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Monday, July 28, 2008

The end of suburbs? I don't think so.

Via alternatehistory.com, I found this somewhat old Atlantic Monthly article, concerning the future of suburbs in this higher gas cost environment. Let's just say I found the article majorly flawed.

The anecdotes to start the article show what happens when properties are abandoned and not cared for. And apparently, the local police department does not follow the broken windows theory of policing. But the problem is because properties are abandoned and not cared for. It has nothing to do with suburbs. In fact, the same thing happened to countless American urban and near-urban areas over the years. And it is reversed with gentrification, when people begin to care for the areas again.

I fail to see how what the article classifies as at-risk neighborhoods (low-density neighborhoods full of McMansions and away from mass transit) would ever be attractive to slums of low-income residents. They posit that upper middle class families with good jobs (presumably, they're the ones living in McMansions) would be driven away from these neighborhoods by high gas prices and no transit options. And they will be replaced by lower income residents, who more acutely feel the pain of higher gas prices, and may not even have cars?

The neighborhoods would have to change for that to happen; there would have to be local retail options, and perhaps a local transit system. But you do that, and the people you claim will leave will have a reason to stay. But the change won't happen, because all changes would have to go through local zoning authorities. These are the same authorities that like to protect current homeowner's property value by reserving land for green spaces and requiring homes to be built on large tracts of land. Even if approving an apartment building would really help out low income residents, that's not in the interests of the powers that be.

Every article like this I read has a level of underlying snobbery, and I hate it. The writers just assume that everyone should like urban living. Everyone should like teeming sidewalks, restaurants and bars, art galleries and symphony orchestras. Everyone should like old houses with "character." If your primary interests are televised sports and American Idol, you don't need urban living. And there are plenty of more noble pursuits that can't be done downtown. Do you tend to a vegetable garden, grow rose bushes, or train show dogs? Those are no goes in urban areas. And the fundamental motivation for moving to the suburbs, to have a place for the kids and dogs to run around, will remain.

An interesting line in the article: "Condemnation of single-family housing for 'higher and better use' is politically difficult, and in most states it has become almost legally impossible in recent years." Many people don't take kindly to the government using its power of condemnation for the profit of politically-connected developers, even if Kelo allows it. It sure looks like the article writers think it would be better if everyone lived according to their vision, and they don't care what you want.

In the suburb where I work, there are plenty of McMansion neighborhoods. But there's also a fake walkable urban/residential area being built. (I call it "fake" because it's planned that way, not an organic development like in actual cities.) I bet both types of neighborhoods will do just fine, even if you're working at the urban downtown about 13 miles away. (With no transit option, since as I've mentioned before, an old rail line was replaced by a popular walking/biking trail.) The city will work hard to make sure it stays liveable, for all its residents, and will continue to attract wealth residents.

A couple other flaws with the article:

It still believes in the illusion that people all work downtown. Commuting from suburb to suburb is increasingly common.

It assumes urban residents with children will improve the local schools. I would think the majority of these residents send their children to private schools.

2 Comments:

At 3:39 AM, Blogger L. Shepherd said...

I saw something like that a couple of weeks ago. I thought about how flawed it was too. It mentioned that several families would live in each suburban home in the new suburban slums and the former 'burb residents would forgo having yards for the kids to play in so that they could live downtown.

Not going to happen. First of all, it posits that the current trends, and I mean up-to-the-day trends will continue forever. It doesn't happen. Ever. Gas prices will change, suburbs are getting far more jobs, and most families will not want to live downtown. I know I never would.

It also doesn't mention telecommuting, which many people in the suburbs do.

 
At 8:20 PM, Blogger Greg said...

True, and both points I'm well aware of, since I work in the suburbs and have two telecommuters in my department. My job could be done via telecommuting as well.

I also didn't comment that those young people who live downtown, and may not spend $4 for a gallon of gas, but will spend $10 for a 3 ounce drink. A fairly long daily commute can be covered for the cost of one drink.

 

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