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July 30, 2008

Comments

Joyless Moralist

Heh. I can't see Americans relinquishing their attachment to homeownership anytime soon... though they might perhaps decide that it's not necessary to have such *large* houses. But the great majority of Americans still, I think, want very much to own their own homes, particularly when raising children. Americans like space. And we have a big country.

Gas prices might motivate us to cut back on driving. But I think that problem is likely to be solved less by an influx of high-rise apartments, and more by the kind of small community models, wherein basic life necessities (some stores, a post office, a school, etc.) are all built within largely suburban areas. That combined with a lot more telecommuting should diminish car usage by a good margin.

Val Larsne

Technology is a still more likely solution since it requires less change and long-term adjustment of housing stock and other social arrangements. Look for example at the Aptera, set to go on sale this year in California. It has the aerodynamics of an airplane and is slated to get about 300 miles to the gallon with a charge of its electric batteries. Vehicles like this could dramatically reduce transport costs. And the purchase price (even with initial low volume production) is slated to be around $30,000, e.g., comparable to existing cars.

Nato

People vastly undervalue the time cost of self-transportation. It is a huge loss that does not usually get monetized. This is a shame, since surveys consistently show that the length of commute (when driving) has one of the most consistently negative correlations with happiness of anything, outpacing, for example, total income and quality of housing by wide margins.

Joyless Moralist

Commuting has its downside, but of course, you can have some combination of these different strategies. Those who can can live in the sort of semi-independent communities I described and rely on telecommuting, or perhaps some mixture of working at home and in the office (which makes a long commute much less of a drag, if you don't have to do it every day.) That makes housing at least somewhat more manageable for those who really do have a powerful incentive to live inside major urban areas.

Nathan's absolutely right that Americans have an ideological commitment to homeownership -- the truth is, we like suburbs. He has something of the opposite predisposition, and we've argued about it before. But I think the fact is that, not all obviously, but the majority of Americans are on my side on this one, and I think the attachment to having some space, and if possible your own bit of land, lies pretty deep in the American psyche.

Nato

"the attachment to having some space, and if possible your own bit of land, lies pretty deep in the American psyche."

But should it? Is there something improving about owning land as opposed to a flat? And do people desire houses because our cultural narrative identifies suburban slices with happiness, upward mobility and safety? What if they do not, statistically, lead to any of those things? Wouldn't it be pernicious to continue to economically favor something counterproductive?

Joyless Moralist

On the economics of it, I won't comment. I'm just saying what the preferences are, not dictating economic policy. I am saying that I think there's absolutely an ideological commitment to home ownership, and that it's a deep and important part of the American psyche, not just a fanciful product of conspicuous consumption or whatever. As a philosopher, I'm also always inclined to take economists' happiness statistics with a considerable about of salt.

But look, it seems clear that there's a considerable lifestyle difference between suburban living and more urban, apartment-style living. People don't prefer suburbs merely as a sign of having achieved a certain social status, or anything like that. They want the life as a whole.

Owning your own house allows you a greater measure of independence, and considerably increases your options for what you can do with your home. Though there are usually some city ordinances, there are no building rules with which to comply. You have to reach a pretty high noise level before you can bother your neighbors. You can put up Christmas lights without consulting a committee. But more importantly, the land, even if there's just a tiny bit of it, allows for lots of things -- growing a flower garden, owning a dog (not always impossible in a flat, but much harder, particularly with large breeds), having a cookout on your own deck, letting your kids run in your own yard. It gives Americans a sense of freedom to be able to do those things, a bit like what Nathan feels about bottomless drinks.

Safety probably is another reason people prefer the suburbs, but I don't know what's illusory about it. Controlling crime in highly populated urban areas *is* more difficult, always. It's also harder to control things like noise.

Further, people like the idea of living in a place with a community feeling. Suburbs have a lot less of that than they used to, like every other aspect of American life, but they still have more than high-rise apartments. One of the keys to having that sense of communal life is feeling like you know at least a reasonable number of people in the area, like you've "mapped the turf" and at least have some sense for who lives there. Again, we have a lot less of that than we once did. But in a suburb, at least it's still somewhat possible. In an enormous high-rise apartment, it's more or less certain that you're not going to know many or most of the people who live within a hundred-yard radius of yourself. That can be a lonely, alienating feeling.

