Trouble in paradise: Suburbs are struggling

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Population Estimates

Are the glory days over for the American suburb?

For several generations the suburban home “with the white picket fence” has been the American ideal, so much so that suburban life — ever bigger homes, bigger yards, bigger cars, bigger big-box stores, better schools, rising home values, more and more driving — has become the national standard.

But there’s trouble in paradise.

Rising fuel prices, declining home values, a gathering financial malaise, a spreading of immigrants and cultures, and a demographic shift away from the classic two-parents-with-children household — all of those trends threaten suburban serenity in ways that crabgrass never did.

Thursday’s report from the Census Bureau showed fewer people flocking to the nation’s largest metropolitan regions last year.

Big suburban-oriented regions in the Sun Belt — places like Phoenix, Dallas, Orlando and Las Vegas — continued to grow, but not as fast.

Dark clouds have been hovering

“The bursting housing bubble appeared to be the most significant factor,” the New York Times reported.

But housing values don’t explain everything. Auto sales are down. Tax receipts are down. Local government budgets are coming up short, even in prosperous places.

“The dark clouds that, for months, have hovered over Wall Street and the real estate market are now gathering over Plano,” the Dallas Morning News reported this week. The newspaper cited a stagnant housing market and falling sales-tax revenues among other factors that could produce a $100 million budget shortfall over the next three years in the wealthy north Dallas community of 250,000 people. That probably means cuts in service and delays on new roads, playgrounds and other amenities — suggesting, perhaps, that some suburbs might begin to look as shabby around the edges as their big-city neighbors. For the first time in memory, the newspaper said, Plano doesn’t expect its assessed property valuation to grow in the year ahead.

The Atlantic used this sharper headline on a featured article about suburbs in the March issue: “The Next Slum? The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.” Writer Christopher B. Leinberger began:

Windy Ridge: It’s no Pleasantville
“At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, N.C., 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

After offering more examples, Leinberger provided a deeper context: “The story of vacant suburban homes and declining suburban neighborhoods did not begin with the [subprime lending] crisis, and will not end with it. A structural change is under way in the housing market — a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes. And its effects will be felt more strongly, and more broadly, as the years pass. Its ultimate impact on the suburbs, and the cities, will be profound.”

Leinberger suggests that, as the pendulum swings back toward the higher-density, more urbanized lifestyles that global warming and changing preferences will dictate, many McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent, will lose their market appeal and become what inner-city neighborhoods became in the 1960s and ’70s — “slums, characterized by crime, poverty and decay.”

‘No longer young, no longer trendy’
In the current issue of The Boston Review, Michael Gecan writes an essay headlined: “On borrowed time: urban decline moves to the suburbs.” In it, Gecan suggests that American suburbia may have hit its high-water mark. “No longer young, no longer trendy, no longer the place to be, no longer without apparent limitations or constraints, these places, like people, have developed ways of avoiding reality.”

One new reality that may hasten the demise of suburbia’s excesses — especially its extravagant appetite for fuel and land — is the rise of China’s economy. “The likely success of the Chinese model … will mean that the United States will not be able to ‘impose coercively upon the world its right to an extravagant way of life.’ In other words, the rise of China will imply a decline in American living standards as cooperation internationally replaces exploitation.”

Those quotes are from a book review in the March 14 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education. The review, written by Gregory Clark, was of Giovanni Arrighi’s new book, “Adam Smith in Beijing.” The book makes clear that suburbia’s habits are implicated in the broader trend:

“Currently in America we consume the equivalent of six gallons of gas per person per day,” Clark writes. “But energy is even now so extravagantly cheap that most of it is squandered. We drive huge distances at the slightest pretext, in giant, gas-hungry vehicles. We live in cavernous houses — the average person in the United States, including each child, has 900 square feet of expensively conditioned, mostly unused space. Towns sprawl across the landscape so that the only way to get to work or to shops is by car. Sidewalks have disappeared in some locations as useless adornments from a bygone age.

“Some countries in Europe, such as Denmark, which have by public policy made energy much more expensive, already use only the equivalent of about three gallons of gas per person with little cost in terms of living standards,” Clark continues. “Over the long run, even more substantial reductions in oil usage are feasible at modest cost. So however big the future Chinese impact in world commodity markets, a perfectly satisfactory living standard will be feasible.”

Feasible, yes. But, as the author suggests, it won’t look anything like today’s suburban living standard.

Steve Berg, a former Washington Bureau reporter, national correspondent and editorial writer for the Star Tribune, reports on urban design, transportation and national politics. He can be reached at sberg [at] minnpost [dot] com.

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Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Craig Westover on 03/28/2008 - 01:13 pm.

    “Leinberger suggests that, as the pendulum swings back toward the higher-density, more urbanized lifestyles that global warming and changing preferences will dictate…”

    “Dictate” is an appropriate word in an article that sounds almost gleeful at the prospect of declining suburbs. The essense of New Urbanism is dictating other people’s lifestyles through through policy. Note the reference to Danish policy of making energy more expensive as if Denmark geographically or demographically was a valid proxy for the United States and a previous article by the author recommending we solve the transportation problem by “redesiging people’s lives.” (“Here’s a transportation solution: Reduce the need to drive”)

    Tocqueville noted that “Americans love equality and that if they can’t have it in freedom, they will have it in slavery.” The author wants it both ways – some must be free to decide how others ought to live live.

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