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Twin Cities’ exurban housing boom stalls — perhaps for good

Suburb
REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Demographic shifts suggest a steep decline in growth of exurban communities.

For the last three decades, the exurban counties on the fringe of the Twin Cities metropolitan area have been among the fastest growing counties in Minnesota.

However, thanks to rising gasoline prices as well as changing demographics and housing preferences, that exurban population boom has slowed dramatically. The latest population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that people no longer are rushing to fringe communities for large lots and spacious homes.

In 2011, the growth rate in Hennepin and Ramsey counties actually exceeded the rate in the six exurban counties of Carver, Chisago, Isanti, Scott, Sherburne and Wright, according to an analysis by Susan Brower, Minnesota’s new state demographer.

The slowdown in exurban growth is part of a national pattern reported by the Census Bureau. Nationwide, exurban population increased just 0.4 percent between 2010 and 2011, just half the 0.8 percent growth rate for cities and their surrounding urban areas.

“The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,” Yale University economist Robert Shiller told the Associated Press. Shiller is the co-creator of Standard & Poor’s housing index.

William Frey, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, analyzed population trends in the nation’s 100 largest metro areas over the last three decades and found “exurban and outer suburban counties experienced a population boom and bust in the 2000s.”

“Aggregate population growth in counties near the metropolitan fringe peaked in 2005-2006, and declined more than half by 2009-2010,” Frey said. “By contrast, growth rates in cities and dense inner suburbs rose in the latter half of the decade.”

National slowdown

Brower said Minnesota is seeing the same slowdown in exurban growth that the Census Bureau and others have identified nationally.

Between 2000 and 2006, population in Minnesota’s six exurban counties grew by more than 103,000, or 25.5 percent.  In four of those six years, the annual increase was 4 percent or more.

However, the exurban growth rate has declined dramatically since 2007 – plummeting to 1.1 percent in 2011. That was slightly below the 1.2 percent growth rate for the urban counties of Hennepin and Ramsey.

Brower said the likely reasons for the slowdown include:

  • The lingering effects of the Great Recession and the overall decline in population growth.
  • Rising gasoline prices and the increased reluctance of people to make long commutes.
  • The aging of the population and the desire of empty nesters to live closer to services and amenities.
  • The preference among young people to live in walkable urban neighborhoods served by transit.

“It’s probably all of those things,” she said.

Brower said the demand for smaller homes closer to the urban core is likely to increase in the course of the decade. Between 2010 and 2020, she projects the largest increases in households will be married couples ages 55 or older without children and single people ages 55 and older.

Minnesota household growth, 2010–2020

projected population growrthSource: Minnesota State Demographic Center

Baby Boomers surveyed

In 2010, the Minnesota Department of Human Services – in collaboration with several other agencies – surveyed more than 3,800 members of the Baby Boomer generation to better understand their needs as they begin to turn 65.

The survey found:

  • Nearly one-third were expecting to move from their current home in the next decade.
  • Most respondents wanted to move due to home characteristics (41 percent), mainly because they desire a smaller home (14 percent), less home maintenance (8 percent) or want the option of living on one level (3 percent).
  • Nearly half of respondents (44 percent) wanted to move closer to services and amenities, while a slightly smaller portion of respondents (38 percent) wanted to move closer to friends and family.
  • 42 percent expected to live in a single-family home when they moved, while 28 percent were considering a condominium or townhome, 10 percent were considering an apartment and the rest were unsure.

Writing last fall in the New York Times, urban planning expert Christopher Leinberger cited the market preferences of Baby Boomers and Millennials in predicting that the demand for housing in the exurbs is not coming back.

“Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered.”

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Comments (46)

Future Bulldozer Food

One of the real gifts of sprawl that hasn't quite got going is the high probability that most of the outer tier housing stock will fail before the loans are paid. Many of these houses are built very poorly and will catastrophically fail into unrepairable mold ridden piles of OSB and vinyl before too long. There are entire subdivisions where the Builders were allowed to install vinyl siding with out any secondary rain barrier (house wrap, 15 lb felt, etc).

Exactly...

Cities revive themselves because the land, due to density, is desirable. And most city housing was built more robustly, or has been maintained because the land is desirable. Cities will continue to reinvent themselves, but our experiment with exurbia will end in a messy disaster of ghost subdivisions.

