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In the past I asked a question about the environmental impact of the the US residential model. Some users replied that such residential model was inherited from the past, that it was too late to change it, and on that ground they closed the question which was later deleted by the community bot. Today reading the answers to another question I found out that the claim was not true. The residential model based on widespread low density suburbs is maintained because it is enforced by the current planning regulations.

Such residential model has a huge impact on the environment and on the housing cost, but on mainstream media there is absolutely not a comment or a hint on its role on the current situation. Back then I took as an example the effort made by this article to avoid to talk about the real cause of the problem. Furthermore the first article I linked begins with a lot of disclaimers as if the writers were scared to talk about an extremely delicate issue. Why is it so touchy? Why no other state except California is discussing a change of such regulation?

By "low-density residential model", I mean the widespread presence of low-density neighbourhoods. For such neighbourhoods, public transport is inefficient, therefore city authorities do not invest a lot on it and people are forced to rely on the private car. I know as @Joe W wrote "it varies depending on the area of the country", but on average this model is prevalent in the and the US citizens on average depend on the private car a lot more that a European or Asian citizen. This is also reflected on the per capita energy consumption in the US. (and also in the housing cost).

Update:

My question asked why in many articles on mainstream media I often notice that the argument is carefully avoided. The BBC article I linked is a perfect example. I was not asking about negative a positive aspects because that was part of another question. I added later the third paragraph just because the apparently malformed question immediately attracted close votes. But I didn't go into the details, I didn't even mention other points like excessive energy consumption for heating and cooling or cost and quality of utilities infrastructure. So user wanting to answer wheter a model is better than the other are requested to open another question.

The answer by @Levi Montgomery claims that there is no problem discussing the argument, but the type and volume of comments received by both questions suggests otherwise. Furthermore if someone asks why people accept with little discussion this housing model and the reply is "Why exactly should we be cramming people into a small area" as commented by @Joe W it means that some people do have a problem with it. Behind the harsh reply it is even stating the usual misconception that the only alternative to low density neighbourhoods are the concrete jungles. The high density model includes infinite different models that go from the concrete jungle to the model based on high rises separated by wide green spaces. But judging from the comments few Americans understand it and the fact that they talk very little about it is probably one of the reasons why it is so easy to trap the people in such a narrow view. BTW such narrow view was also stated in the poll linked by @Fizz in his answer, look closely at the questions of the poll, rather than being question they are statements. Again they are stating that high density housing means packing buildings together.

In the answer and the now deleted comments by @Jim I noticed another common misconception: that the crime rate depends on the housing model and ethnicity, not on factors like unemployment and education. This also shows that the limited view US citizens have on the argument.

The answer by @Levi Montgomery is extensive, but still something is missing. In a country of a population of more than 300 million people I guess there are dozens of millions of homeowners, do they really form such a compact single minded group? I read several times about people who were forced to buy a house bigger than what they needed because after relocating for their job they couldn't find anything else. I even heard someone complaining because they had to buy a house with a garden, working long hours they didn't have time to enjoy the garden, but they had to pay someone to clean it and maintain it. But when it comes to talking about the housing model nothing of this is mentioned.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. Please limit comments here to suggesting improvements to the question.
    – JJJ
    Jul 20, 2022 at 15:04
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    The question isn't clear. The title asks why the residential model is untouchable and unquestionable, without indicating in what way you think it is untouchable and unquestionable and while admitting several governments are working to address it. In the question itself you focus on mainstream media, instead of governments, and infer some ulterior reasoning for the format of a BBC article. You should clarify what it is you are actually asking about. Jul 21, 2022 at 13:59
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    I think the question should either be reverted or closed - the "update" discussing specific answers is inappropriate for Stack Exchange sites. Questions should ask a question, not respond to answers. If an answer is either unclear or doesn't fully address the question, that's what the comment box under the answer is for.
    – Joe
    Jul 21, 2022 at 16:46
  • Couldn't this question be radically shortened while keeping its meaning? Some variation of: Low density, single family housing in North America, enforced by local ordinances, has been criticized because of over-reliance on cars and pushing up house costs. Despite California's Bill 9 ending it state-wide (which is generating pushback) this model has proven very resilient politically and Bill 9 is an exception. Why is that? Not saying this is the best formulation, or even acceptable to the OP, but this is clearly a popular question which risks getting closed again because of format Jul 22, 2022 at 19:17
  • at a glance something like the above seems compatible with the answers given so far. I'd also keep the mention that, well, Asia and Europe do seem to prefer denser alternatives. Jul 22, 2022 at 19:21

7 Answers 7

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Your question comes in two parts for why suburbia is bad. You mention the costs of housing and environmental impact.