Finally, there's just a question of the "feel" of a neighborhood. Some people like that urban, cosmopolitan, skyscrapers-all-around feeling. Others feel boxed in by that, and like to see some sky. It's not everything, but I do think general environmental factors can really affect people's quality of life.

Nathan Smith

At the risk of splitting hairs, let me distinguish between an ideological commitment and a preference. What Joyless Moralist seems to be arguing is that Americans have a preference for suburban living. It's not clear why that should justify subsidies: a preference for suburban living should cause suburban living to be the predominant lifestyle among Americans, without any government subsidies. A preference, of course, might be a sort of ideological commitment at a personal level: I want to live this way because it seems to me the right way to live.

Still, it seems a bit different to say that we want to subsidize suburban living because we think people, not just ourselves but people generally, ought to live that way, or ought to want to live that way, or ought to be able to live that way, even if they can't afford it without help. If you're taxing non-homeowners in order to give home-interest tax deductions to homeowners, or to provide implicit (now explicit) government guarantees to government-sponsored mortgage companies, that might show that you have an ideological commitment in this sense. And you are willing to engage in a bit of social engineering to create the suburban utopia you think is best. On the other hand, it might just be selfishness: YOU want to live a suburban lifestyle, and you can afford to, and you'd prefer to get it subsidized by everybody else. And if there are enough of you middle-class suburbanites, you can muster majorities to tax everybody else, including poorer inner-city and rural dwellers, to subsidize your preferred lifestyle. But, just to assuage your conscience, you might want to give an ideological spin to this median-voter optimal-predation strategy: "a deep and important part of the American psyche," and all that. I'm not saying that this rather cynical story is definitely the real reason that Americans subsidize homeownership. It's hard to tell for sure.

Subsidizing homeownership probably has perverse distributional effects, and is also distortionary. There are stories about how it has positive externalities, e.g., building neighborhoods, community and all that. I'm not aware of any studies supporting these claims. The negative externalities-- traffic jams, air pollution-- are more obvious. As for community, there's a strong case to be made that suburbanism is actually destructive of community. Jane Jacobs, for example, one of the most compelling social scientists of the 20th century on urban sociology, makes it. One thing that Jane Jacobs argues is that in old-fashioned urban neighborhoods, before social engineers with an anti-urban ideology started messing things up, cities were actually SAFER. The reason is fairly easy to understand: it's hard to commit a crime in a crowd, so if you can keep the streets crowded, you won't have much crime. A certain citizen-policing function occurs. She has statistics.

For me, it's interesting to compare my own life-history with my experience of Russia, which I've just returned from. In Russia, it's common for young people to live with their parents until well into their 20s. I get along well with my parents and wouldn't have minded staying with them a lot longer than I did. Except they were in suburbia, and it is impossible to live there without a car, which I didn't have. So I took a Greyhound out to Boulder, Colorado, just because they had decent public transit there. It also seems obvious to me that one widely-reported problem-- the addiction of American kids to TV and computer games-- is partly a function of suburbia. You can't just roam the city. There's nowhere to go.

Suburban living may or may not be more expensive than urban living, given the high prices of urban land. It is certainly more resource-intensive, however. It uses more land. It burns more gasoline. To get entertainments comparable to what a city provides, you have to have home-entertainment centers, big, spacious kitchens, lawns. That's a lot of interior air to keep heated in the winter. A lot of water to spray on the yard. A lot of wood and other materials to put a roof over it all. If we figure the rest of the world deserves to live as well as Americans someday, the "as well as Americans" needs to mean a lifestyle that uses few enough resources to be multiplied many-fold without exhausting the planet's resources. That may require less suburban living and more urban living. Maybe subsidies should be going the other way. Or maybe not; maybe we can leave it to the market, and to price shocks like the ones the country is now experiencing, to force suburbanites to rethink.