The exurban pop-up houses will not last

Remember when that tornado hit Hugo a few years ago and ripped roofs off of newly built houses? Some of those houses had 1 in 10 roofing nails actually hit a stud. But with nail guns, who can tell if you hit your stud? It seems our disposable culture applies to 2x4 and sheetrock McMansions.

And really it was our throw-away mindset that built those exurban developments in the first place. In the 1950's those who could afford to moved to newly subdivided farm fields in the inner ring suburbs, and they took their money and political clout with them. As the city decayed and the problems followed them to Brooklyn Center and New Hope, we moved even further out. It has been so much cheaper to develop ever-farther-flung greenfields than redevelop blighted areas we have become a hollowed-out metro. It took less than 50 years to chew through through the newly developed inner-ring suburbs and leave them to rust and decay. How long will it take to use and throw away the auto-dependent and cheaply built exurbs?

However, it's great to see public and private investment return to the core of the city.

Toles Nailed It

No discussion of urban sprawl is complete without acknowledging the racial aspects of it. Tom Toles illustrated this beautifully with one cartoon.

http://www.cyburbia.org/gallery/showphoto.php/photo/10405/title/tom-tole...

Home Building Drove Population Growth

I think it is a mistake to think that population growth drove housing starts in the exurbs. Instead it was housing that drove population growth.

During the housing bubble developers could build large sub-divisions on cheap greenfields at the urban fringe with relatively low property taxes. They could make a profit while selling them at a lower price than a similar existing home in established suburbs. That was particularly true when the higher property taxes associated with urban services were factored in.

Since new housing fueled the growth, its not surprising that it all but ended when the housing market collapsed and new housing starts on that industrial scale all but ended. What made those homes desirable was never their location, it was their price. And that advantage for new homes has all but disappeared and the exurbs can't grow without new houses being built.

I doubt the exurbs were ever competing with the urban housing market. They were competing with the established outer-ring suburbs. While the factors sited will have an influence on the overall housing market, they aren't really big distinctions when comparing outer-ring suburbs and exurbs. The big issue for the exurbs is that, as locations, they were never really very competitive.

And exurban homes were built without regard to community

if anything good comes out of this crisis, I hope it is a greater sense that where you live matters; that we aren't just interchangeable parts, and that living in a place with a sense of community (perhaps "amenities" is a code word for that in the article) is of enormous value.

I have to wonder how many people bought houses way out in the exurbs and then found themselves lonely and isolated, in communities that barely exist except for a few chain stores and a school (and the school no longer helps when the kids move out). In some cases, these people even drive long distances to attend slick megachurches that aren't associated as closely with a specific neighborhood and don't develop a sense of any local community. It's as if the exurb itself is just a place to put stuff, rather than a place to live.

Perhaps Americans have tried living an entirely Big Box lifestyle and found it wanting.

Low up front cost

For a while, you could get a printer for next to nothing. Of course, new printer owners soon found out that the cost of ink more than made up for the price of the printer. The same goes for these homes--the cost of initial ownership was made up for by increased cost in time and money to get to and from work. Even worse, the low property taxes didn't stay low. Unlike the printers, though, replacement isn't so simple as doling out a few "extra" hundred dollars or going to Kinko's.

As an aside (maybe), looking at the photo in the article, it reminded me of what happened this weekend to me. I drove to Menard's in my very average, extremely common, Dodge Intrepid. Upon exiting Menard's, I couldn't get into my car--the remote didn't seem to be working. To add insult to injury, someone had keyed something into the top of my trunk while I was shopping. As my fury rose, I glanced up, and saw MY car parked across from the car I'd been trying to get into. I'm sure that accidentally trying to get into someone else's house might not be as funny.

Castle Doctrine!

You might even get shot if you accidentally tried to get into someone else's house...

Tending the urban garden

Good piece, Steve. I hope the title for the article turns out to be prescient. I like the first three comments, as well. Smaller housing on smaller lots, or even multi-family housing, will be a lot better for both the environment and the bank account of the decreasing number of people who can be genuinely considered “middle class.” My house, built in 1955, remains solid as a rock, and can probably last another half-century (I won’t be around that long). Not many homes I’ve seen built in the past couple of decades will be good for much more than a single generation before massive rehabilitation will be necessary, and they’re far larger than any but the most fertile family is likely to need.

