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Five myths about the suburbs

Our suburbs, including those such as Levittown, do

Our suburbs, including those such as Levittown, do face urgent challenges. To address them, we have to dispel some long-held misconceptions. Credit: All Island Aerial/Kevin Coughlin

Suburbs are as varied and plural as the United States. Yet our mythology casts "the suburbs" as somehow separate, frozen in amber (not to mention in need of "saving"). They became a flash point in the first presidential debate, with President Trump claiming that "our suburbs would be gone" under a Democratic administration, and former vice president Joe Biden retorting that Trump "wouldn't know a suburb unless he took a wrong turn." Our suburbs do face urgent challenges, including automobile dependence, an aging population and environmental risks. To address them, we'll have to dispel some long-held misconceptions.

Myth No. 1: Suburbs are less dense than cities

When Americans imagine suburbs, they often picture detached houses, open space and multicar garages. Since the onset of the pandemic, a steady drumbeat of articles have proclaimed the new desirability of suburban living: These tend to pit suburbs against cities in stark opposition, as if residents face a choice between, say, downtown traffic or backyard chickens.

But most of the built area of the United States is suburban, and the typical reality is not so bucolic. Suburbs can be congested, with a lot of car traffic and commercial and industrial development. They can also be just as dense as center cities. The 2010 Census showed 7,600 people living per square mile in the iconic suburb of Levittown, NY — the same residential density as many tracts in downtown Phoenix and much of Cleveland. The inner Boston suburb of Somerville, Mass., meanwhile, is nearly three times as dense as Levittown (and still mostly low rise).

In suburban places that have been retrofitted into mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods, the density can be even higher: The Belmar area of Lakewood, Colo., has 15,000 residents per square mile, similar to downtown Denver.

Myth No. 2: All suburbanites own detached houses

It's often assumed that suburban residents own dream homes: "little boxes on the hillside, little boxes all the same," as the Malvina Reynolds song has it. The New York Times recently described single-family zoning as "practically gospel" to suburbanites, especially in the wealthiest towns.

But fewer than half the housing units in the 11 largest U.S. metropolitan areas, owned or rented, are detached houses. And since, according to a government survey, 52% of Americans report that they live in suburbs, it stands to reason that their suburbs include a lot of rental units and other types of housing. Westchester County, NY, home of the elite suburbs at the center of battles over provisions of the Fair Housing Act, fits the pattern: Only 44% of its housing stock is detached single-family houses, and only 61% of households own the homes they live in. Even in Montgomery County, Md., just 65% of housing is owner-occupied.

Demand for different types of housing, at all price points, has increased. For instance, baby boomers are living long lives in the same suburbs where they once raised families, and many would prefer to downsize if their area offered apartments or townhouses. Another strong market for suburban growth is retrofitting obsolete properties with other housing types, such as infill townhouses, cottage courts (a compact cul-de-sac), triple deckers (three apartments stacked vertically) and fourplexes.

Myth No. 3: Suburban workers typically commute to downtown jobs

An outdated image persists of "bedroom" or "dormitory" suburbs where breadwinners commute daily to center-city jobs. "Millennials want a single-family house, even if it means a long commute," the real estate website HousingWire claimed in a post promoting suburban life. HGTV Canada built an entire reality series, "Urban Suburban," around families deciding between these two types of neighborhoods, debating the trade-offs of living farther away from their city jobs.

But this is not the norm. Though the pandemic has many people commuting from bedroom to den, work commutes were typically already suburb-to-suburb. In 2013, the Brookings Institution estimated that only 23% of jobs in the 100 largest U.S. metro areas were within three miles of a central business district. Much job growth — especially in personal care and home health aides, nursing, food prep, management and — is happening in suburban centers. Areas such as Tysons, Va., and the Domain development in Austin are retrofitting corporate office parks and campuses to add housing and bring more residents into these job centers, helping to ease commute time.

Myth No. 4: Today's suburbs are racially integrated

In response to recent dog-whistle rhetoric suggesting that the suburbs are lily-White bastions of segregation, commentary insisting on their diversity seems to have created a new myth — of the suburbs as havens of racial harmony. "Could Diverse Suburbs Be Our Bubbles of Belonging?" asked a writer in the Bold Italic.

But research shows that, even as suburbs grew and more non-White people moved in, residential segregation between suburbs increased significantly, by policy and by design. Until the 1930s, the same suburban town often included a mix of White and Black neighborhoods, but the ensuing decades saw the construction of vast suburban areas that were more likely to be internally homogenous by measures of income, race and ethnicity. Integration, when achieved, can be fragile.

Levittown was federally subsidized, Federal Housing Administration-insured and deed-restricted when it was built in the 1940s and '50s. It is still almost entirely White. Nearly identical housing was built in nearby Wyandanch, NY, in a less advantageous location, but open to purchase by Blacks. That town remains largely Black. The trajectories of the two communities diverged significantly: The modest Levittown properties, originally purchased with almost no money down, appreciated considerably, while the Wyandanch houses did not. In a recent Brookings post, Elizabeth Kneebone put it succinctly: "Yes, most people in the nation's major metro areas — whether white, Black, Asian American, or Latino or Hispanic — live in the suburbs. But they don't live in the same suburbs."

Myth No. 5: E-commerce killed suburban malls

Online shopping has driven the so-called retail apocalypse, many proclaim — including publications such as Forbes and Mic. In its lament for the suburban mall, Time attributed its decline to digital lives that are "frictionless and ruthlessly efficient, with retail and romance available at a click."

Undoubtedly, the retail sector is suffering, but the closure of some venerable mall anchors, like Sears, has more to do with hedge fund mismanagement than shoppers' online habits. And the trend of dead and dying suburban malls has much deeper roots, reaching back to a development model that encouraged an unsustainable boom in their construction, especially in the 1970s and '80s. Cheap land and increased auto access from new roads, among other factors, all led to overbuilding of suburban retail: By 2000, the United States had much more retail square footage per capita than any other country — twice as much as Australia and 10 times as much as Germany. The tax code allowed mall owners to write off the value of buildings in as little as seven years, encouraging poor construction and discouraging maintenance; as historian Dolores Hayden writes: "After time, the result was abandonment."

Though this phenomenon is distressing, not least because of lost jobs, it's also an opportunity. When landlords empty out and sell off underperforming shopping malls and strip centers, the properties become available for wholesale reinvention. For example, as early as the 1990s, the mixed-use Mizner Park development replaced the failed Boca Raton Mall in Florida — years before the founding of Amazon, eBay and Etsy. (Amazon chief executive and founder Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) Many other places have followed suit, either reusing former mall buildings and regreening their parking lots or redeveloping them into higher-density, mixed-use town centers.

Williamson is coauthor of the "Retrofitting Suburbia" series, whose second book will be published later this year. She is Chair and Associate Professor of Architecture at the City College of New York. This piece was written for The Washington Post.

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