Anyway, this all underlines the perversity of subsidizing suburban sprawl through the home-interest tax deduction or Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. I was struck last spring my friends in Kentucky. They didn't really have a preference for homeownership. I couldn't exactly figure out why they had done it; there seemed to be an element of conformism in it, and maybe an element of speculation. After all, when the government is giving tax deductions for home interest, and when home prices are rising so much and people are raking in big capital gains, who wants to be left out?! The system was creating an incentive for suburban living for young people who would probably have been at least as happy in urban apartments, had the scales not been tipped. That's socially inefficient.

Nato

"Controlling crime in highly populated urban areas *is* more difficult, always. It's also harder to control things like noise."

Though the second statement is true, the first is, by and large, not. My zip code is near downtown and even nearer the most notorious district in San Francisco, yet it is well below the national average in per capita violent and property crime. Consult statistics for urban areas in general, and if there's a relationship between high density and per-capita crime, it's negative. This probably wasn't the case in the mid-70s to early 90s era during which the flight of the affluent from the city centers peaked, but crime statistics today show the shoe on the other foot.

"In an enormous high-rise apartment, it's more or less certain that you're not going to know many or most of the people who live within a hundred-yard radius of yourself. That can be a lonely, alienating feeling."

I do believe that it is embedded in the American psyche that one shouldn't have to be aware of neighbors, and only low density living provides this, but once again my experiences (admittedly without claim to statistical significance) are the exact opposite. When I lived in Oregon as a boy, we knew our neighbors pretty well, but nowhere I've lived since *except* high-density urban San Francisco and New York City have I effortlessly come to know my neighbors. We stayed in a boutique hotel on the west side for 17 days and ended up making more friendly acquaintances on our block than I did living nine years in a stable, upper-middle class single-family neighborhood in Riverside California. Even though I go home late and leave for work early, and am generally never around, I know the names of everyone in my building where I live now, have gobs of cute little trick-or-treaters coming to us, and invite each-other to birthday parties just because. This seems to match up fairly well with the experiences of my other acquaintances who've had the experience of living in established high-density neighborhoods, though of course this is still far from some scientific survey. The most recent counterpoint I've heard was from a women who moved out of the city because she didn't like the inconvenience of carrying everything rather than loading it into her SUV. A valid complaint, of course, but she said nothing about it being anonymous and lonely. I suspect it's just a myth that people really know each-other better in the suburbs. At most, it means one has to travel farther before the demographic landscape changes.

"Though there are usually some city ordinances, there are no building rules with which to comply. You have to reach a pretty high noise level before you can bother your neighbors. You can put up Christmas lights without consulting a committee. But more importantly, the land, even if there's just a tiny bit of it, allows for lots of things -- growing a flower garden, owning a dog (not always impossible in a flat, but much harder, particularly with large breeds), having a cookout on your own deck, letting your kids run in your own yard."

If one owns one's own flat, one still has quite a bit of freedom, at least comparable to a subdivision with a neighborhood association. The noise thing is mostly unanswerable, though I would say that many modern highrises have better soundproofing than the clapboard apartment complexes and duplexes I've experienced in the 'burbs. Certainly my building - which is by no stretch of the imagination 'modern' - is not very loud at all, though that could owe to more considerate neighbors rather than any excellence in the construction. As a final anecdote, a great dane lives around the corner from me, an amiable fellow I frequently encounter on my way back from the green grocer. I'm certain he's quite expensive to keep, but he does not seem like an unhappy dog.

None of the above urban advocacy should be taken to imply that we should legislate in favor of urbanization, by any means. An entirely separate argument would be needed for that. I would submit it as an antidote to the prevailing presumptions about quality of life and what styles of living on which it makes sense to place cultural value.

Nato

I should add that I think that suburban living should be "made" to be far more expensive than it is, but only in the sense that we should monetize and apportion the costs of low-density living. If people want to pay the real costs of their lifestyle, then I do not see how we have a moral right to criticize - after all, they are ex hypothesi making some compensatory sacrifice that others are not. Per acre/per sq. ft. prices will probably remain quite a bit lower than in the city, but this would reflect the preferences, rather than preferences plus what amount to tax and regulatory surcharges.

