21st Century Suburbia. What’s in the Cards?

Today’s opinion blog in the New York Times (http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2010/09/07/redefining-home-in-a-depressed-market) brings to center stage the point, and now seemingly the fizzling argument, that the way Americans live is changing forever. I say “fizzling” because the argument which has been bolstered by the development world (National Association of Home Builders, the National Association of Realtors, production homebuilders as well as retail developers and suburban dwellers in general) is simply in a tail spin. For going on two decades now, the New Urbanists, some of whom may have affected the argument in the same sort of abrasive fashion as the Sierra Club tends to taint the merits of land conservation, have maintained that the sprawling American Dream was and is unsustainable (to the extent that the word “sustainable” has become unbearable). Preaching the benefits of a more practical infill-directed development initiative, creating homes within the bounds of existing infrastructure and building homes in much more practical, affordable and efficient patterns that create a much greater likelihood that our built environments will stand the test of time, the New Urban “mantra” is now shifting towards the realm of “gospel.”

The preservationists have been at it for a long time. Living at logger-heads with the development community for so long, however, the preservationist community, while accomplished a great deal for our communities and leaving many tremendous legacies, has not been the most effective line of attack against the American sprawl monster; but the New Urbanist, being a new home developer with a preservationist’s heart, has been the one to finally swing the argument.

One need look no further back in time that the nationwide upswing in the demand for the “city life” by newly independent Generation Y’ers who fled the suburban settings of their parents world for the more interactive, less auto dependent and infinitely more interesting world of the urban center. Even at the expense of perceived risk and danger from “inner city residents” and the threat of such things like “homeless people” who live within a stones thrown of many downtowns, the benefits of the classic American urban environment, even with residual scars from Urban Renewal and DOT engineers, seems to have made it through the storm. A by-product of this has been the exponential upswing in the last decade or so of New Urbanist communities, designed with the same urban principles that have defined community building in American, and indeed all over the world, for centuries.

Whether or not the suburban model will make it through the storm is now the questions, and the fundamental argument/debate encouraged by the NYT article referenced above. Just today, I was riding with my 76 year old father near a part of town that just a few years ago was booming with the construction of not only the stereotypical McMansion, but the ultra-deluxe 10-15,000 square foot homes with little, if any, design integrity other than the fact that they cost a LOT of money. Many of these homes are now for sale. Some are still “new” and remain for sale, as they most likely will for some time. I posed my father the question, “Who do you see buying these houses? Better yet, do you see my kids or anyone from their generation ever wanting to live in one of these 10k square foot monstrosities?” A few years back, he would have argued with me a bit. Knowing how well some of our developer/builder friends and colleagues were doing, it seemed like an endless well of opportunity in the Heinz-57 world of American home building and new home development. Today, he immediately, responded, “hell if I know.” I damn sure don’t see any of your kids wanting this stuff.”

The fundamental question posed by the above article is this: “What will the housing landscape be, if and when the market recovers from the recession? What should government’s role be in promoting where and how Americans live?” Bloggers are debating these issues as I write this, which I guess is my take on the whole thing. But the bottom line is this, whatever your position all signs are pointing to the fact that the role of government, particularly local government in communities which have been hard hit by sprawl, needs to begin immediately assessing how in the world they are going to continue paying for the services and capital improvements necessary to keep the exurban portions of our communities alive. Granted, some suburban places will do well. Those that are located near or adjacent to employment centers may have to live with the fact hat they look like every other suburb in the world, but as long as the jobs are there, they should be ok. But in many places, will they stand the test of time? Will your kids want to live there in 20 years? If the answer to question number 2 is either “no” or “I don’t know,” well then we better get busy. You think the challenge of rebuilding our downtowns was a big one, now we are talking about tens of thousands of acres in some cities.

It is one thing to try and resurrect the historic downtowns of America, where the identities of our forefathers are forever ingrained, and where the scale and design that is proven to stand the test of time remains in tact. But how many empty shopping centers can we support, and how many four lane highways that feed the empty centers and the dying communities with houses no one wants anymore can we afford to repair? Will the school buses drive miles and miles down faceless streets for a handful of kids?

The true new urban communities of today, those that are built in in-fill locations within the existing arterial networks of our existing cities will make it. For the time being, they will continue to be criticized by the big-time organizations and developers who think it is their God given right to build anywhere they want. After all, in town living ain’t for everybody. Some folks just have to stretch out a bit more. Time will tell, but it’s damn sure not going to be what it has been. My bet is that governments will be doing everything they can to turn the ship inward. Its the way we lived forever, until now.

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