Like all cities, the suburbs are where most of us live and as a general rule we do not spend all of our time there. I can almost equate that with remaining inside your bedroom or man-cave when there are other parts of the house to explore and use. We entertain in the formal living room or dine in the the kitchen if it is informal and the dining room if it is not. Today's housing is a much more mixed blend of uses but our neighborhoods and suburbs are not. I, and others, believe that that may soon change.
I have lived outside of Man o' War for only two years. Those 2 years were over two decades ago and are still the dullest times of my life. Getting to work and anyplace remotely interesting to me was more effort than I usually want to put into something. Therefore, the idea of making Lexington's suburban neighborhoods more like their “first ring” older brothers and sisters is something on which I fixate. I am always looking for ways to help make that change happen.
Suburbs, or at least those which follow the American-style model, have been called obesogenic , that is inducing its inhabitants to become fat. Along the way, they have been called sterile, homogeneous, anti-social simply because they are auto-centric and, for the most part, very inefficient. Is there any hope for an urban form so maligned to transition into someplace more desirable? Some experts think so and I believe that they may be right.
Many places in the U.S. the suburbs are beginning to emulate the patterns of cosmopolitan city centers, becoming more dense, taking on new forms and practices and responding to economic and cultural changes in our world. I am looking for ways to get Lexington moving in such a direction. Maybe we can grow the city and protect the rural area in doing so.
Without a doubt, the ideas which develop in American suburbs end up influencing at least the affluent suburbs around the world. In a recent article in Planning Theory & Practice, Arthur C. Nelson and others discuss the demographic changes and shifting consumer preferences that are likely to have dramatic implications on suburban design in the next few decades.
Government subsidies, economic prosperity and demographic shifts since the end of World War II have led to generations of low density suburban growth which continue in Lexington to this day. Could it be that current economic conditions will begin to alter our development practices toward denser and better connected neighborhoods/communities. Will we see a re-commitment to urban and urbane living?
One place where w could begin that re-commitment is in our public investment and financing strategies to keep up with expectations for services such as public transit. Our regulations and development financing need to shift away from contemporary practices to support re-urbanization policies.
The process of “fracking” has led to the recent growth in petro-carbon production and the proposals to build pipelines from Canadian tar-sands to southern refineries may signal that “peak oil” has not yet arrived. But to assume that the return to the era of cheap energy may be sheer folly. We still need to shift away from the reliance on the private automobile. Despite consumer preference surveys which indicate that people say they would choose cosmopolitan options, those options need to in place before the choice can be made.
The suburban landscape needs to be able to transition in form, function, and pattern as quickly as community needs change. Financing practices, community attitudes and, above all, our zoning regulations currently restrict that transition flexibility. Zoning codes and covenants enforced by developers, neighborhood and homeowners’ associations have increasingly limited the potential for ready physical adaptation.
How will we find ways to address the needs of the less affluent when the market producing our housing has other priorities? Jill L. Grant, Professor of Planning at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada), said it best “In trying to address the problems of homogeneity and inefficiency which we regret in our old suburbs, how can we avoid stimulating gentrification processes that suburbanize poverty and disadvantage?”
Nelson is Director of the Metropolitan Research Center, City & Metropolitan Planning at University of Utah so he probably understands the subject of urban sprawl as well as anyone. Having grown up in a suburb of Portland, Ore. and having to drive everywhere, I believe that he seen the beast that sprawl has become firsthand. He has also recognized the American suburbs are a unique development form that may be replicated in some fashion around the world although not to the extent that they are here at home.
American planners have built our suburbs as mostly low density, with uniformly developed landscapes of few land-use interactions and an intentional dependency on the automobile. At about 14,500 individuals per square mile, the suburbs of London, England are more densely settled than such central cities as Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. The actual City of London has under 10,000 residents of its own. It really becomes easy to see that we have planned the very urban vibrancy we seek out of our neighborhoods.
“Unlike suburbs in much of the rest of the world... ... American suburbs do not have mixed land uses or a range of housing options, and lack densities to support public transit.”
Nelson has identified three reasons as to why suburbs in America are different.
First, Americans have an entrenched anti-urban sentiment with strong libertarian undercurrents to the point that an individuals property rights are above the community's interests. Outside of Lexington and a few other communities, few impediments exist to developing open land and that facilitates the low density environment which encourages sprawl.
Second, government (and financial institutional policies) since the Depression favor new construction over rehabilitation, new highways over public transit, construction of owner-occupied and detached homes over rented and attached homes and converting farmland/open space into low-density suburban development over sustaining working or passive landscapes.