Joyless Moralist

I'm not making any claims about what government should or should not subsidize -- that gets into questions about the proper role of government that I don't want to tackle right now. All I'll say is that I think the commitment to suburban living has more to it than just pointless custom or conspicuous consumption; depending on what you think governments should be trying to do, the advantages might be turned into the basis of an argument for government sponsorship.

As far as social capital goes: this is the sort of subject that I have a passing familiarity with more in virtue of knowing several other people who are interested in it; I haven't read much myself. But I'm pretty sure there are a number of sociologists arguing that social capital is higher in the suburbs, among them the famous Robert Putnam. I'm glad Nato has a good experience with apartment living; I'd like to have found this friendly, neighborly building when I was a single apartment-dweller. But my experience was that, living in houses, I've generally at least met and introduced myself to neighbors within a week of moving in. My time living in apartments was almost totally anonymous. In the last one, I chatted with my next-door neighbor for a few minutes upon moving in. He only stayed a few more months. Other than that, I don't think I exchanged a word with any resident of the building other than to thank each other for holding the door front, and I lived there for three years. Maybe Nato is just friendlier than me (probable) but I don't think there was any great community spirit in which I was missing out.

As far as Nathan's point goes, I understand it, but my reply would be this: cities are generally happier, more interesting places for young, single adults, but they're not so good for younger kids. They have more traffic, more noise, more strangers, more places to get into trouble. A parent will happily let his five-year-old play in the back yard in his suburban neighborhood with minimal supervision. He won't (or shouldn't) send the same child alone to play in Central Park, even if Central Park is just a block away. Remember all the fun we had riding our bikes around our smallish, suburb-dominated town when we were kids in the under-twelve bracket? I can't imagine we would have been allowed to do that if we'd lived in a major urban area.

So, maybe suburbs are better for youngish kids and worse for older kids who want to stay at home. But then one question would be: is long-term living with parents something we want to encourage? I understand that a lot has been lost from the dissipating of larger family structures in general. And of course there are some cases, in cultures where living with parents into adulthood is common, where the kids are very responsible and get adult jobs and so forth. But it also encourages a lot of kids to be lazy and undirected, and to feel that it's never really necessary to step into adult responsibilities. I knew *lots* of young Uzbeks (particularly young men, who weren't expected to do much housework) who seemed happy with the idea of their parents taking care of them for years' worth of lackadaisical drifting/socializing. Anyway, the "advantage" of making it more attractive to continue living with parents seems to me to be, at best, a draw.

As far as the dog goes... if your neighbors can keep a Great Dane happy in an apartment, good for them. Generally speaking, though, that's a very non-ideal environment for such a big dog, unless you have the time to take it out for a few hours a day. And it's far from the most energetic of the large breeds.

Nathan Smith

I've read some of Robert Putnam, but I've never come across any particular views on social capital in urban vs. suburban areas. What he *does* strongly believe is that social capital in America has been in decline for the past forty years or so, and that the biggest culprit is television. If, as I suspect, one of the reasons people get so addicted to television is that kids in the suburbs-- particularly the suburbs without sidewalks you see so much of these days-- can't move around on their own, then the decline in social capital would be closely linked to television.

Just logically, in a city with high population density, there are a lot more people within a given transportation-time-and-cost radius. One of the things that really struck me about Moscow and Petersburg was how much more city you had access to by walking and public transit, and also, how much more space there was to walk in, since all the land between the high-rise apartments was public. Having access to more people doesn't mean you'll know your neighbors; you may be LESS likely to know your neighbors, because you are better-placed to find other people that you have more in common with.

If there IS more social capital in suburbs that may have to do with the stage of life people are in. It's hard to see how this could be an inherent feature of suburbs; technology points the other way. Also, in other research Putnam has found that northern Italy has a lot more social capital than southern Italy. Northern Italy has an exceptionally strong tradition of cities, city-states, and local urban loyalties. The special circumstances of America from the late 1960s to the 1980s-- race riots, a crime wave, a middle-class flight from the urban centers-- may have caused a special decline of social capital in the cities.