Low-density housing fits the same amount of people into a larger area. This indisputably has a negative effect on the local and global environment. In America, a resident of a suburban neighborhood has less access to public transportation, likely drives to the city to work, emitting carbon into the atmosphere. And then there is also the more obvious local environmental impact, it takes up more land.

However the effect on the environment is a negative externality and generally is not accounted for in housing prices, without government intervention.

Let us think, what problem were city planners trying to solve with suburbs? Say we have a city center with a lot of jobs because that is where the people and customers are. People are wanting to move to this city and seize on the economic opportunity the people provide. You, a city planner, want more people to come to the city because the people that voted you in want economic growth. But we need to provide them housing. We are deciding between high density or low density housing. Proximity to the city center held equal, low density housing is more desirable than high density housing (why is a different topic). Which means there is demand and desirability for low density housing. Rural dwellers are also used to very low density housing. So you do not want your city to exclude low density housing, as many people would not move to your city if they had to live in a high density neighborhood. That would hinder economic growth. So you know you want low density housing, somewhere. And it obviously doesn't make sense to put the low density housing toward the city center so you decide it goes on the outskirts.

But, decades later, your city grows. Now your low density housing is relatively closer to the city center since the center grew. Now the people who lived in your suburb are feeling great, they get low density housing close to the city center! The best of both worlds! Their property value has also increased a lot.

Now suburb home owners in the area are split into two groups: those who sell and cash out on their property, and those who want to stay. The ones who want to sell would like to sell their property to an aspiring landlord, who divides the property up and rents to multiple tenants to maximize their profits on their investment. Convert the low density housing to high density neighborhood. But your zoning laws in the city you created decades ago remained the same. And your neighbors don't like that, as that makes the neighborhood more high density, which is less desirable for them and for others, devaluing their property. And your neighbors are represented in the local government because they live there, the aspiring landlord is not. So the zoning laws do not change, and high density housing is not allowed in the neighborhood. Resulting in high housing prices, hurting those who do not already have housing there (and thus also probably are not represented in the local government). This also increases the housing prices for the inner-city high density housing, as city center has grown by high density housing only marginally so, as it gets squeezed up against the low density zones.

So, I presume your solution to this would be: Change the zoning laws such that high density housing can be built there by the free market.

Okay, but in doing so you will upset the people who live in that suburb, who also happen to be the politicians in the city and your campaign funded by other people who live in that suburb since they're the richest and actually financially benefit from their investment in the politician.

So that is a political battle you almost certainly will not win. But, lets say you do win it.

All low density housing zones are immediately abolished. From the perspective of suburb owners, there will be an initial spike in home values as outside landlord firms are wanting to invest in the property with the intentions of housing multiple tenants in the same space for more money. This spike will cause some people to sell, and their properties turned into more affordable high density housing. But as that happens, it becomes a high density neighborhood, causing their neighbor's home values to fall. And the homeowners do not want to live in a high density neighborhood so they sell too. And it cascades into a housing crash in that suburb. Also these people happen to be executives of companies that provide a lot of jobs at the city center, since they were the only ones who could afford those properties. These executives move out and thus bring at least some of their company's operations with them. Hurting the lower income people in the city center as well, as they lose their jobs as their company eventually shifts operations to a different city. Forcing those people to move out the city center or take a job that pays less. The inner city economy would also take a hit, everyone is drinking from the same pot.

But, housing prices would be lower! Perhaps housing prices would be low enough such that even with the less pay they still have more discretionary income. The economy might bounce back. If that happens the housing prices will rise again, but lower-income people who bought affordable housing in the crash would benefit. Or it might not. Who knows. I personally think it is likely it will, and would be a net benefit to lower-income people. But I recognize it is not possible without a huge economic hit initially. And the uncertainty as to what would happen afterwards.

