Sunday, February 10, 2008

Suburban Decay

The latest issue of the Atlantic has an article about what will most likely become America's next major crime-ridden slum: the suburb. It's not an entirely new theory, and if you look at the patterns and data, it makes sense.

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes in the United States by 2025. Foreclosure rates in 2005 and 2006 have been highest in suburban and exurban areas, with crime increasing in some of the harder-hit neighborhoods by 33 percent.

As more and more Americans, especially wealthy ones, start converging back upon the urban core that they all abandoned in the 1980's, property values are going to sink in suburban neighborhoods, along with tax revenue, which is highly dependent on house values and new development. 66% of suburban residents who live on the fringes of larger cities say they would prefer to live in the cities, and would give up extra space and cars to live in more crowded, dense, walkable neighborhoods, but just have no economic way of doing so. The more heating and gasoline costs go up, though, the more expensive the suburbs are going to be in the future. And with the loss of the wealthy tax base moving in the denser, urban areas, out will also go the good schools and safe communities.

One solution to this problem is the proliferation of what are called "lifestyle centers," or basically faux inner-city neighborhoods. We've all seen them: they combine retail, residential, office, and some open space, except they rise all at once and are fairly uniform. The biggest drawback with these, though, is that they must reach critical mass very quickly, and creating and filling a neighborhood out of thin air isn't easy.

There is definitely a trend in the United States towards more urban living, especially among the young, who yearn for good public transit and vibrant neighborhoods. So what will become of the sprawling 'burbs and giant McMansions that no one in the future will be able to afford anymore? Some will be bulldozed and probably turned back into public space, though, as the article states, this will be very few, as once a suburban infrastructure is built, it's very difficult to unbuild it. Most will be sold off to the lowest bidders and divided up into apartments to provide housing for lower-income residents and immigrants.

Those close to inner cities, though, and especially those along rail lines, will most likely be able to stop their population hemorraghing and survive. Those poorly served by public transport or on the undesirable parts of town, will suffer badly. The worst of it, though, will probbly be those on the far suburban fringes, with no public transport and no real core - basically, the country's most recently-developed areas.

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