We’re a Suburban Nation. We Need to Get Used to It.


We can’t move millions of people back to the center of cities. But we can make our suburbs friendlier to urban values.

OPINION by Aaron M. Renn |Governing

Some utopian activists believe that the United States needs a drastic urbanizing and an end to reliance on the automobile, for climate relief and other reasons. But this isn’t going to happen. America is and will remain a suburban nation, with cars as the central feature of its surface transportation system. Our real challenge is to move toward electric vehicles, and to build or retrofit suburbs to better enable other forms of transportation for some of the trips we make.

The population of the U.S. is classified as about 80 percent urban, but this includes suburban areas as well as cities. If we tally up the number of places that are genuinely urban in form — moderate to high density, mixed use, built on a street grid, transit oriented or walkable — it doesn’t add up to all that much.

The 2020 population of New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, Boston, Seattle, Washington, Baltimore and Miami adds up to a bit over 20 million. That’s only about 7 percent of the country’s population, roughly equal to the population increase during the 2010s. In other words, even if we managed to double the populations of these cities, they would only be able to hold about one decade’s worth of population growth.


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December 2021