'Evil' suburbs deserve more respect
The Kansas City Star
When you attend a lecture at the downtown library, presented by a land strategist from the liberal Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., be prepared to be ridiculed if you live in suburbia.
Recently, I attended just such a lecture by Christopher Leinberger, who is one of the nation’s strongest advocates for “walkable urbanism.”
In his world, he would like to reverse the “sprawl” of the last half century that has led to such awful places as, say, Johnson County, though he didn’t name it.
To him, suburbanites live in an evil world without light rail or streetcars, with strip malls and concrete parking lots and two or more cars in every garage. This is the “drivable suburban life,” as he called it.
In Leinberger’s imaginary world, we would all live in dense communities, where riding a bicycle to work or to the store would be commonplace. He said so.
When he showed an aerial slide shot of suburbia, with rows and rows of housing, he got snickers from the crowd. To Leinberger, this is a big joke.
Leinbeger is an expert in his field, so he came armed with lots of facts to prove his point.
For example, for every 1 percent of population growth over the last 50 years, there has been a 6 percent increase in land use. The moral of that story is we are wasting land. Yes, we are. But in this area there is almost endless vacant land that is inexpensive to develop.
He also cited a survey in which one third of those questioned said they would prefer to live in “walkable urbanism.” One third rejected that idea. And one third either didn’t know or didn’t care. Thus, Leinberger declared it a tie.
I don’t know where the survey was conducted, but I guarantee you, if that question were asked of citizens of Johnson County, you would not get a result anything like the one Leinberger quoted.
This is because what the lecturer failed to address is the quality of life in “sprawl” areas like Johnson County.
Not once in the two-hour lecture did Leinberger say anything about schools. Would suburbanites want to move to the “urban walkability” downtown or midtown if they had a child in school? Not in this metropolitan area, they wouldn’t.
He also failed to mention the words “public safety.” Suburbia offers what urban areas do not, and that is a nearly crime-free life.
And at no time did Leinberger address that suburbanites like to live in homes with yards and fences around them to keep in the barking dog.
Leinbeger looks down his nose at our existence. If only we could have our revelation and see the light. His light.
We do see some compromise with “walkable urban” environments. A recent example is the construction of a mixed-use development called Park Place at 117th and Nall in Leawood. I think Leinberger would agree that the layout of that development, combining offices, retail and residential is, indeed, enticing and would qualify as “walkable suburban.” But that project, whose location had all the right ingredients for success, is not likely to be replicated anytime soon.
And “Vision Metcalf” does have on its drawing board a trolley going down Metcalf Avenue. (He says a streetcar in downtown Kansas City is “critical,” which leaves us shaking our head.)
Leinberger does not appreciate the quality of life that suburbia offers. He certainly could not imagine that we are proud of where and how we live.
Reach Steve Rose, a Johnson County freelance columnist, at email@example.com