I also recognize it doesn't have to be an all or nothing scenario, you can nick away at low density housing overtime. But that's an even more difficult political task, as you would have to secure political control for years as opposed to just 1 session.

The other way I could see this ending is because high housing prices grows so much that it becomes not a city problem but a state problem. And the problem is then addressed at the state level, where inside interests for individual neighborhoods are not as strong. We are seeing the beginnings of this in California. It also addresses your follow up question in a comment about why only California seems to be talking about it.

It is untouchable in the political sphere for reasons I addressed. As for why it would be untouchable in the media or on stack overflow, I suppose I just disagree that it is, in fact your question is quite a loaded question. In fact Vox, a respectable left-leaning media outlet, has addressed this very issue. As has the White House, and this Harvard professor. And I suspect your prior post was perhaps not taken seriously if it was written in the same manner as this one, because you are not asking a question wanting to accept an answer. But wanting to ask a question in hope of hearing your answer.

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    There's a lot of speculation in this answer like how a few executives having to move their home would decide to close down their businesses firing hundreds or more. It's indicative of how this story is sold to Americans, but lacks empirical backing. Plenty of executives live in or at least own penthouses downtown, so it seems too much of a "cool story bro" that not owning a separated home in the same city would cause them to close their business. Jul 19, 2022 at 22:04
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    -1. First half of the answer is good. But an unsupported jump from "eliminate SFH zoning in the suburbs" to "many businesses leave the CBD" is a bit much. Jul 21, 2022 at 14:59
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    This answer is missing a lot of historical details regarding how the USA ended up this way. Two big ones are racism and auto-industry lobbying. It isn't just conspiracy, both are well-documented fact. Jul 21, 2022 at 20:59
  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Philipp
    Jul 22, 2022 at 8:22
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Most Americans think single-family homes are preferable, according to a YouGov poll, from the standpoint of environment, traffic, and crime. That poll does look a bit like it's asking easy/leading questions, but it's suggestive of how the debate is framed in the US.

Three in four Americans say it’s better for the environment if houses are built farther apart, while one in four say it’s better for houses to be built closer together. [...]

The majority of Americans (60%) say they think that higher-density development creates more traffic, while 40% say it creates less traffic. [...]

A majority of Americans (62%) say they think high-density areas produce higher crime rates, while only 10% say they produce lower crime rates.

Democrats and city dwellers are less convinced on these on these points. The middle one is probably the most contested along those lines.

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    The effect on traffic will greatly depend on where the high density housing is, and what sort of public transit is available. If you plop an apartment tower in the middle of the average suburb, it probably will increase traffic. On the edge of the city center (assuming good walkability or public transit), perhaps not. Jul 21, 2022 at 14:57
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    And this is the problem: on all three points, the majority is wrong. (Note that while high-density areas may have higher total crime rates, what people should really care about is crime rate per capita (i.e. "How likely am I to be affected by a crime"), which shows no statistically significant variance by density.)
    – A. R.
    Jul 21, 2022 at 15:08
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    @DanM. the metric of concern for a homeowner is crime rate measured by geographic area, not measured by number of people, i.e. I want less crime close to me. If the crime rate is constant based on number of people, then more people in a geographic area means more crime in that geographic area.
    – yters
    Jul 22, 2022 at 14:33
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    @yters that's not really a crime rate and homeowners that think that way are misguided (although that's not surprising judging by the surveys). If you have "one robbery a month" on a single farm that only you and maybe your neighbor live, it's very concerning. If it's "one robbery a month" on a similarly sized dense city district (say 1k+ pop.), you may live your whole life without ever being robbed or even knowing people who were robbed. I.e. the proper question should be "how likely I'll become the victim of the crime".
    – Dan M.
    Jul 22, 2022 at 14:52
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    With regards to crime vs. population, # of crimes can, and often does, increase superlinearly with respect to population. In other words, crime rate per capita does increase with population. See, e.g. here, or here
    – PGnome
    Jul 22, 2022 at 17:02
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The question is predicated on some judgments about the environment that I think are more complex and value-laden than suggested. The planet is facing an onslaught of environmental crises that include the threat of nuclear war, damage to the ozone layer, carbon pollution, defaunation, and deforestation. There is no single common cause for all these threats, but the one thing that probably comes closest to being such a cause is the size of the globe's total human population, not the choice of a particular suburban lifestyle by a lot of people in the US.