As for raising kids, I think people have become a lot more careful and controlling, even paranoid maybe, about raising kids. In Jane Jacobs' descriptions of urban neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s, it's clear that people DID let their kids roam the streets, entertaining themselves. And of course, if kids are allowed to roam, there's a lot more to see-- a lot more to experience, a lot more to learn about life-- in a city than in a suburban bedroom community. A suburb with a few parks might have enough to keep a 10-year-old entertained; probably not a 15-year-old. And so you get bored, alienated, cynical teenagers, eager to go away to college so they can get drunk and go crazy. And there's a certain artificiality about all these environments. An urban kid who wanders past restaurants and markets and businessmen and dock workers and schools and churches and sees the crowds and the cars and the tenements, is seeing a real slice of life. A suburban kid who goes to the park or hangs out in the mall or the skating rink or the movie theater is seeing an artificial world set up for his benefit. College is an artificial world too. And that's at the root of the boredom and alienation of a lot of youth, I think: they know that there's a real world out there but they haven't seen it, and they have a love-hate relationship with it, they want to see it and experience it, but they're afraid to have to make their way in it.

That said, cities are full of temptations... My feeling about Russian youth in Moscow and Petersburg is that they are, in a sense, more well-adjusted than American teens, but that what they're well-adjusted to is what "the world" in a sense something like the way a monastic would use the term has to offer: much that is shallow and vain, much that is temptation and trouble, all sorts of enticements to the cool and chic and to the sophisticated and smart and to prejudice and pride and greed. So I'm for a certain kind of retreat from the world, but what the suburbs offer is by and large, it seems to me, the wrong kind.

Tom

Most people keep their dogs in a non-ideal environment. All I hear in my suburban neighborhood is the whine of dogs left by themselves in a lonely yard. My two large dogs actually prefer to be inside unless there is someone outside to keep them company. Bottom line: dogs really are most happy when they're not neglected. You can't guarantee that just by living in the suburbs.

Regarding the merits of urban vs suburban living, I agree with everything that Nathan and Nato have said. The main reason I want to own a home is because the subsidies make it one of the best investments around. If the subsidies were removed tomorrow (and I wasn't married to a woman who insists on living on a > 0.25 acre plot of land), then I would probably find someplace else to invest my money. In the history of man, urban living has been mostly superior to non-urban living, as evidenced by great works of culture and economy. There have been two major drawbacks to historical urban living -- disease, and poor sanitation -- neither of which apply to modern urban living.

The best argument in favor of urban living vs suburban living that I can think of involves taking these ways of living to the extreme. Imagine what the world would be like if each person in the world had their own land spread out from everyone else, just miles and miles of suburbs as far as the eye could see; in other words, imagine the 'burbs of LA spread out to the horizon all over the world; imagine all of the highways and cars and traffic and long-distance commutes just so people can get to the other people they need/want to; imagine having very little options in where your kids go to school, where you can go out to dinner, where you can go to worship (if you're into that sort of thing), what you can do for entertainment, what sorts of people you can meet, what times of day you can do things, how often you can feasibly visit people who live further than 2 hours away from you. I don't know about any of you, but the idea of everyone living a suburban lifestyle seems like a dystopia to me. Now imagine 6+ billion people all concentrated in enormous skyscrapers tightly packed together, with the rest of the world mostly uninhabited except for the requisite farms, mining outfits, loggers, science outposts, and other things necessary to maintain an enormous population; in other words, think of New York times 100+ in area, and times 2+ in height; imagine all of the greatest philosophers, musicians, artists, scientists, engineers, artisans, teachers, writers, etc., all within a bullet train's distance of each other; imagine all of the universities, research centers, think tanks, theaters, coliseums, cathedrals, entertainment centers, etc., all within reach of the average person; imagine having the ability to meet anyone in the world on any given day; imagine having the entire pool of humanity as a dating/friendship/acquaintance option without having to telecommute or play video games; imagine having every job option in the world at your doorstep; imagine every event and special occasion easily within reach. This image of humanity in an urban setting is majestic and glorious.

