Monday, July 18, 2016

The future of the suburbs

Suburban neighborhood in my childhood town of Wheaton, Illinois
Walk Score 24 (Screen capture from Google Earth)
The last 70 years of American history have featured the dramatic growth of suburbs in metropolitan areas. From the literal fringes of American society they have emerged as centers of political and economic power: suburban job creation far outpaced that of central cities until the mid-2000s, and suburban residents comprised a majority of voters in presidential election since 1992. Not always respected or admired, their importance is nonetheless unmistakable.

But what about the next 70 years? Much as the rise of edge cities must have been unimaginable to people in the mid-1940s, and the resurgence of central cities was unimaginable to us in the 1970s, today's suburbs are likely to transform in the 21st century. A lot depends on how the 21st century progresses, but some suburbs are better positioned than others to face whatever it brings.

Suburbs were founded at different times and by different groups of people, so it's not news to anyone that there are several types of suburban areas. It's not always accurate, either, to define urban and suburban strictly according to the corporate boundaries of the central city. Cedar Rapids, for example, is not landlocked by surrounding municipalities, so it has continued to grow during the suburban decades, and many parts of the city look a lot like suburbs, particularly subdivisions like Bowman Woods and Granite Ridge, not to mention the development along the Highway 100 extension under construction. Nevertheless, following political boundaries is a convenient way to define things, so I will wind up doing that through this essay.

Suburban areas vary by age, density, wealth, diversity, walkability, local employment, presence of a traditional downtown or something that could become one, public transit, and distance from the central city. You could probably come up with 25 categories or even 55, but we must be getting on here, so I'll suggest six. Examples are from the Chicago area which is where I grew up and where I flatter myself I can still find my way around.
  1. First suburbs: Older towns from the early years of suburban development e.g. Evanston, Oak Park, Cicero. These are like extensions of the central city, and feature greater diversity, more density and more poverty than more recently-developed suburbs.
  2. First suburbs in pain: Same as above but with concentrated poverty e.g. Dixmoor, Ford Heights, Robbins. Each has a significantly higher poverty rate than Chicago itself (more than double, in the case of Ford Heights). These might be older towns--Robbins was incorporated in 1917--that were predominantly working class and have suffered mightily from deindustrialization.
  3. Wealthy enclaves: The very earliest wave of suburban development came from wealthy people who could afford to live away from the noise and stink of the city. Their financial resources and use of zoning laws (Rothwell) have preserved their physical as well as social character e.g. Hinsdale and Lake Forest, but also includes newer towns like Burr Ridge and Deer Park.
  4. Edge cities (boomburbs): Newer suburbs that are also major employment centers e.g. Naperville, Schaumburg.
  5. New traditional suburbs: Largely residential, mostly in outlying areas of the metro region, with recent development so lots and houses are larger than older suburbs e.g. Boulder Hill and Long Grove, but I'd also include older towns like Huntley and Wheaton that have grown quickly in recent years.
  6. Whatever the hell Bedford Park is. Founded in 1940 and located on the western edge of the city of Chicago south of Midway Airport, it has a population of 580, and is aggressively recruiting businesses. Its density is 98 per square mile, because most of the city space is industrial or commercial.
The acceleration of suburban development after World War II was facilitated by a broad set of conditions (see Stief): widespread economic prosperity, people's desires for more space and/or protective enclaves, affordability of private motor vehicles, U.S. national government incentives for new construction (interstate highways and the structure of Federal Housing Authority programs), abandonment of older cities by manufacturers and other businesses, and a willingness to tolerate costs such as environmental damage and traffic congestion. The next 75 years are likely to see substantial change in most or all of these conditions, with profound effects for the suburbs they produced (see Gallagher, esp. ch. 9).
  • The distribution of wealth and income in the United States has since the 1970s become sharply more unequal. The wealthy minority will be able to afford to live however and wherever they wish, but there is unlikely to be a sizable middle class around to buy and maintain suburban homes on a mass scale.
  • Millennials and empty-nest boomers have shown greater preferences for urban living in recent years (Gallagher, esp. ch. 3). This can be overstated, and could easily be reversed in another generation or less, but whether for reasons of economics or personal taste, demand for alternatives to the large-lot subdivisions predominant in the last two decades has implications for both central cities and suburban municipalities.
  • Families took multiple motor vehicle ownership for granted when the fuel to run them was cheap and plentiful, as it was for much of the 1980s and 1990s. The last 15 years have seen a roller coaster of gas prices, giving rise to several different versions of our energy future. If American energy reserves are not as high as the optimists say, or if the costs of extracting them drive prices up, or if global economic growth means more people all over the world are competing for those resources, or if the environmental impacts of fossil fuels become too great to be borne, suburbs of two- or three-SUV households in subdivisions far from schools, shopping and work are not going to survive.
  • The national government continues to fund new construction generously in the face of long-term budget uncertainty and alarms about the state of existing infrastructure. Politicians would still rather build and widen than fix, not to mention more environmentally- and financially-sustainable alternatives. So far conditions have not forced them to change much. How long can this possibly last? Charles Marohn of Strong Towns told author Leigh Gallagher: The fact that I can drive to work on paved roads where I can drive fifty-five miles an hour the minute I leave my driveway despite the fact that I won't see another car for five miles is living beyond our means on a grand, grand scale (p. 60).
  • Many businesses have decided the advantages of clustering outweigh the hassles of dealing with central city governments, and are relocating downtown.
  • Despite recent attention to mass shootings, violent crime has declined for a long time and is now much lower than it was during the heyday of suburban development, removing a major incentive people had had to flee the city.
How do all these changes affect the different types of suburban areas? Wealthy enclaves will be fine, thanks to the increasing wealth of the upper class. First suburbs and even first suburbs in pain often have "good bones," a tried-and-true design structure that can adapt to multiple realities. They frequently are close to the central city and public transportation between them is either already in place or likely to be viable. Some, like LaGrange, Illinois, have particularly excellent traditional downtowns and nearby residential districts. Gallagher (p. 202) points out their smaller houses are affordable to young families. On the other hand, the harder cases in particular are unlikely to flourish without substantial gentrification, which might be hard to attract when they're competing with other first suburbs in better shape as well as a better-positioned central city and, if successful, raises the inevitable issue of what happens to the people who live there now?