The question seems to compare the US unfavorably to Europe, so let's consider the things that make the US not comparable to Europe. The US has a much lower average population density, and always has. The US includes uninhabitable regions of desert, mountains, and arctic tundra. The US has preserved many wilderness areas that are much larger and much more undeveloped than anything comparable in Europe. For example, the Sierra really is a wilderness, whereas the Alps are full of cows and villages. Habitat fragmentation and defaunation are at a much more advanced stage in Saxony than in Idaho.

In this geographical environment, people in the US have always had different cultural expectations than Europeans about their way of life. In the early years of the republic, cities were seen as inimical to democracy. There was for a long time an open frontier, and people who felt too crowded could move west. Our tradition as a republic has lasted for a lot longer than the existence of any continuous republican form of government in Europe, and one factor that has always been seen as key to its stability is the promotion of the ownership of houses and land; this is why we have an income tax deduction for home mortgages.

The US is largely a nation of immigrants, and it also has a history of slavery. Under these conditions, there is far less of a sense of social solidarity than in places like Scandinavia. Public schools were historically segregated de jure by race, and remain de facto highly segregated by both race and class. Large urban school systems such as LAUSD are dysfunctional. Even in a smaller city like Buffalo, urban schools are seen as an unacceptable option by educated, middle-class parents, leading to their flight to suburbs like Tonawanda and Grand Island. Although this is often described in racial terms as "white flight," there was also the phenomenon, for example, of African Americans moving out of Los Angeles and into Riverside and San Bernardino counties, where their kids could have better schools (and they could also have a lemon tree in the back yard).

Real estate in areas with good schools (which usually correlate with suburban lifestyles) is extremely expensive in the US, and has gotten much more expensive in recent years. For example, I bought my house in a Southern California suburb in 1996 for $280k, but today zillow says it would sell for $1.3M. At those prices, a house in a good school district isn't just a purchase, it's a massive financial undertaking to which a two-income family will devote a great portion of their income for their entire working lives. They will see it as a huge disaster to have their area change character and become more urban. If they had wanted to live in a dense, urban area, they could have bought a condo for 1/4 the price. Local politicians understand what a politically potent issue this is, so there is no way that they will vote to change the zoning of a residential area to allow denser housing.

"Some users replied that such residential model was inherited from the past, that it was too late to change it, ... Today reading the answers to another question I found out that the claim was not true. The residential model based on widespread low density suburbs is maintained because it is enforced by the current planning regulations."

Well, both of these things are true. Radically retrofitting an established suburban area for high-density housing and public transportation is impossible. Zoning laws also make it impossible to do things like adding one high-rise apartment building to an area of single-family detached houses.

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The plans are not untouchable or unquestionable (but on a side note of humor if that were really the case - the Answer would be because it is in the United States so it is absolutely right) . :-)

Actually the model that has been notated for use in the United States upon which many plans are based but in reality almost none of them follow, is the Oglethorpe Plan it had been used for the planning and development of Savannah, GA. While I can not vouch for the merits of the plan one way or another - the larger population definitely effects the roadway into and out of particular areas. The plan is hailed as a very good model of purpose - however it should duly be noted that where people are modern retail establishments desire to be. Industry should clearly be kept separate from the residential areas as there can be greater hazards involved with that mix.

More details can be found https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oglethorpe_Plan#Sources_for_the_Oglethorpe_Plan

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An increase in (high quality) housing density may lead to gentrification. Higher housing density means improved public transportation, possibly improved cycling infrastructure (if political decisions are appropriate), shorter distances to shops, services, employers, friends, etc. The most expensive housing (at least per unit area) tends to be in the most densely populated parts of the country. This is also why trying to make housing affordable by building more housing usually fails in cities, as the presence of high-density housing is (indirectly) what makes cities attractive in the first place.

Gentrification may chase existing tenants out of their homes, in particular in countries where arbitrary rent increases or no-fault evictions are legal. This may force poor people to move further away from the city, where services are poorer.

Therefore, existing tenants may oppose increases in housing density or even other improvements to their neighbourhood.