James Howard Kunstler has been saying essentially this same thing for quite a few years now (“The Geography of Nowhere,” and other titles). The only fly I see in the ointment of a return to urban, or at least suburban, living, is that, even in urban environments, planning is sometimes an afterthought – or not thought about at all. As Boomers give up McMansions and return to closer suburbs and the cities, it behooves the powers-that-be in both the Twin Cities and their larger suburbs to do what’s necessary to make sure that neighborhoods in their political subdivisions actually HAVE those amenities that are supposed to come with more urban lifestyles: convenient, walkable neighborhoods with good access to transit and services.

My current neighborhood in far northwest Minneapolis has plenty of sidewalks, so I can’t say that it’s not walkable, but aside from parks (not a trivial concern in themselves), there’s no place to go, at least within the neighborhood. There’s only one commercial lot, and no retail at all in the neighborhood, so fulfilling virtually any need requires either a car or a bus ride. All my previous residences were in suburbs that were more convenient and walkable, and had better access to transit, than my current first experience at actually living “in” a city. I suspect that, when the neighborhood was being built, there was either no planning at all beyond whatever the developer wanted to do, or city planning staff basically was trying to “compete” with the suburbs going up in the mid-1950s, so strove to impose single-category, Euclidian zoning on the whole area.

My Experience as Well

Ray, your experience with your house mirrors mine. I have a house built in 1904 and everything original in it is rock-solid. When we had the roof re-done the contractor even said he'd keep the existing 110-year-old decking as the quality of the wood was much better than any new stuff they'd put on today.

Everything in the house that's been "remodeled" is falling apart. I'm glad I took the time to find a house with the minimal amount of such "improvements."

Those neighborhoods up near Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center are relatively new for the city. I'm not surprised they were developed with a 1950's suburban mindset . I don't think the streetcars ever reached that far north so they wouldn't have the same small-business/residential node model used in much of the rest of the city. Form follows function and bedroom communities were all the rage then.

Here's a 1946 Mpls streetcar map

I don't know where Ray lives, but David's observation on streetcar development (or lack thereof) seems on target. Here's a page where you can find a 1946 Mpls streetcar map:

http://www.trolleyride.org/History/index.html

Keep in mind that streetcar service ended in 1954, so this pretty much represents the maximum extent of the system. It's pretty clear that the south side and areas closer to downtown had much more coverage than the far north side.

Amenities and the elderly

As a boomer with two retired parents who have lived in Florida for over thirty years now, all I can say about walkable amenities and the elderly is that old folks down there still drive a lot. So I don't think aging is going to get us out of our cars all by itself.

Great article Steve, but this stat has to be a typo

"Nationwide, exurban population increased just 0.4 percent between 2001 and 2011"

Did you mean to say, "between 2010 & 2011"?

I'd guess that the 2010 census was taken at the time when the exurban population was right about peak. Even as the exurban population declines relative to urban populations, the exurbs will have increased political clout for the next decade.

Higher energy prices = higher density living arrangements

Just wait until gas hits $5, $6, $7 or $8 per gallon permanently in 5-10 years from now - then we'll have to question suburban developments like Eagan, or Blaine, or even Bloomington. Exurban developments are finished, period.

As James Howard Kunstler said, "suburban sprawl is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." The irony about the suburbs in my opinion is that technically there is nothing conservative or traditional about the living arrangement of far-flung suburbs. The idea of separating retail-only and residential-only land use is a RADICAL idea in the history of mankind.

What is traditional on the other hand, are the examples of cities and towns like Duluth, Stillwater, Ely, or even Minneapolis where there is a clear and obvious main street that came about naturally. Places where people can walk 1/4 or 1/2 mile to meet basic needs like buying eggs, milk, clothing, etc...

One year is not a trend

While I think that gas prices and the great recession have both had an impact on settlement patterns favoring cities, it's too soon to declare the death of the suburb/exurb given how people are even now responding to higher gas prices by choosing vehicles with better gas mileage. I'm also not sure the Twin Cities can accommodate further urban growth in the short term given the resistance to the sort of high density housing that you see in truly urbanized areas like Chicago. I think what you'll see is more Woodbury-like growth at the urban edge.

