It's no surprise that large numbers of Americans choose to live in low-density areas in the suburbs with a high reliance on the automobile, a speaker said yesterday at an event at the University of Richmond's Jepson Alumni Center.

"People may know it's better for the environment to live in the city but people will not do it until the city's social issues are addressed," political scientist Thad Williamson, assistant professor at UR's Jepson School of Leadership Studies, said.

City issues in general include high poverty and crime levels, poor schools, the lack of employment opportunities, corrupt local governments and higher property taxes, he said.

The poverty rate in the Richmond region, for example, is 10 percent, he said. However, it is 25 percent to 27 percent in the city.

Suburban living in general provides for pleasant and safe neighborhoods, good public service and excellent local schools, Williamson said.

Given these factors, "people will still choose low density over high density," he said.

The challenge is making the urban alternative more attractive, he said. "The choices we make are shaped by what's on the menu."

The question is whether Americans would change their preference if cities could offer the same quality of life as the suburbs.

Williamson based his presentation on issues he explored in his new book, "Sprawl, Justice and Citizenship: The Civic Costs of the American Way of Life."

He looked at whether suburban sprawl is efficient, fair and healthy for American democracy, an engaged citizenship and an ecologically sustainable way of life.

He said he supports new urbanism projects such as West Broad Village in Henrico County but remains skeptical about whether they contribute significantly to reducing reliance on the automobile and the environmental implications of that reliance.