Every American generation has built anew, extending through ingenuity and innovation all the achievements successively inherited. This accumulation of material and intangible wealth has made environmental improvement all the more possible. Subsistence societies simply cannot afford to protect natural resources or to indulge in outdoor leisures.
Our collective wealth makes possible our desire for open space. And suburbanization is one realization of that desire. Indeed, 80 percent of Americans surveyed in 1991 expressed a preference for low-density, single-family homes if given the choice.
Compared to the tenements and flats of yesteryear, single-family homes with private yards represent a huge leap in progress. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Upward mobility has been the societal course since the Industrial Revolution. Our unsurpassed technological progress – both economic and agricultural – has allowed us to venture beyond the city in search of clearer air, cleaner water, greener land, safer streets, and better schools.
Urban policy specialist Wendell Cox disputes the notion popularized by former Vice President Al Gore that suburban life lacks “livability.” Says Cox: “Genuine livability is evidenced by the choices people make. People buy cars because they satisfy both their needs and desires, and they buy houses in the suburbs for virtually the same reasons. They make these choices because they are more livable than the alternatives.”
Suburbanization also enhances American prosperity. More than 40 percent of family wealth is in home equity, and the percentage runs even higher among lower middle-income families.
Nor is suburbanization unique to the United States. According to Cox: “From the 1960s to the 1990s, urban population densities fell at a greater rate in Canada, Western Europe, Asia and Australia than in the United States. In fact, virtually all urban population growth in Europe has been in suburban areas.”
Property prices reflect, in part, the public’s preference for the suburban lifestyle. Michigan State University researchers Steven D. Hanson and Gerald Schwab found that even where cropland values are highest – $2,000 per acre in Southeast Michigan – the value of this same land for residential development is exponentially higher – an average of $16,700 per acre – and $47,943 per acre for commercial development.
Lawmakers and policy-makers would do well to recognize that property prices are an important gauge of the public’s land-use preferences.