Good thing there is no job to

Good thing there is no job to drive to. That commute can wear on you.

housing in exurbia

Another major loss in building these houses in exurbia is the architectural landscape. Row after row after row of look-alike buildings, all painted the same color. It is depressing and desolate--and who can find the house (except the owner, and maybe not then). Nothing from the outside distinguishes it at all from anyone else's place. The builders must have decided painting each building was too costly. And the streets are confusing, waggling in and out and with similar names: Johnson Drive, Johnson Court, Johnson Street (no imagination there, either) High end or low end housing, ir doesn't matter. A relative moved to an exurbian McMansion on a large plot of land. Their kids are gone and they have this huge house way out although all their activities and jobs are in the Twin Cities. And it's just a bad copy of an old English Tudor architecture.
From an architect friend: I think the 1950 period and early '60 period are a real dark ages of aesthetics. It was a period when our value systems did not recognize any value other than the present day."
I'll put this era up against the 1950s-60s bungalow any day. These places are blights on our landscape. We need to pay more attention to good architecture--which can also be long-term low-maintenance as well.

Architecture

I think you miss a little bit of the historic context. Ever since about the turn of the 20th century we've been building "row after row after row of look-alike buildings." Now, they might have varying colors but the architectural style is similar if not identical. I can count 4-5 houses on my block in Uptown that look exactly alike. My house is an exact duplicate of one two lots to the north.

Why do we do this? Because advances in machining and standardization made it cheaper to do so. That didn't just come about a decade ago.

> And it's just a bad copy of an old English Tudor architecture.

Drive down Portland Ave. south of about 42nd or so. After the tornado damage from a few years ago and resulting lack of mature trees it looks suspiciously like a suburban subdivision. Because that's in fact exactly what it was at the time. Most of those houses are Tudor bungalows.

look-alike houses

I am aware of the houses that look very similar in a neighborhood. So does my neighborhood, in St. Paul's Summit-U area. (I don't live in the elegant part of S-U.) These houses, many of the Craftsman style-- were built in the early 1900s--1910, 1913 or so--and it's clear many of them were built from the same pattern (in fact, my own house, built in 1983, is one of 5 almost identical houses located in this area) .I have a dog who needs a lot of walking, and while she's busy smelling stuff and eating grass, I have time to study the homes. I find it fascinating that for example, there will be 4-5 houses on a block, all apparently using the same basic pattern but with distinguishing colors and decorative aspects like porch spindles or reversed plans so that 2 windows are on the left and one on the right, and the next house is the same--but vice versa. Then of course there is the famous Levittown.
But the houses in my neighborhood bear no resemblance do those depressing rows of barracks. Even the houses like my own have distinct differences (they are not in a row).
Of course it was cheaper for companies to sell look-alike houses. Sears and other companies sold make-it-yourself houses; you could buy plans (and timber and whatever was needed) to build Craftsman style houses. But rest assured, if a whole block of neighbors decided to build their own Sears house in the same style, they would look different. And when a big builder builds a whole neighborhood, they are similar but you can tell them apart.
As for historical context, I am a historian studying among other things in my neighborhood the architecture and styles.

Architecture

Ginny,

I certainly agree with you that older houses have more curb appeal than cheaply-built exurban housing stock we see today. My point is that we have been building stock houses for a very long time. There's something _else_ about the current suburban architecture that is unappealing.

For me, it is the complete lack of human scale. These houses are as big as a fairly sized traditional store used to be. They are certainly larger than many of the multi-unit apartment buildings in our neighborhood.

I am also very interested in historic houses, owning one myself and currently working on a new paint scheme. I hope to have the exterior renovated by the end of summer! I'd love to know of any resources you can point me to to help with color selection.

Dear Ms. Martin,

I very much share your sentiment. In the southwest suburbs, especially Eden Prairie, I have been amused by city council members and planning commissioners who have obsessed during public hearing phases on most of our large subdivisions about the look of a development's new houses, paint color, architectural style and street names. They have been enablers of kitsch. They have cooed like love birds when a developer agrees to name a subdivision's cul-de-sacs and after a retired farmer (as if history didn't precede the arrival of the European pioneers) of after native Minnesota flora and fauna which were forced out by the surveyor stakes and zoning laws. For the most part, Eden Prairie has done well by Mom Nature, but our street names could also serve as a necrology of what lived here before the prairie was plowed and the woodlands were carved up.

