Are the Suburbs Undergoing a Metamorphosis?
The Global Economic Crash of 2008 was a watershed which is continuing to have effects in all aspects of the economy, politics and society. However, it was merely an exclamation mark within the developing trends in the U.S. that are pertinent to suburbanization in the country, such as:
-The national economy will not bounce back to pre-2008 in the foreseeable future with continued slow growth
-Demographics have changed (Baby Boomers retiring, smaller family sizes, more single adults, more ethnic diversity etc.)
-The smaller labor force in manufacturing requiring unskilled labor
-A decline in the middle class’s purchasing power due to declining wages
-Increasing individuals in poverty
-Unemployment/under-employment of young adults and those ‘near-retirement” group (55-70)
-Increasing energy costs
-Changing view of what cities should offer and lifestyle (i.e., ’24/7″ city)
-Oversupply and over valuing of housing with tighter credit
In suburban/exurban surroundings, one can see these elements having effects on the suburban landscape:
-Large houses are standing vacant
-Subdivision of single owner housing being converted into duplexes or multifamily dwelling units
-Partially built-out subdivisions
-Denser development, even for upper incomes
-More rental properties instead of single family ownership
-“Mini slum” development
-Vacant or partially occupied shopping malls; 1950s-1980s era
-Neighborhoods composed largely of ’empty nesters’
There are many who are convinced that once the American economy fully recovers things will return to ‘normal’, with more housing construction in the suburbs and subsequent additional growth in commercial development. However, the trends belie this and are pointing in a different direction.
The unraveling of traditional suburbs is not a transition related to the economic downturn, but a permanent transition due to structural changes.
A significant amount of young adults, older empty-nesters (‘baby boomers’) and new immigrants are being drawn to the central city in urbanized areas. Many former industrial and dilapidated areas are being transformed into mixed used developments. Older neighborhoods are being gentrified.Former downtowns are now being filled with small shops, restaurants, cafés, and individual offices. Although this is not new, it appears to be a rapidly increasing trend that was once encouraged by the government, but now it is driven by a developing market.
The vision of the suburb that was fueled by the American Dream is gone forever. There is no longer single family households with one member, usually male, working and the wife as the homemaker. No more gleaming shopping centers catering to a growing consumer market, and a neighborhood full of children of all ages who walk to school and recreation.
The trend of urban sprawl appears to be coming to an end after more that fifty years of constant expansion.
Alan Ehrenhalt (2012, p. 15) stated in reference to the demographic changes in the U.S. (smaller families, more people sharing housing, later marriages, ‘empty nest’ households etc.) that:
…it is hard to escape the notion that we have managed to combine virtually all of the significant elements that make a demographic inversion not only possible but likely. We are moving toward a society in which millions of people with substantial earning power or ample savings will have the option of living wherever they want, and many—we call only guess how many—will decide in favor of central cities and against distant suburbs. As they do this, others will find themselves forced to live in places less desirable—places farther from the center of the metropolis. Statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau in October 2011 revealed that in the first decade of the new century, poverty increased by 53 percent in the nation’s suburbs, compared to only 26 percent in the cities.
Are suburbs dying? No, but they are transforming from endless tract developments, strip malls, enclosed malls and multi-lane arterials and expressways into something different. The catharsis of the above mention factors could be the cause of alarm among many segments of society that always thought that suburbs would continue on forever in the same manner.
Local governments can flounder around while worrying about reductions in funding, the stagnant local economy and accept the current situation as temporary, one that will resolve by itself ‘when the market picks-up.’ However, ‘smart cities’ can anticipate and facilitate the new form of urbanization by:
-Encouraging temporary or pop-up developments in suburbs (McAdams, 2013)
-Conversion of vacant strip commercial development and malls into mixed use developments
-Revision of zoning to allow for mixed use development and abandon Euclidean zoning (separate areas for commercial, residential and industrial uses)
-Revision of subdivision regulations to allow for zero lot lines, narrow streets, etc. for more walkable communities
-Development of alternative suburban public transportation modes for low density areas (i.e. subsidized shared-ride taxi, fixed route flexible services etc.) and providing high quality traditional public transportation
-Creation of high density transit oriented development
-Conversion of former urbanized areas to agricultural areas or allowance of small farms
-Regional and inter-suburban cooperation (McAdams, 2012)
-Consolidation and merger of suburbs and services
-More freedom in annexation for cities
-Allowance for affordable housing
-Creation of commercial/industrial centers
As center cities are gaining population, the suburbs will be forced to transition. It will be considered traumatic to some who have become mired in the past. However, this transition can bring renewed vitality to suburbs.
Cities and regions must come together and cooperatively develop plans.These are issues that involve everyone in a metropolitan area more than merely selecting problem areas such as an abandoned shopping center and aiding in its redevelopment. Regions as a whole must determine how all segments of society, including governments, can enhance economic development, education, infrastructure, and social-economic justice to transform suburbs and central cities with an overall goal of creating a dynamic sustainable environment.
Kaid Benfield. “How history killed the suburb.” The Atlantic, 25 April 2011. Web. 28 April 2013.
Duany, Andres, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. Suburban nation: The rise of sprawl and the decline of the American dream. North Point Press, 2001.
Dunham-Jones, Ellen. “Suburban Retrofits, Demographics, and Sustainability [Retrofitting Suburbia].” Places 17.2 (2005).Print/Web. 28 April 2013.
Ehrenhalt, Alan. The Great Inversion and the Future of the American City. Random House Digital, Inc., 2012.
Leinberger, Christopher B. “The Next Slum?” The Atlantic. 1 March 2008. Web. 28 April 2013.
Leinberger, Christopher B. “The Death of the Fringe Suburb.” The New York Times. 26 Nov. 2011. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
Linn, Allison. “Sprawling and Struggling: Poverty Hits America’s Suburbs.” CNBC. 22 Mar 2013. Web. 28 April 2013.
McGirr, Lisa. “The new suburban poverty.” The New York Times. 19 March 2012. Web. 28 April 2013.
McAdams, Michael. “The Pop-up City: Making Something Out of Nothing.” The Progressive Press. 20
April 2013. Web. 1 May 2013.
McAdams, Michael . “Revitalizing the Suburbs through Cooperation: The Michigan Suburban Alliance Shows the Way.” The Chaotic, Fractal and Complex City. 16 September 2012. Web. 1 May 2013.
Smith, Carissa Turner. “D. J. Waldie’s Holy Land: Redeeming The Spiritual Geography Of Suburbia.” Renascence 63.4 (2011): 307-324.
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