On the other hand, home-owners may benefit, either from improved services, or because they wish to sell their home, or because they don't want to have poor neighbours.

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    Some kind of NIMBY effect then? Jul 20, 2022 at 8:36
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    I'm not sure if NIMBY is the right term here. Probably the tenants would be happy to see their neighbourhood improve if their rights and rent levels are guaranteed, which could be done with rent control or publicly owned housing (the side-effects of such measures are a different question). IMO NIMBY is rather about opposition to facilities that society needs, but some people don't necessarily want near them, such as roads, railways, power lines, prisons, (nuclear) waste disposal, psychiatric care, refugee centres, etc.
    – gerrit
    Jul 20, 2022 at 8:58
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    Tenants generally don't get a say in gentification. If gentrification gives landlords the ability to evict low-paying tenants and acquire higher-paying tenants, they should be in favour of it. Jul 21, 2022 at 8:39
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    (context: a whopping 60% of Berlin voters voted for the government to expropriate homes away from big landlords - that was 9 months ago, and nothing has happened since then, not even a PR move) Jul 21, 2022 at 12:40
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    @user253751 They have a committee that is investigating the legal possibilities of expropriation.
    – gerrit
    Jul 21, 2022 at 12:47
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while low density housing has the disadvantages you mentioned, high density housing often has even more disadvantages. Higher rates of crime, poor air quality, more exposure to pollution, lack of privacy, and many restriction on various activities.

I have lived in rural areas, in urban apartment buildings and currently live a subdivision of single family homes. I have been able to walk to work in some places and in other locations I had a 60 minute drive. If I ever get the opportunity to retire I may opt for a rural area. Given the current economy this is rapidly becoming a moot issue.

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There are a lot of cultural factors that when summed cash out to this:

Americans want it to be/stay that way.

Now I'm painting with a broad brush here, in a country with 350 million people not everybody wants that , and some people very vocally do not want that. In addition to the valid points mentioned in Levi Montgomery's answer there are three important influences: national character, social class distinctions, and public school funding.

National Character

Homeownership with attendant property is historically been a part of the American Dream: Americans by-and-large retain rather romantic notions of pioneers staking out a homestead in the wilderness, developing the land, and making a home with their own two hands by God. Or white picket fences and well-maintained lawns. The sheer number of different American cultural tropes around this is almost proof in itself.

From a historical perspective this makes a lot of sense: land ownership was traditionally restricted to a hereditary aristocracy and for all the hereditary aristocracies we've embraced (Kennedys, Bush I & II) we try really hard to pretend like we hate them. Land ownership is, even now, in part an ongoing rejection of the old feudal order and its foundational assumptions.

Class Distinctions

Cities are for rich people and poor people. The Middle Class lives in the 'burbs.

This is of course not literally true, but as someone once pointed out at length America is a place where we vocally deny that social status is a thing while being secretly obsessed with it. I think psychologists have a word for that. And that status anxiety is largely centered in the Middle Class.

If you're Middle Class in an urban area it can be difficult to differentiate yourself from the working class through conspicuous consumption and you run the risk of constantly being mistaken for a "lesser" class. Moving to the suburbs makes it easier to make sure everybody can tell where you rank (i.e. the size of your door).

I'm curious to see if this becomes less of an issue (in terms of urban sprawl) in the age of social media: because there is nothing secretive or subtle about American's status competition via Twitter and Instagram.

Public Schools

Because of the way public schools are funded through property taxes, and the perceived (real? IDK) advantages of not having "lower" class classmates, it is extremely tempting for families with young children to relocate to the suburbs (full disclosure: my wife and I did this, primarily for this reason). This one should be fairly obvious since we literally have Presidential candidates writing books about it.

Bottom line, there isn't just a single reason like zoning laws, you'd have to change a lot of factors that pull in the suburban direction.

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    Safe outdoor space for your children to play, room for a garden, maybe a pool, all on land you own and control holds immense objective value, and even greater subjective value due to cultural norms. As for people who say "kids need to play with others"; certainly. That's why most neighborhoods in the suburbs have their own centrally located parks as well, surrounded by homes and land owned by like mind individuals. It isn't optimal in every way, but for many it's seen as the optimal way to raise children. And what's more important than that?
    – TCooper
    Jul 22, 2022 at 17:23

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