How Older Americans Got Stuck in the Suburbs

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It was Miss Blacktop and Miss Concrete and government policy that got us into this mess. (Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society)

After reading The issue for boomers won't be 'aging in place,' Jason Segedy, director of planning and urban development for Akron, Ohio, had a few bones to pick. In an article he wrote for The American Conservative, Baby Boomers in a Car-Dependent World, he raises some good points, particularly about urban planners approving sprawl:

I grow weary of people blaming urban planners for every urban problem. The root of this particular problem is cultural, and the reality is that urban planners have very little power or influence in this country. Most urban planners hate our current built environment, and would love to change it. But they are trying to bail water out of the Titanic with a thimble. They are continually stifled, not by the politicians, but by the people that the politicians work for. The fact of the matter is that Americans like the urban development status quo, and efforts to change it are often met with bipartisan opposition. It’s one of the few things that we still agree on.

I do want to apologize to Jason Segedy, and agree that we mostly got our sprawling suburbia in spite of modern urban planners like him, not because of them. He also notes that people love their single-family houses and actively resist change, and he is right in saying that it's not about being liberal or conservative; some of the biggest battles about density and zoning are happening in Berkeley and Seattle. But then he writes, "It is not the urban planners, or some cabal of faceless bureaucrats who are preventing this from happening. It is all of us."

But it actually did start with a cabal of faceless bureaucrats. Segedy writes that "the rapid adoption of the automobile is a great object lesson in the unintended consequences of technological change." I would argue the opposite: it's an object lesson in one of the most successful military-industrial interventions of all time, and the consequences were exactly what was intended. The problem for older people today is that they are collateral damage.

It was federal government policy after World War II to spread everyone out because the devastation of a nuclear bomb can only cover so much area. Shawn Lawrence Otto wrote in "Fool Me Twice":

In 1945, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists began advocating for "dispersal," or "defense through decentralization" as the only realistic defense against nuclear weapons, and the federal government realized this was an important strategic move. Most city planners agreed, and America adopted a completely new way of life, one that was different from anything that had come before, by directing all new construction "away from congested central areas to their outer fringes and suburbs in low-density continuous development."

There were subsidized mortgages for veterans to buy new houses in the suburbs, where they could drive to suburban jobs and factories. Writing in In The Reduction of Urban Vulnerability: Revisiting 1950s American Suburbanization as Civil Defence, Kathleen Tobin quotes political scientist Barry Checkoway:

It is wrong to believe that postwar American suburbanization prevailed because the public chose it and will continue to prevail until the public changes its preferences. ... Suburbanization prevailed because of the decisions of large operators and powerful economic institutions supported by federal government programmes, and ordinary consumers had little real choice in the basic pattern that resulted.
Map of interstate highways
Defense highways made it easy to get out of town. (Photo: Department of Transportation)

The vast and expensive interstate highway system was built not to meet demand for transportation, but to induce demand, to make it possible to have a pattern of urban development where people weren't concentrated around targets like train stations, but so that the United States would become a vast, diffuse mat that would be impossible to bomb. The National Industrial Dispersion Policy of 1952 said "No urban areas should be developed so intensively as to create new (or extensions of existing) population or industrial prime target areas." Not much effort was made to maintain cities. "A beginning should be made in reducing population and building densities in residential areas of greatest vulnerability by adoption of program of urban redevelopment and slum clearance."

And ever since, low-density, car-oriented development has been the American way. The fact that you can't get around without a car is a feature, not a bug. As Otto concluded:

These accommodations for defense brought about an immense change in the fabric of America, altering everything from transportation to land development to race relations to modern energy use and the extraordinary public sums that are spent on building and maintaining roads — creating challenges and burdens that are with us today, all because of science and the bomb.

Yes, but it was all so incredibly successful, and much of the vast wealth of America came from building the roads and building and fueling the cars and trucks that keep this system running. The car is like a drug — one we've all become addicted to, and it's a hard habit to break.

The downside of 'freedom'

BMW ad says cars are freedom
Cars mean freedom!!. (Photo: BMW)

But now, the generation that was born in those suburban houses is reaping what was sown, because they are car-dependent by design. It all worked very well for proud, independent Americans, who complain every time I write about urban density that "fortunately we live in the USA and I can choose to live where I want to. If that means the 'burbs or some rural place and then drive, that is my freedom, my choice, my life."

Until they can't. Segedy notes that this attitude can backfire:

Older people themselves, steeped in our powerful culture of radical autonomy, individualism, and self-sufficiency, often enter into a self-imposed exile, afraid or unwilling to ask for help. American culture has a perverse way of making even very old people feel like failures for needing assistance from others.

Segedy writes his article in The American Conservative, which says on its About Us page: "We want urban and rural places that are well stewarded and whose physical fabric promotes human flourishing. We want a federal government that restrains itself from intrusive forays into the lives and businesses of Americans."

But it was the federal government's intrusive foray into the lives and businesses of Americans that got us into this mess, by actively investing in and encouraging this vast nuclear defense de-densification campaign. Segedy concludes:

If we are to solve the problem of a lack of safe, affordable, and practical mobility options for older people, we are going to need to look in the mirror. This isn’t ultimately a failing of the urban planners. This a failing of American culture. It’s not up to the planners to figure it out. It is up to each and every one of us.

This is where I respectfully disagree; it's not a failing of American culture, it's the direct but unintended consequence of government policy. It's all very old news, and today's more enlightened planners like Segedy are trying to reverse it.

But the fact remains that the government, military and urban planners own this. And to revisit the Titanic analogy, if they don't change course, it will be a disaster.

If you're new to the site, you may not know we have covered the issue of aging in suburbia a few times. See below for other stories on the subject.