Tuesday, February 26

Suburban slums?

Christopher Leinberger brings an interesting question some national attention in this month's Atlantic Monthly (I almost wish I hadn't let my subscription lapse this year). What will happen to the swathes of suburban housing in this country if the United States does, in fact, transition toward a more sustainable urban living arrangement?

He sees some indication of an answer already unfolding in the current subprime mortgage crises.

"Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading."

Really, this is the "tip of the iceberg" of a larger demographic and geographical shift.

"For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay."

If this forecast has any merit, and Leinberger provides some hard statistics to suggest it does, then it seems to me that there are a number of major planning challenges ahead.

1) A reversed "white flight" could have more serious consequences than the original one. As Leinberger mentions, the older tenement housing of inner-cities was studier and more suitable for apartment conversion, while the newer suburban developments carry high maintenance costs. Also, the poorer people moving into the suburbs would be saddled with an additional energy and transportation burden, not to mention the further corrosion of social cohesion which could accompany a lower-density lifestyle. Could there be a way to get out in front of the transition this time, and ensure a more economically diverse situation?

2) Current patterns of development on the suburban fringe have been fairly non-contentious for developers. However, if infill becomes the new frontier of growth there will have to be a careful public process in place to ensure that the various interests of people living in closer proximity are met.

3) How will the suburbs be transformed? Leinberger suggests that some will remain as wealthy enclaves, but he doubts that any large-scale redevelopment will happen with ones that fall into decay. The patchwork of private ownership will make this difficult. Or will it? In some of the areas hardest hit by economic downturns, we already see cities buying up abandoned houses and sometimes even demolishing them, in hopes of returning the land back to the private market. Flint, Michigan has been leading the way on this. Who knows what the land will become in the future?


Seth said...

I agree that low income suburbs and exurbs will be much worse than the traditional urban slum. There are many well documented cases that already exist in LA especially.

J.W. said...

Bob Lupton has often referenced this shift in his various articles. He notes that American cities are now beginning to look more like the rest of the world, with wealth highly concentrated in the center of the city and poverty diffused in its extremities. But because of the peculiar way in which American cities have developed over the past sixty years or so, the effects of poverty are more severe and have the potential to lead to greater dynamics of exclusivity. Suburbs are already soul-deadening places, and as Jonathan Keller has noted on his blog, lead to higher incidences of depression and mental illness. When the money leaks out of the suburbs, how much more difficult will suburban existence be? We need to recognize this now, begin razing these older suburbs, and building human habitats that are actually livable.

A further question: Tim Keller, Mark Gornik, etc., have been calling Christians to move to cities for awhile now, and they have been pretty successful in encouraging evangelicals to do so. But it seems to me that they have not really reckoned with this demographic shift, of poverty being pushed out to the margins of the city. Should Christians begin moving back out to the suburbs to be in solidarity with the poor (That is, until these neighborhoods are recognized as so unliveable that they are bulldozed, like many of the older urban projects), especially in midwestern/southern cities that almost entirely consist of suburban sprawl?

Daniel Nairn said...

"Should Christians begin moving back out to the suburbs to be in solidarity with the poor?"

That really is an interesting question, but it may still be several years down the road, in my opinion. It seems to me that the immediate response would be to try to ensure that the next kind of geographic polarization is less extreme. Maybe tools like inclusionary zoning could allow for some kind of economic diversity in cities. Also, suburbs could be reshaped into transit-based communities that offer a good quality of life.

I do think there will have to be some difficult transitions to make, and hopefully Christians will be willing to take some of the sacrifices upon ourselves.

wild chicken said...

OT, but it's ironic that govt and developers did a pretty good job of breaking up ethnic Catholic communities in the cities with urban renewal. There were many people happy to stay downtown who were unceremoniously kicked out and forced into projects, which were later torn down. Just one more reason for Christians to stay away in droves IMO.

Daniel Nairn said...

Yeah. Urban renewal was a disaster on so many different fronts. Hopefully planners have been more than a little chastened by that experiment. Looking back, the thought that government could rearrange and house entire communities as if they were financial investments is pretty absurd.

But I don't know if this failure has anything to do specifically with compact urban cores. Bad government could happen anywhere. It could have happened just as easily in the suburbs.