The future is murkier for edge cities, new traditional suburbs and whatever the hell Bedford Park is, because their development has been closely tied to the hegemony of the automobile. It's been awhile since I've spent time in my former stomping grounds of Naperville, Illinois, but I think that particular "boomburb" has several advantages for changing times over, say, Tysons Corner, Virginia: it's an older municipality (incorporated in 1857) with a traditional downtown and a lot of resources. On the other hand, most of its 39 square mile territory has been developed in a purely auto-oriented way with large lots well spread-out and rudimentary public transit. Naperville will doubtless need to make adjustments as the century goes forward, but it has the resources with which to make them.

America invested heavily beginning in the 1940s in development that assumed infinite cheap energy, available credit, and the dispensability of the urban poor. And fecundity (Gallagher, ch. 5). And ever-increasing home values (see Cortright). The prudent municipality will take steps to ensure its survival in the face of inevitable alteration to those conditions. The prudent superpower-facing-long-term-budget-deficits should doubtless do the same.


 Peter Calthorpe and William Fulton, The Regional City: Planning for the End of Sprawl (Island, 2001), ch 9
 Leigh Gallagher, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream is Moving (Portfolio/Penguin, 2013)
 Nathan Lewis, "Letting Go of Suburbia," Strong Towns, 20 July 2016,
 David L. Rigby, "Urban and Regional Restructuring in the Second Half of the 20th Century," in John A. Agnew and Jonathan M. Smith eds, American Space/American Place: Geographies of the Contemporary United States (Routledge, 2002), 150-183
 Strong Towns, "America's Suburban Experiment," Strong Towns, 10 December 2015,
 Steven V. Ward, Selling Places: The Marketing and Promotion of Towns and Cities, 1850-2000 (Routledge, 1998), chs 5-6

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