Americans Don't Really Hate Density

They hate other Americans

You may have seen a recent Pew survey result making the rounds on urbanism twitter. It is a dispiriting finding if you believe (which you should believe, because it's simply true) that many of the land use and development patterns in the United States will have to radically change for the sake of sustainability and averting the worst climate change scenarios. A rock-solid majority of Americans, Pew reports, prefer auto-oriented sprawl to walkable neighborhoods. And this number has grown, significantly, over the last few years.

MSNBC's Hayes Brown has the (useful, accurate) climate hawk's response to this poll: It's terrible for the climate and reflects "thinly coded racism." But I also think, perhaps optimistically, that this poll is not entirely accurate. That is, this is what a majority of Americans say they want, but mainly because density has finally been subjected to the process that helps explain to Americans which "side" they're supposed to be on. And what many of them understand now, explicitly rather than implicitly, is that density is the enemy of the thing they want most of all: exclusivity.

Over the last several decades something similar has happened on a number of disparate subjects, as basically every issue left in the great ideological sorting got worked through the right-wing propaganda machine. This happened surprisingly late, and played out surprisingly quickly, even on subjects as huge and obvious as race: It wasn't until the election of Barack Obama that a huge number of white Americans began viewing the Democratic Party as the anti-racism party, at which point many of them finally abandoned it for good.

As political scientist Michael Tesler explained a while back:

Across time, a large and stable majority of whites with a college degree believed that the Democrat was more supportive of federal aid to blacks. But among whites with no college degree, there was a substantial 22-point increase in awareness from 2004 to 2012. The election of an African American Democratic president helped shrink a different diploma divide — this time, in awareness of the two parties’ differing positions on race

That shift all basically happened 10 minutes after the Beer Summit, quite possibly the most consequential turning point in American partisan sorting along racial lines since the Voting Rights Act. In the years since, that shift in “awareness” of what the Democratic Party stands for has essentially repeated itself on other (usually much less salient) issues as broad swaths of white Americans are informed of what they are supposed to be against, according to what coalition they belong to. Pew itself has measured most of these shifts in sentiment.

One of the more striking examples is higher education, which began this century as a mostly respected and fairly politically neutral institution, until the conservative messaging machine explained to certain Americans how much they’re supposed to hate it. It happened basically overnight, like someone flipped a switch.

In reading polls of American policy preferences—as explained to pollsters, anyway—it is always important to keep in mind which issues are currently being actively demagogued in right-wing media. And Tucker Carlson, the most reliable barometer of right-wing sentiment and original source of much mass conservative opinion, has been openly attacking urbanism ("Democrats want to abolish the suburbs") since…around 2019. In other words, what happened between 2019 and 2021 to make Americans reject the concept of density—not in their choices, but in their stated preferences to pollsters—was a ton of conservatives learning that they're supposed to be against it. The right invests a lot of money and intellectual energy into political education. They give a name to the thing you're supposed to be mad at and tell you the villains.

So: More Americans now tell pollsters that they wish to live in car-dependent sprawl, with obvious and predictable splits by ideology. Being able to walk places is Culture War now, as Vice's Aaron Gordon says. But, with apologies to Pew, this is not a great way to design an actual survey on American feelings about density. And some of the actual habits of aging white, conservative Americans belie this supposed preference for living far away from everything else.

I've no doubt that the preference for more space is completely genuine. The richest people in the history of humanity often like to live in enormous homes in the world's most crowded places (some do prefer isolation, of course, but that often seems as much about security and self-preservation as a specific attraction to solitude), and one of the most destructive things they do in those places is turn housing for many families into large dwellings for themselves alone. (Manhattan's Upper East Side lost housing over the last decade, because rich people combining units outpaced housing construction.) Life in Michael Bloomberg's "double-wide" 79th Street mansion would probably suit even the most committed suburbanite.