There's a comedy routine about that

Some comedian, I forget who, used that as a bit -- that subdivisions were inevitably named after whatever was bulldozed to make way for the houses. If the subdivision is called "Shady Knoll," you can bet they razed a forest and flattened a hill to build it.

Location and Price

In 2002, we moved from South Minneapolis to Hudson--from a three-level townhouse to a one-story townhouse. We've said many times that if we could have found a similar one-story townhouse in Minneapolis for about the same price we paid for the place in Hudson, we never would have left the city. Hudson has its charms, but we think often about what we lost by moving.

And yet we still approved the mega-bridge...

Can't help but snicker when I read this article. To think we just approved a mega 4 lane bridge to nowhere in Wisconsin to replace the lift bridge and help out all those exurban Wisconsin commuters.

why cities

Cities are where civilizations were born. It was in cities that traffic--roads, boats, travois--converged and trade began. Cities showed people in these communities how other people lived and gave some insight into their culture. It is in cities where people converge that most innovation and ideas surface through interacting with other people. It is in cities that people started to understand other ideas. For example, in the universities, most knowledge isn't the result of a single scholar sitting down and putting out a thesis (in the general sense of the word) and letting it bump up against other peoples' ideas.
I love the city because there is so much to do, so many educational opportunities, arts opportunities, chance to meet all kinds of different people and see how they live and contemplate and maybe even adopt their ideas.
-

This was an interesting story

This was an interesting story of boom and bust, but the ending was very predictable.
I wonder how "Freedom Plus Mortgage" is doing these days?

Correction

In response to astute reader Daniel Olson above, yes that is a typo. Nationwide, exurban population increased just 0.4 percent in the last year -- between 2010 and 2011. Very sorry about the error.

Core cities

If all this is true, and boomers will experience an exodus to the core cities, why are the populations of Minneapolis and Saint Paul stagnant? Neither of them grew at all from 2000 to 2010. Saint Paul and Ramsey County both lost population, a fact not included in this article. (As a resident of Ramsey County, I take that as a very bad sign.)

Now, I would like to see a breakdown of the population trends year-by-year, because obviously a lot of weird things happened in the last few years of that decade. But I doubt it would change the facts much.

You have to look at population changes by neighborhood

From the 2000 to the 2010 census Minneapolis population was essentially flat, I think we gained about 80 people. But the data on a neighborhood-by-neighborhood basis tells a different story. Every central neighborhood made big gains and the losses were concentrated in the Northside as many families moved to the inner suburbs.

As we speak, there are over 8,000 apartment units proposed or under construction in the twin cities. The vast majority are luxury apartments in the heart of the city. While many of the proposals will not be developed, I think the 2020 census will show big population gains for Minneapolis – finally reversing 50+ years of population losses.

The continued rise in oil prices will solidify these trends. If you think we’re ever going to get back to $2.50/gallon, I have a townhouse in Albertville to sell you…

Steve Berg explained it best:

http://www.minnpost.com/cityscape/2011/04/minneapolis-census-data-uncove...

Huh?

The article indicates that not only did the population of Ramsey County grow, it has been growing faster than that of the exurban counties. So how can it be shrinking?

Meanwhile in Minnetrista

the City Council approved a 1.071 unit mega-development on Lake Minnetonka over the next ten years, as Brian Lambert reports. In my east Washington County, I see activities on farm fields that look an awful lot like pre-development with heavy equipment. I agree with Steve's article. It makes little sense. But then the commercial real estate market has never made sense to me either. How can you reconcile a massive glut of office space with the rental prices that have been stable for a long time? Real estate has never really been about "free markets" where the price is fixed by supply and demand. It's driven as in most of the rest of our economy by hidden government policies and subsidies. Until that is fixed, or at least fixed so that urban sprawl is not subsidized and promoted as it is, it's not going to stop.

Ah you "anti sprawlers" and urbanites need to get out more.

