Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Diversity and Freedom in Choice of Neighborhoods

When it comes to choices for housing and neighborhoods and communities, I very agree with Eduardo Peñalver on the virtues of diversity, but I suggest a more expansive understanding of neighborhood diversity. In my mind, true diversity must include a multiplicity of choices of neighborhood styles and residential options, urban, suburban, and rural. Preserving the liberty of hard-working Americans to pursue their own dreams should be very high on the list of values important to Catholics.

If some of my friends find greater satisfaction in daily life and a deeper sense of community by choosing to live in high-density urban neighborhoods consisting primarily of multiple-unit residential buildings and with a high mix of commercial uses as well, I certainly understand and respect their right to make that choice. If looking out of the window in the morning to see the sun rise over a towering skyline of buildings makes one’s heart beat a little faster with pride and hearing the hum and buzz of the city streets brings a tear of joy to one’s eyes, I say “God bless you!” I am delighted that you have found the place where you belong.

If I choose instead to live in a suburban neighborhood with a mix of housing choices that emphasizes single-family residences (while also including low-rise apartment complexes) and a lower level of density that allows me to escape the hustle and bustle of the city center at the end of the day, I insist that my choice too is worthy of respect. Although my city council is debating whether to adopt zoning changes that might obstruct my horizon (but only over my strongly stated objection), I prefer to look out from my back-yard deck at towering trees, green lawns, and the peaceful waters of the small neighborhood lake that laps up against the playground of the neighborhood elementary school. I too have found my home.

When it comes to neighborhoods, to each their own, I say, including the freedom to choose where and how to build a home for their families. To be sure, national polls confirm that well more than three-quarters of Americans prefer a single-family house in the suburbs to a town house or condominium in the city. But I strongly defend Eduardo’s right to be among the minority that dream instead of an apartment in the city.

Eduardo is not so generous, however, about my choice of a neighborhood. He characterizes the American Dream of owning one’s own house in the suburbs as nothing less than the evil of “sprawl,” to which he says that “the end can come none too soon.” Fortunately, the end of the dream is probably not near at all, as I do think Eduardo greatly exaggerates the supposed “wreckage” of the American Dream that has been caused by the relatively small adjustment in housing prices over the past several months — which hardly amounts to a “collapse” — and a jump in gas prices — an increase that is by no means huge in historical terms. Families with children will not be flocking from the suburbs into the cities because gas prices — even assuming the worst — might be $15 to $20 a week more for a suburban commute.

While Eduardo may choose to label my suburban neighborhood and others like it as “sprawl” (i.e., neighborhoods that were not carefully designed by urban social engineers), it all sounds more like “freedom” to me. Indeed, what he describes as a socially destructive trend is instead evidence of the tremendous success of our economy and society in enhancing home ownership for an ever-greater number of Americans.

Nor should I need to apologize for my suburban neighborhood. Given that less than 5 percent of the land mass of the United States is developed as urban or suburban areas, laying the blame for environmental degradation upon the suburban homeowner is over-the-top. That problems may occur in some areas or that some mistakes were made in some locales is no basis to generalize about suburban communities as negative forces. And having lived in a variety of metropolitan settings over the years, I have found the social isolation that Eduardo rightly deprecates to be much less common in the suburban neighborhoods where I have resided than in the generally cold and unfeeling urban skyscrapers in which I previously dwelled. The cultural forces that have created social isolation are not geographically confined.

I definitely do agree that we suburbanites should take responsibility for the social health of our own communities (and an examination of our comparative rate of contributions to charity, volunteer activity, and voting in local elections suggests we’re doing pretty well). I know that my friends who are urban dwellers assume the same responsibilities to create healthy and safe communities, especially for children. There is ample work for all of us.

If as Eduardo argues, people will thrive by “living closer to work, in transit- and pedestrian-friendly, diverse neighborhoods where we run into friends and neighbors as we walk to the store, school or the office,” then people will be drawn to his New Urban vision. Hey, I may even be one of them some day (when my wife and I become empty-nesters). But while pursuing our own dream, shouldn't we cherish the freedom of others to choose differently about where and how to build a neighborhood?

Greg Sisk


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