Nato

I actually agree with all those social conservatives who feel that the ideal is usually a parent staying home with the kids, and only quibble with the assumption that it should be the woman who does it. Nonetheless, I had a fine childhood, with a high-quality, attentive upbringing with two working parents and can't wish it otherwise. I am not sure that the situation of large dogs who receive plenty of attention and frequent excursions to the park is so much worse than the ideal of a large yard with plenty of attention. There are by-breed exceptions (e.g. heelers) but I think dogs in the city are on average fairly spoiled by their empty-nest owners. I personally couldn't afford to keep a dog in that style, so I won't attempt it.

As for leaving kids to go play, there are three playgrounds full of kids and cool stuff on which to climb within the distance it took to walk to the nearest friend in my Oregon neighborhood. Worse, some of my friends' parents wouldn't let them leave the block without adult supervision, which meant they couldn't go to the bike pit or the orchard or the little forest trail or anyplace fun, which meant that they basically didn't get to participate in their social peers' fun and they were at a lasting social disadvantage. I think this is overreaction, of course, but just on my little alley neighborhood there's a playground, a grocer/cafe, a Custom Burger and a community center where I go vote, though the last I would have to investigate that one a little before I let my kids play there without supervision known to me.

Also, I don't mean to extol the virtues of apartment living per se, but rather that of high-density living. Apartment complexes in the 'burbs are the most anonymous places I've ever lived, and I've certain the slowing of residential turnover caused by homeownership would ceteris paribus would reinforce the tendency to form a community. If the home in question is a flat in a multi-unit, urban-style dwelling, however, I take the position that the effect is magnified rather than reduced.

Joyless Moralist

Well, the dog argument seems kind of silly. Of course living in the suburbs isn't *per se* a guarantee of a happy dog -- dogs need a considerable amount of care and attention. It may even be that city dogs are on average happier, since nobody would attempt the daunting feat of keeping a dog (particularly a large one) in a city apartment unless they were *really* dog-crazy, and prepared to devote lots of time and money to its welfare. But it's equally obvious that, other things being equal, dogs are a lot happier when they have their own yard to sniff around in.

Tom's thought experiment seems rather odd to me, in the first place because there's no reason to take either lifestyle to the extreme -- is anyone out there wanting to *abolish* urban environments? All kinds of good things become bad when taken to unreasonable extremes, and I've certainly never claimed that suburbs are bar-none the single best living environment for every kind of person. Beyond that, the mega-New York you describe may appeal to you, but to me it sounds like a nightmare. Skyscrapers and high rises for hundreds of miles, masses of people everywhere, having to strain to see the sky? Shoot me now! Have you really never had the experience of feeling trapped within a big city? And is it really necessary anymore to have people in physical proximity to get the sort of exchange of ideas that you talk about? While it's true that urban living has historically had certain, shall we say, cultural advantages, that advantage is diminished today. Historically, the big disadvantages to living away from major cities were 1) lack of availability of goods and services, and 2) lack of access to information/ poor communication with others. Technology makes up for those things to a large degree.

I remembered the story I was reading fairly recently on this subject; I can't find a working link to the actual paper, but here's one story about it: http://economistsview.typepad.com/economistsview/2006/12/the_sociable_su.html

As for Putnam, he isn't exactly a huge advocate of suburbs per se, but I think he has speculated that the problem of diminishing social capital has been a bit less bad in suburbs. Obviously it depends on a lot of other factors too.

Now, for Nathan's "kids need to be able to move around" argument. I'd probably be much more skeptical than you about the wisdom of letting, say, kids in their early teens, roam around the big city on their own all the time. But regardless, you'd surely agree that there's *some* age before which a kid is too young to wander around city streets unsupervised. And that there are younger ages at which it *would* be okay for them to play in a suburban back yard. It's also easy to understand why parents might feel okay about letting, say, their eight-year-old ride his bike around sleepy suburban streets, but not around large crowded ones with trucks and city buses regularly rumbling by. Younger kids don't benefit so much from access to lots of cutting-edge technology and fancy entertainments. They benefit more from being around natural pleasures -- sled hills, trees to climb, etc., and from having the freedom to explore a bit, which their parents are much more likely to give them in less urban environments where they feel safer.