Prior to World War II, the worries in housing were from urban pollution brought about by over-crowding and lack of sufficient daylight. After the war, the plans actively sought to reduce the residential densities for public health reasons. Section 701 of the 1954 Federal Housing Act provided grants for land-use planning templates which separated residential subdivisions from retail uses, employment centers and civic institutions. All of the things which make a neighborhood and community a vibrant and desirable place to live.
The third reason is a direct result of the preceding two. Subsidized road projects and subsidized energy costs helped to inflate the value of land for suburban development. More efficient development was economically punished while less efficient development was rewarded. More suburban uses imposed negative externalities on adjacent farmland which depressed the farm land's value and virtually assuring far more land was converted than would otherwise occur.
There is little doubt that suburban America will continue to dominate growth and settlement, but one should expect it to become more urban along the way. Recent preference surveys and projections of demographic trends hint that America’s suburban future may be quite different. Lexington has embarked on a path of infill and redevelopment which may need to achieve a certain level of neighborhood urbanity to work.
So, what are these emerging trends that Nelson has identified?
1 Rising energy costs
From World War II until the early '70s there was a vast supply of cheap gasoline and being able to drive out to the inexpensive land available for home building took home ownership rates from 55% in 1950 to 69% in 2004. Rising fuel prices may dampen the appeal of the suburban fringe for home buying, with or without self driving cars.
2 Lagging employment
The structure of the American labor force has made it prone to high unemployment as may be evidenced by the dismal recovery from the Great Recession. A key component of employment and income recovery is educational preparedness and in many cases America trails in many categories. A rapid population growth among those who are less prepared to succeed, could lead to lower wages and higher unemployment rates. Without falling home prices and and a return to the previous mortgage underwriting policies there may be lower home ownership rates in 2035 than in 2010.
3 Falling incomes
Median household incomes for ALL age groups in EACH income category ended the decade lower than in 2000. Suburbs have accounted for nearly half the increase in the population in poverty. Add this with trends 1 & 2 and the effects may further lower demand for owner-occupied homes over the next decades.
4 Shifting wealth
Nearly 99% of America’s wealth was held by the highest fifth of households. Well higher than most of the last century. The shifting of wealth in the US means that America has become a nation where wealth inequality is greater than in many emerging countries. It is now more difficult to rise above poverty than in nearly any developed country.
5 Tighter home financing
In the wake of our recent financial disaster, lending institutions have increased their underwriting requirements, thereby reducing the number of people who can buy a home. Conventional mortgages now need higher credit scores, longer and more stable work histories, and 20% down payments. Those changes alone may disqualify about five million potential home buyers, resulting in 250,000 fewer home sales and 50,000 fewer new homes built per year.
6 Changing housing and community preferences
Americans are looking for something different in their homes, neighborhoods and communities than they have had in the past.
The latest period of suburbanization, what we generally call the “era of sprawl” began in 1948 and is basically a “parasitic” version of suburbanization since it fed of off resources not generated by the growth itself. Fiscal policies, both State and Federal, transferred wealth from cities to suburbs though subsidization of roads and energy. Taxes on existing infrastructure and property allowed for reduced levies on developing land. Land-use and zoning codes socially engineered many a community composition.
The bursting of the “housing bubble” and, for Lexington, the EPA consent decree are some evidence of the price which has now come due.
Robert Fishman, as an Associate Editor of the Journal of the American Planning Association, has suggested a fifth migration emerged during the 2000s. Since 2005, we have seen a re-urbanization of the inner city and our older suburban areas. It has been led by the young professionals, many an empty-nester senior, and and even immigrants.
It is exactly the disadvantages of our inner-city districts, the “obsolete” retail and manufacturing facilities (Bread Box, Distillery District, et. al.), the pedestrian scale, an ability to rely on mass transit and even the aging housing stock which are being turned into advantages in this fifth migration. I think that we may need to extend or replicate some, if not all, of these new “advantages”into the suburbs once held by the “fourth migration”. That area we now call sprawl.
The challenge in making this transition is to change attitudes of suburbanites. This is a tall order. Nelson suggests that “local governments will need to become proactive in applying affordable housing tools such as density bonuses, subsidized low and moderate income housing, and inclusionary zoning.”
Older and closer-in suburbs, those built at low densities, may find retrofitting them a bit difficult but higher density redevelopment can be accomplished by using parking lots and low rise, low intensity nonresidential property along commercial corridors. Neighborhood opposition and disagreements along these commercial corridors pass may undermine any opportunity of transition.
As Nelson ends his piece “Successful American suburbs of the future will be resettled by very different kinds of households.” I ask, when will we see it here?