Just exactly where would have put all of the people in the metro area over the last 20 years? The population grew by 25% in the original 7 counties. Since 2000 300,000 people and almost 100,000 house holds have been added to the area. That is occupied housing units. It would have been pretty cozy in Minneapolis and St. Paul I think.

http://stats.metc.state.mn.us/stats/pdf/Population2010.pdf

Only 30% of the metro land is developed: http://stats.metc.state.mn.us/stats/pdf/MetroStats_LandUse2010.pdf

Let's talk about the desirability of the urban core where schools are poorer or unaffordable , taxes are high, and crime is prevalent. Just the place you want to raise your family and grow old. I am not exactly sure who is moving into cities of the boomers - I guess the ones that like to do urban things. But sense of security is more important for older people and the urban area doesn't have a lot of attractions. Services like hospitals and retirement homes and assisted living have been moving out to other cities like Cambridge, Mora, Onamia, Forest Lake.

Cities are good for making a living not necessarily living.

As a boomer, and a suppose "anti-sprawler"

I moved to Longfellow from Minnetonka almost 10 years ago, and can't say that I see any truth in your last paragraph. Patrick Henry High School has received many honors; my taxes were the same when I moved and remain equivalent, the only "rampant crime" I've seen was a spate of pumpkin smashing 3 years ago . . . we'd had a spate of that in Minnetonka, too, as I recall. I feel very secure, enjoy being able to walk my dogs early in the morning and at dusk on lighted sidewalks, having a yard I can mow myself and a sidewalk and driveway I don't have to pay someone to plow. We have National Night Outs every year which I NEVER saw in an actual neighborhood when I was in the burbs -- always some community center or such so far as I could tell, and are within walking distance of a neighborhood pub, a number of good restaurants, a post office, a library, beauty parlors and grocery stores.

I find my city very good for living.

Problem is with density

or more precisely, the lack of it. Outer ring suburbs have average densities of 2-3 living units peracre compared with 7 to 8 for the urban areas. They are unwalkable, meaning you have to own at least one car and have virtually no public transportation alternatives. A city like Woodbury, designed by the Boonestroo Engineering firm, for example in 1978, at the height of one of the 1970's energy crises, assumed 85% of all trips in the city would be by private auto. I'd be surprised if it was that low today. And we wonder why there's climate change and we're using tar sands to produce fuel.

Inaccruate

Wow Jody, your last paragraph really gives the impression you haven't lived in a city for a while. I _love_ my urban neighborhood. Not only is it safe, it's convenient and walkable, meaning I get out to enjoy the outdoor more. My wife and I are really looking forward to raising our kids here, assuming we are fortunate enough to be blessed with them.

I don't feel the taxes are particularly high for the high-quality services we receive. The schools are here are rated very highly and there are multiple charters to pick from if you want a somewhat more specialized education for your kids.

As for attractions, I think two major bike freeways, three major lakes, a plethora of local and national restaurants, one great library in walking distance and another a short bus ride away (with the largest collection in the state), theaters, excellent transit service, friendly neighbors, opportunities for community interaction, a good elementary school a block and half away, a YWCA within walking distance, a nationally recognized regional park accessible by bike and a national park I can bike to are pretty darn compelling.

taking issue with a couple of comments...

While I've not lived in an exurban development, I did live in a similar tract-style development in a second ring suburb for about ten years before moving closer to work, and I have friends who do live in exurban developments. I now live in an older suburb, and previously lived in the city. There are a number of things here I'd disagree with.

One is the notion that there is a lack of community in these types of tract developments. On the contrary, I'd say there is FAR more community than in most urban and older suburban neighborhoods. People in these types of tract developments in many cases have a lot in common. They tend to be younger couples and families for the most part, with similar interests who socialize together, get together for drinks, dinner, bonfires, etc. You don't see this nearly as much in older suburbs or in the city where people are of widely different ages or may be more set in their ways. Everyone I know in these types of settings fits this description, and to be honest, it's one of the few things I miss about that neighborhood. I know very few people in the city or older suburbs who socialize, or even speak with, most of their neighbors.

The second was the poster who said that somehow suburbs like Bloomington or Eagan will end up in the same boat as Albertvillor or Otsego due to gas prices? Not likely when you consider the large number of offices and workers in these cities. With commercial rents in the urban core what they are, these businesses aren't moving back.

Chris has hit the nail on the head

People tend to socialize with people that are like them in some respect. That can be broadly or narrowly defined. There are wonderful neighborhoods in each of the big cities but they are neighborhood not the whole city.

