In a place like Atlanta, lots of urban housing would have to be built before this bidding war could be ended, returning prices to a “normal” market level.

It’s also notable that this kind of “shortage of cities” can occur even where there is no overall housing shortage. Atlanta, for example, is not a particularly high-cost region, but it has mostly added new housing on the suburban periphery. So while there’s no bidding war for housing in the metropolitan area as a whole, there is a bidding war for more urban housing, making walkable neighborhoods more expensive than they would have to be. Boston is almost the opposite: walkable neighborhoods appear to be less undersupplied relative to auto-oriented neighborhoods, but the region as a whole has very expensive housing, suggesting that the total supply of housing is too low. Boston could help bring down housing prices by building any housing at all—auto-oriented or more walkable. (Though walkable housing would have lower total location costs.)

Levine’s study ought to be known by anyone who works in urban planning or housing. It’s one of the strongest pieces of evidence that “revealed preferences”—the choices that people actually make about where to live—actually reveal the limited choices that people are given as a result of restrictive land use laws.


Source and full article http://www.strongtowns.org/journal/2016/11/4/the-myth-of-revealed-preference-for-the-suburbs


A point to remember Auckland is in a housing shortage unlike Atlanta BUT at the same time we are short of cities as well across New Zealand including the Auckland-Waikato regions. However, the Unitary Plan has gone some distance to answer the “shortage of cities” by applying some decent tracts of medium high density residential and business zones that encourage urban rather than suburban development.

The main emphasis though is for the Unitary Plan to be allowed to evolve to given the preferences people want with their urban development more freely than what we have had in the past. Because there is a strong uptake in preferences for urban development and living here in Auckland.


Building a new Centre and surrounding urban area in Cities Skylines
Building a new Centre and surrounding urban area in Cities Skylines