Slumburbs?

An article on TheAtlantic.com, found by way of Planetizen, goes into great detail explaining the current pattern of housing demand across America, and how this will lead to a great exodus from suburbia and back into the central cities – and even into suburban cities and towns – so long as they are dense, walkable, and have access to good public transportation networks. At the moment, much of the lack of housing demand in the suburbs can be attributed to the subprime mortgage crisis, which has lead to a downturn in every housing market in the USA except for Portland, Seattle, and Charlotte. However, the roots of this shift in demand reach deeper than the current financial crisis and what we are seeing now is only the tip of the iceberg.

The decline of places like Windy Ridge (Charlotte) and Franklin Reserve (Elk Grove, Calif.) is usually attributed to the subprime-mortgage crisis, with its wave of foreclosures. And the crisis has indeed catalyzed or intensified social problems in many communities. But the story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market—a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

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Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City; Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.

[snip]

Sprawling, large-lot suburbs become less attractive as they become more densely built, but urban areas—especially those well served by public transit—become more appealing as they are filled in and built up. Crowded sidewalks tend to be safe and lively, and bigger crowds can support more shops, restaurants, art galleries.

But developers are also starting to find ways to bring the city to newer suburbs—and provide an alternative to conventional, car-based suburban life.

[snip]

Demographic changes in the United States also are working against conventional suburban growth, and are likely to further weaken preferences for car-based suburban living. When the Baby Boomers were young, families with children made up more than half of all households; by 2000, they were only a third of households; and by 2025, they will be closer to a quarter. Young people are starting families later than earlier generations did, and having fewer children. The Boomers themselves are becoming empty-nesters, and many have voiced a preference for urban living. By 2025, the U.S. will contain about as many single-person households as families with children.

While this information is not news to many regular readers of this blog, this serves as further evidence that the car-dominated cityscape and associated suburban lifestyle is on a downturn. This forecast is certainly not bulletproof, as nobody is perfect at predicting future events, but it suggests that the “old way” of doing things is no longer perceived by the majority as being in the best interests of our society. This, while we continue to endure having the largest public works project in Pacific Northwest history forced upon us, a project whose goal is to further the agenda of the old guard, the old way of doing things. If the forecast described above comes to fruition and nearly half of those large-lot homes in Clark County are abandoned come 2025, a scant ten years or so after the CRC is opened to the public, will we look back upon our $6B+ investment as a smart one? Will that much capacity even be necessary at that point? In the face of this possibility, how else could we spend $6B – on transportation infrastructure serving both states – that would be consistent with serving the needs of future residents?

Additionally, how do we address the looming challenge of ensuring mobility for our aging – and now retiring – baby-boomer population? Many of our suburban households are occupied by boomers who will either need to relocate to walkable, transit-oriented communities or have additional transportation options brought to within walking distance of their suburban homes. The latter of which is not exactly an inexpensive proposal given the low densities of modern suburban communities. At present, we don’t have the urban housing capacity to accommodate thousands of boomers electing to relocate to central city neighborhoods, nor do we have the resources to provide dial-a-ride services for those who elect to stay in the suburbs. What suggestions do you have for improving mobility options for the increasing number of elderly without breaking the bank and / or neglecting other required services and infrastructure maintenance and construction?

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