Clearly Ms. Jones likes to do urban things and doesn't delve too deeply into data, and Mr. Kingstad thinks buses somehow morally and environmentally superior to cars (I would actually think a benefit cost analysis would be interesting, particularly compared to other mass transit options). I think the narrow definition of transit as buses has done a great deal of disservice to the metro region. I gladly ride transit in other cities but you couldn't pay me to ride a bus.

Many people's interests don't run toward urban activities. For those that do perhaps Stillwater, White Bear Lake, Mora, Hastings, Lakeville or Elk River are enough.

This annoyingly smug superiority of the urban lifestyle and the apostatizing that everyone would be better off if we all embraced it clearly is one of my hot button issues. This leads to odd trends like "being green", well that's good because cities have a lot of "not green" to make up for.

Are cars morally or environmentally superior to buses?

or other public transportation? It feels funny being called smug about public transit because it's usually those who think only automobiles and trucks should be subsidized who project smugness in my experience. Public transit is for icky poor people. That's why we have so few alternative today.

My point is that we should have known better in 1978 than to literally engineer plan and design a sprawling suburban area around the assumption of never ending auto driving and supply of fossil fuels. I own and drive a car because this society gives me no practical alternative. Auto ownership and dependence for transportation is a necessity when it shouldn't have to be. Sorry if I come off sounding smug or if that offends you. I'm offended by the assumption that is paramount in our country that we all must want to live a suburban "lifestyle" and therefore we all have to even when we don't live there and don't want to.

Buses

Jody, why won't you ride a bus? I'm really curious. I very much enjoy my daily bus ride to work. I get to read or work on hobbies during the time I would otherwise be stuck in traffic.

I think I know what you mean by "smugness" of transit promoters but in my experience it's mostly miscommunication. Transit riders _have_to_ be vocal about our needs and the benefits we receive because we are under constant threat of having our essential services cut. I can't tell you how many times I've had to explain to people that the state gas tax does not go to transit and that roads are subsidized just as heavily as transit. We're trying to inject reality into the conversation so we can build our communities for the future. I'm not opposed to cars. Heck, I bought a Focus SVT (enthusiast car) because I love to drive. My wife will tell you I often take out-of-the-way detours to go visit some part of the region I haven't seen yet.

But I think it _is_ accurate to say that buses and mass transit more generally are more environmentally friendly than the single-occupant vehicle. I don't think anyone can disagree. Not everyone can use transit regularly but I believe a lot more people could use it than think they can.

Just as I think that more people could live more densely than currently think they can and still have a similar domestic experience.

We _must_ increase density in the region. It is the only way we are going to compete and survive in an era of expensive oil and aging population. It's not smug to say that. It's honest.

Don't forget the Alley...

Can't dwell on the past but...anybody old enough to remember 'the alley' as community center of sorts?

Kids played in the alley...organized sports were left to the later teen years and planned programs did not demand soccer moms spinning in circles getting all four children to mixed athletic events. (Not a realistic comment and yes, planned programs for kids are fine; just grumbling unrealistically okay?)

Garbage cans stayed off the front boulevard. Stuck in the alley. Now; giant open mouthed receptacles looking like Gothic monsters spilling their consumer overloads to the public speeding by; a form of affluence defined in the process; or just plain gross over consumption?.

I would promote the alley as a key ingredient if old suburbs die and new towns develop to supplement that loss...pocket development; self sufficient with few cars and more mass transit; the village environment revisited? Out of the phoenix of the burbs, the small town rises again...but they aren't perfect either, hey, so where to go next?

Whatever happened to Jonathon? Seems planned communities fail once they leave planners drawing boards...and in the blue smoke of a designer's dream-scape, what rises is too pure design to accommodate the human footprint in all its diversity?

So much for indecisive no-where-to-go next...underground cities? With the rise of earthquakes and tornadoes I wouldn't to live there, no way, but...

we keep destroying our spaces and places; ambitious and bored and restless for change? Who knows?

Alleys

Coincidentally, my wife and I were talking about this very subject last night. Alleys are wonderful community spaces. Like all community spaces they teach us to respect one another. I say hello to my neighbors in the alley all the time. It's a nice way to kick off the workday.

...and what about those gated communities?

Did the rise of the 'gated neighborhood', community have anything to do with the ever growing suburban demise?

You think you're looking in the mirror but it's only your neighbor sitting on his deck which is just like your deck...heck!

Always wondered if anybody living on those circular cul-de-sac drives, realized, who they were walling out, or walling in?

alleys?

