In Defense of the Sun Belt

Phoenix, Ariz.

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Ryan Cooper reviewing The Rent Is Too Damn High suggests that a bit more Real Talk about ugly sprawl would have been useful:

The outer suburban rings of Phoenix, for example, really are a blighted dystopian hellscape, with endless identical Santa Fe-style tile roofs marching into the hinterlands like some great fungal outbreak, and the horror inspired by them and their ilk could constitute a powerful political force to be harnessed. What those kind of environmentalists need to understand, and what Matt could tell them (and does tell them, rather obliquely though), is that the worst parts of cities—the sprawl, the pollution, the bland sameness, the endless traffic—are not something inherent in the cities themselves, and furthermore not living in them drastically increases one’s output of carbon dioxide.

Maybe. But I prefer to emphasize the positive. The question I want urbanists to ask themselves is how is it that Phoenix and Las Vegas and Dallas and Houston and Raleigh-Durham have grown so much faster than San Francisco and Boston when you account for the fact that the fundamentals in San Francisco and Boston are much stronger. That’s in terms of wages, it’s in terms of the basic first mover advantage that older cities have, it’s in terms of legacy cultural and entertainment amenities, and it’s certainly in terms of the things that urbanists say make for great communities. Obviously the Sun Belt is doing something right. And what they’re doing right is that they actually want to add people. And that’s how cities grow. Public officials and thought-leaders down to grassroots people in the community take a kind of pride in growth that leads you to sit down and say we want to work this out so that lots of houses and infrastructure get built here. Lots of American cities—particularly the smaller, cold ones with declining industrial bases, your Buffalos and your Clevelands—face the very serious problem that people don’t really want to live there. But Washington, D.C. and its environs are absurdly squandering the fact that there’s high demand to locate things in and around our city. I don’t think that’s a point that’s best emphasized by highlighting the aesthetic failings of cookie cutter Sun Belt subdivisions. The question is why are we settling for a small tax base, a lack of job opportunities, and a dearth of affordable housing when people want to invest in locating structures and people where we’ve already gone through the trouble of building the Metro and the street grid?

Liberals should count themselves lucky that Rick Perry turned out to be terrible at running for president. But think back to the moment when it looked like he was going to ride Texas rapid population growth into a thorough-going case for the Texas economic and social model. It’s a prospect that liberal should have found frightening. But the fact that the model was producing substantial successes can’t be plausibly denied. Especially if you don’t like the kind of politics that Perry promotes you have an obligation to find a way for the jurisdictions whose lifestyles you do admire to replicate Texas’ success in creating abundant homes for people.