Then there are older kids. Now, particularly when it comes to older kids, I agree with Nathan that the endless-sidewalkless-suburb model is less than ideal. It's certainly possible to feel trapped there, particularly for a teenager or someone without convenient transportation. But you can have happy mediums -- it's good for kids to be able to go somewhere, but not *everywhere*, if you see what I mean. Whenever I've had discussions with people advocating the raise-your-kids-in-the-city model, I always ask what sort of entertainments they think the kids are going to find there that they can't get in the suburbs. And usually I get some answers along the lines of, "art museums! concerts! dance exhibitions!" etc etc. Well, my high school crowd was, I think, quite intelligent and "cultured" as such things go, and I do remember a few happy (voluntary, self-planned) trips to planetariums and museum exhibits. But nine Saturdays out of ten, we either did something nature-oriented (obviously *not* easier in the big city) or else we hung out at someone's house and played board games/watched movies. Possibly we'd have had a radically different and much more exciting life if we'd all lived in Manhattan, but I tend to doubt it, and honestly, I think that goes for the vast majority of teenagers out there. Their overall level of interest in specialized cultural activities is pretty minimal. And most of them don't have gobs of spending money anyway. What they mainly want is to spend time with their buddies, and as long as they can do that, they find ways to amuse themselves.

So this gets back to my "small, somewhat self-sufficient community" suggestion. Instead of miles of unbroken suburbs, put in some stores and some coffee shops, library, post office, parks, etc., in the middle of suburban areas. You can also put in some arcades or basketball courts or whatever the kids want. They'll have some places to walk or ride their bikes to, and places to congregate with their friends, but not so many that their parents can never find them.

I also think you're right about the "worldly" attractions of the city. Growing up in the city, you may be aware of a wider variety of people, which has advantages of a kind. But as part of that you're also aware of what's new, rich, cutting-edge, etc. The "high life" is very visible there. And most people aren't rich enough to afford to live it. Cities can be very pernicious for implanting in people desires that they can't fulfill, and that probably wouldn't make them that happy anyway.

Here's really the thing about dense vs. sparser populations. In denser populations, there are more people around, so specialized interests are easier to satisfy. But, because there are so many, proximity *per se* ceases to be a compelling reason for getting to know someone. So, you get a lot of more interest-oriented groups. You're much more likely to find an Underwater Basket Weaving club, or a hammer dulcimer teacher, or a worship community for an obscure sectarian religion. But you have to seek such communities out, because they're not going to find you; the mere fact that you live near someone is not much of a reason now for meeting them because, well, an awful lot of people live near you. Though I'm not a sociologist, I'm inclined to think that, while people in the cities certainly *see* a wider variety of people, and have some marginal interaction with them, they can actually be worse than suburbs for cementing segregated communities, whether class-based, racially-based, religion-based or whatever. People get a more finely tuned sense of "their people" when they're regularly having to discriminate among the masses of surrounding strangers, trying to determine which to interact with. That's another thing about these self-selecting communities: they can afford to have more de facto "admission requirements," and indeed, they may feel they need to.

Then of course, there are shy people, or people with few interests, or lazy people, or socially awkward people, who never seek out such communities and thus spend lots of time alone. I've definitely met people who lived in the cities for awhile and said they hated it because it was so lonely. And people like that are liable to fall into the bracket of constant TV-watchers or video game-players.

So I guess that would be my general take: urban areas tend to be good for young, childless adults (who are most likely to investigate unusual activities and entertainments, and also to want to meet a wide variety of people), and also perhaps for people with fairly specialized "community needs" (an unusual cultural background, a rare religion, highly specialized profession or hobbies, etc.) whereas suburbs tend to be better for families raising kids (who value the space and the quiet more, and who care more about having a general community of families with kids than they do about finding poetry recitations or diggerydo concerts.) Unsurprisingly, if you look at urban and suburban areas, you'll find a lot more childless adults in the cities and a lot more families in the suburbs. So, maybe people do have a reasonable evaluation of what's good for them.

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