Requiem for the Suburbs Revue

By Dan Bertolet April 28, 2010

Every occasion I'm ready for the funeral
At every occasion one brilliant day funeral
- Band of Horses

When the Harvard Business School types start hyping the decline of the suburbs, we can be pretty sure it's game over:

To put it simply, the suburbs have lost their sheen: Both young workers and retiring Boomers are actively seeking to live in densely packed, mixed-use communities that don’t require cars—that is, cities or revitalized outskirts in which residences, shops, schools, parks, and other amenities exist close together. The change is imminent, and businesses that don’t understand and plan for it may suffer in the long run.

But at this point, they are embarrassingly late getting on the bandwagon. Lately it's been hard to keep up with all the indicators of the cultural shift from suburb to city. For example, this:

In 26 of the nation's 50 largest metropolitan areas, the share of residential construction taking place in central cities more than doubled since 2000. "This acceleration of residential construction in urban neighborhoods reflects a fundamental shift in the real estate market," the report concludes.

And this:

"Shy away from fringe places in the exurbs and places with long car commutes or where getting a quart of milk takes a 15-minute drive," was the warning the Urban Land Institute and PricewaterhouseCoopers gave institutional and commercial real estate investors in their Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2010 report.

And this:

A study released last summer by CEOs for Cities found that homes in denser, more walkable communities commanded premiums as high as $30,000 in cities like Charlotte, Chicago, and Sacramento. Another study the year before concluded that distant suburbs had suffered much steeper declines in value than those in "close in" neighborhoods.

And this:

The Commerce Department said the pace of new construction rose roughly 2 percent from February to March. That increase, however, was thanks to a 19 percent increase in apartments, which offset a 1 percent decline in home building.

And this:

Not surprisingly, the center city was found to be a hotbed of lower transport spending, thanks to denser development and a thriving transit system -- and when housing and transport bills were combined, the city remained a more affordable option than any of the suburbs in its immediate vicinity.

And this:

Poverty is following the minivans and manicured lawn groomers into American suburbia. Suburban poverty rose 25 percent between 2000 and 2008, according to a new Brookings report, as poor suburban populations grew five times faster than their urban counterparts.

And this:

The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls — Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley — are the most troubled, the suburban slums.

And summed up nicely here:

It doesn't take a futurist to look at the conditions on the ground -- long commutes, auto dependence, the expected steep rise in oil prices, environmental problems, the bursting of a massive financial bubble (resulting in millions of abandoned homes and ruined families and a wave of bankrupted suburban local governments) -- to realize that they suburbs are in deep trouble, and that trouble is just going to get worse.

But mark this: The above observations are all about economics and evolving cultural preferences—no bleeding heart enviro perspective required. It just so happens that the kind of urban environment more and more people are finding attractive is also good for the planet.

In recognition of this evolution, the very least policy makers can do is get out of the way and make sure regulations are not impeding the market from delivering what people want. That means, for example, allowing higher density where it makes sense, such as at the southeast Seattle light rail station areas, or eliminating parking requirements citywide.

Ideally, however, policy makers would respond responsibly to both the market demand and our environmental challenges by directing public investment toward infrastructure that is in line with obvious future trends. That means, for example, funding bike/ped infrastructure and transit, not highways. It's really not that complicated.
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