I've also no doubt that lots of Americans genuinely and truly love that a fact of their lives is that they have to get in a car to do literally anything: to pick up one roll of toilet paper, to buy a six-pack, to take their kid to kindergarten, to get to the closest park. A not-insignificant number of people truly want that, outside of ideological signaling or partisan sorting. But it's also true that that is the state of affairs for many Americans not because it's what they prefer, but because it's what you effectively have to sign up for if you want to build wealth. And in fact, many Americans with the opportunity to live just about anywhere they like have chosen a notably different lifestyle.

As you may have also seen if your feeds involve urbanism and transit and land use and all the other topics that I will insist on writing about as people who first followed me in 2011 beg for a "hack list," the most recent U.S. Census shows that the fastest-growing urban area in the United States over the last decade is The Villages, the planned community for aging Americans in Florida. According to the Times, "the area’s population jumped 39 percent since 2010—from about 93,000 residents to about 130,000."

The Villages is not particularly urbanist (as Curbed's Alissa Walker, thinking along similar lines, recently explained)—it has no public transit to speak of, it is nearly all detached single homes, and there is very little mixed-use development—but, especially by American standards, it is growing denser. Most of its official density statistics are out of date, considering its massive population growth over the last decade, but back-of-the-envelope math (130,000 people living in 34 square miles) has it denser than Phoenix, Houston, or Austin. Take the golf courses out (there's like 12 of them) and it's probably denser than most non-coastal American cities. Houses in The Villages are close together, even if they are also large and suburban, and they are close, by American standards, to urban amenities like public parks, movie theaters, and restaurants. The community is famous for the fact that about a third of trips are taken on small, electric vehicles—golf carts—which makes it accidentally greener than nearly anywhere else you could live in this country.

The Villages is also famous for the fact that it is 98 percent white. Perhaps Americans—or, at least, conservative white Americans—don't actually want to live far away from everything. Maybe, like all other humans throughout the history of civilization, they want to be a convenient distance from sources of food, entertainment, and socialization. Maybe sprawl is just a means to an end.

White Americans want an endlessly appreciating asset and the ability to police who their neighbors are and what they do. Housing segregation, suburban sprawl, and planned communities are how they won those things, and how they protect them. Automobile dependence is mainly a necessary side effect. Housing preferences have less to do with how people want to get around than they do with the level of control white Americans want to have over who can live near them, largely for the sake of property values.

As of last year, The Villages now contains an actual apartment complex. There was grumbling about renters moving in, but the complex was built. The main news site of The Villages is, charitably, 75 percent about which residents have been recently arrested for drunk driving and whose children were recently arrested for drug possession, but if you comb through the archives, you'll see that a bigger threat to the sanctity of The Villages is not apartments in the community but planned multifamily developments bordering it. Any apartment complex built within the Villages must follow its rules, including both the written ones about children and signage and the unwritten ones about what sort of people are allowed to live there. The bordering developments are opposed because they would not be subject to those rules. Marion County Supervisor (and Villager) Don Deakin, explaining his opposition to the apartment complex, “offered a comparison of the apartments with surrounding neighborhoods, such as the fact that the new units will be rentals, non-age restricted, would allow children, would be two- or three-story buildings and wouldn’t guarantee the future of trees. He said those things are the exact opposite of conditions in the nearby Villages neighborhoods."

Non-Village apartments would, logically, fill with the detested families of the people whose job it is to service the lives of the residents of The Villages. Villagers do not actually object to density and walkability; they object to sharing living space with their servants.

It is another cliché of the urbanist internet to point out that when well-off exurban Americans go on vacation, they go to walkable vacation towns, on cruises, to all-inclusive resorts, or to car-free simulacra of old-fashioned urban development patterns like Downtown Disney. Each December, the living rooms of thousands of detached three-car garage homes across the country come alive with "Christmas Village” displays of fantasy small town main streets full of mixed-use commercial buildings and dense housing. But while old white Americans actually get the most enjoyment from those types of places, they can't imagine living there. Their utopian retirement community is visually coded with all the trappings of suburbia, but still features many of the material benefits of urbanism. What they wanted all along was not distance from everyone else, but the right to determine who everyone else is.