For Release Friday, February 18, 2011
CHARLOTTE — Last year the global population crested a major ridge. More than half the world’s people now live in urban areas. This is being called the Century of the City — title of a book by my Citistates Associates.
But in the United States, the 21st century may also be the Century of the Suburb — or more accurately, the retrofitted, re-imagined and re-invented suburb.
Sun Belt cities, in particular, are facing a huge, and hugely important, challenge. Places like Phoenix, Atlanta, Orlando and Charlotte saw rapid growth during a time when low-density, suburban development was admired, even required.
Today, whether and how those cities meet the challenge the 21st century will require may well determine whether they struggle or thrive.
First, let’s be clear what I mean by “suburbia.” It can be a fuzzy term. Some use it for any growth at the edge of a city or metro area. Some use it to mean only separate municipalities outside a city, regardless of vintage or form. I’m using it to mean development with a specific pattern, typically built after 1945: single-use zones (stores separated from offices and housing, single-family houses apart from apartments); lots a quarter-acre or more; car dependent.
Millions of people aspire to live in suburbia and when they do, they say they love it Indeed, the U.S. real estate industry has sold Americans on the idea that a house with a lawn in the ‘burbs is the “American Dream.”
Nevertheless, in the coming decades suburbia will pose a growing problem, due to a number of converging factors. Among them are:
Demographics. Several population trends are going to work to favor urban-style, multifamily development. Gen Y-ers (aka the Millennials) have a clear preference, at least at this stage in their lives, for urban living. Meantime, aging Baby Boomers will be selling the family house and moving to condos or apartments. And as age, illness and infirmity start to take their toll, many boomers will have to give up driving. They’re going to want walkable neighborhoods.
As a result of the foreclosure crisis, the single-family home market will be sluggish for years. The nation is already overbuilt on large-lot suburbia and underbuilt in cities. Among many real estate experts who are noticing the dearth of investor interest in exurban development, the Urban Land Institute’s “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2011″ (drafted by our colleague Jonathan Miller) has this advice to investors: “Avoid commodity, half-finished subdivisions in the suburban outer edge and McMansions; they are so yesterday.”
Fuel prices. Remember when $4-a-gallon gas walloped the economy in 2008? Now gas prices have topped $3 again. They’re likely to keep rising in coming years. Already, transportation is the No. 2 cost for average U.S. households. With pay and jobs sinking, more people are likely to want to live where they can drive less.
Carbon footprint. It turns out city dwellers have a much smaller carbon footprint than folks living amid green lawns with shady oak trees in the front yard. If we’re to avoid creating even more destructive changes in the world’s climate (more droughts, floods, blizzards or heat waves) for our children and grandchildren to live with, more of us will need to live in tight-knit, walkable cities.
Suburbs on the brink. Although some first-ring suburbs are thriving, others aren’t. Many suburban neighborhoods are seeing rising poverty and crime, dead or dying shopping malls and derelict strip centers and big-box stores. Can we just abandon them to blight?
Saturday, I moderated a Raleigh conference, sponsored by the N.C. State College of Design, examining the problem of, and opportunities for, inner-ring suburbs — generally built 1950-1980. The consensus: Cities and metro areas must encourage compact development, not just in their core but in suburban areas. And they need mass transit.
Former Indianapolis Mayor William Hudnut, author of Halfway to Everywhere: A Portrait of America’s First Tier Suburbs, said first-tier suburbs are “the place where blight can either be stopped or spread farther out.”
But how do you stop the blight? A prescription from Georgia Tech architect Ellen Dunham-Jones, co-author of Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs, is to re-inhabit, retrofit and re-green. Reclaim “underperforming asphalt” — surface parking lots that can hold new buildings with stores on the ground floor, offices and housing above.
Building transit is expensive. But Patrick Condon of the University of British Columbia pointed out that, when looked at based on 30-year amortization, streetcars cost less than buses. He urges cities to reconsider expensive light rail systems and to divert some of that money to less expensive streetcars. He showed slides of old streetcar rails popping out of the pavement, “wanting so much to be used.”
Do we really want to force our children to inherit vast, blighted ‘burbs? After all, as Marvin Malecha, dean of the NCSU College of Design, put it, the American Dream is not really to own a house, lawn and picket fence. “The real American Dream,” he said, “is that our children will be OK.”
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