The whole comment about alleys is more or less a "back in my day, we walked uphill both ways" kind of statement. I know quite a few people who live in the city, and nobody congregates in alleys. As a planned design, alleys are rather inconvenient in a northern snowbelt climate. They're difficult to clear of snow and become a pain in the winter when they get icy.

As for Jonathan, a number of things led to its demise as a planned city. A little research would give you details on that. City Pages (I think it was CP) did an excellent article a few years back on this.

I'm not one of those people who advocates the "drive til you qualify" mindset of the late 90's, early 2000's, and having lived in tract housing, I can certainly attest to some of the shortcomings in build quality of those houses compared to even those built in the 1980's. However, to make it sound like everyone should live in someone else's idea of an urban utopia, and to claim that there's no sense of community or gathering in exurban vinyl-sided neighborhoods is simply not true.

View from the alley and so much more...

Any response to my point of view - which usually is based on a question not a defined viewpoint - with a little tongue-in-cheek thrown in to loosen the simplistic and pragmatic which deadens the exploratory approach...and takes any creative alternatives to an issue nowhere when trying to consider why the rise and fall of past neighborhoods etc ??

Questions do agitate answers sometimes and tells this listener, myself, so much more of why we are shaped by the places we wrap around us; the shelter we adapt ourselves to; or hope to achieve and where it may take us.

I remember the white flight era of the fifties. I know the story of Jonathan.

I know planners and architects whose ideas I respect. Others are merely followed their mentors... and so drew us through the godawful sixties suffering structurally; challenged by copycat design suffering from a repetitive case of 'modular dystrophy', with their boxes on boxes and glass and gray and white walls?

A few still pursue such forms that now appear to be the same structurally sanitary boxes, but now they are often black too, and white and gray.Add another color and they are just the same?

Some continue to design such boxes, but to identify a sense of community, you've got to sell them to people who look like architects' stick people; cardboard shapes sans face? Yes sir I said it!

We lost something of 'communitas' in those layered burbs and fringe developments or they would not have received such transitory grace? It's not just the economy. Must be something more?

Better professional minds have the answers out there and I am learning every day. Thanks for a response whatever it's limitations, hey? Cheers

Social Amenities and Transportation

It comes down to two things: nearby social amenities, cheap and easy transportation.

When gas hits $12.50 per gallon, an apartment or small home in the city, with bus and light rail nearby, will get you to the theater, museum, entertainment, stadium, university, doctor much better than driving for twenty miles and paying for parking.

Even in America, the old cities were built on a human scale. Suburbs and exurbs are built on an automotive scale (early-70s Pontiacs). Without cars, people fit better in cities.

one big suburb,,,

Very little of the Twin Cities would qualify as urban by any national standard. Uptown, for sure, and some of Grand Avenue, St. Paul, maybe, But much of what's considered urban around here is actually streetcar suburb, minus, sadly, the streetcars. An urban area should offer a wide variety of amenities, not just a barber shop or tavern within walking distance. It also ought to have frequent public transit, with buses or streetcars coming by at least 4 times an hour. Most of America's truly urban areas were constrained by geography: Lake Ponchatrain, the Hudson and East rivers, San Francisco Bay, Lake Michigan. Because of those constraints, those cities have density. We don't.
My own experience here is moving from Highland Park, St. Paul, to Eagan. House to condo. Aesthetically, there's no comparison, and the Saintly City offers much more of that comfort feel.
However, as far as "urban amenities" I have much, much more of those within walking and biking distance in Eagan. In Highland, getting a pack of printer paper or a pair of jeans required a car trip to MOA or Roseville. Here, it's a walk or bike ride away. My bus commute to downtown takes about the same time as it did from Highland. I can walk to the bus stop, two supermarkets, a movie theater, ice cream parlor, two pizzerias, two coffee shops and about 20 restaurants. I could do without a car entirely if I cared to. Believe it or not, the economic, racial and cultural diversity out here is far more complex than Highland, which is 95% white professionals.
Not that there's anything wrong with that.
In short, there isn't all that much difference between the close-in suburbs and the typical Mpls-St. Paul neighborhood. Having been out here two years now, and being one of those people who once sneered at the 'burbs, I would say that there are certainly tradeoffs, but it's pretty much a wash.