It is time to stop quivering in our boots in pointless fear of the future and just roll up our sleeves and build it.
- Ray Pierrehumbert

Monday, February 25, 2008

Suburban Collapse?

There are signs that some suburban neighborhoods in the US are in rapid decline.

People tend to blame this on oil prices, and the day may indeed come when that is a big factor, but I think it's more a consequence of 1) the attractions of density and 2) overbuilding as a direct consequence of growth mania built into the decision making system. It doesn't matter how cheap oil is; spending two hours a day in traffic jams is a huge cost I'd prefer to avoid.

Here's an Atlantic article by Christopher Leinberger that makes the case for abrupt decline of the sprawl, entitled "The Next Slum" and blurbed "The subprime crisis is just the tip of the iceberg. Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements." In a nutshell:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.


John Fleck said...


Twenty years ago, Christopher Leinberger was a planning consultant and author living and working in and around Pasadena, California, where I was working. I was covering planning issues all the time, and we quoted him so regularly that one of my editors and I began referring to him as "the ubiquitous Christopher Leinberger."

In 1990, as I was preparing to move to New Mexico, the LA Times had a story about the "new commuters" - people who had a house in some cool place and worked there part of the week and flew to LA. One of their sources? The ubiquitous Christopher Leinberger, who'd bought a house in Tesuque, north of Santa Fe.

Years later, here in Albuquerque, the ubiquitous Christopher Leinberger began working on downtown revitalization. He bounced back and forth between here and Brookings, but I ran across him in the Journal lobby one day and told him the story. He seemed amused. I wrote about him on my blog. He found it and commented.

Now he's entered the climate wonk world. He's ubiquitous!

Dano said...

Here's another on Leinberger that sez similar.

We've got a long way to go to get folk to abandon their big ol' lawns, but we'll get there eventually, esp. if we can get rid of single-use zoning and get decent design going to attract the two main demographics that want urban density.

We don't have a density problem, we have a design problem.