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The New Suburbanization

The New Suburbanization

It’s been a few weeks since my last urban planning post wherein I talked about the future of cities. So today I want to talk about the future of suburbs. Specifically I want to talk about the trend of urbanizing suburbs and what that will mean for the future of suburbia.


The Future of Suburbs

Recently much has been said about the urbanization of suburbs. From the Congress of New Urbanism to the Urban Land Institute and the American Planning Association, all of these organizations are preparing the way forward for suburbs and suburban planners to reimagine their existence from sleepy bedroom communities to vibrant exo-cities or exurbs.


Take this recent article from Pulse.com. It gives the example of New Rochelle, NY and how it is reinventing itself. Basically, what is happening across the country is that people are realizing the wasted effort and energy to constantly be commuting to work and entertainment venues that are far from their homes and demanding more choices to locate those everyday things closer to where they live. Of course this won’t entirely eliminate the need to commute to something or somewhere, but a trip saved is a trip earned for another time (not to mention the emissions/ carbon footprint etc. reduction potential).


It is as if there is an urge across the country to simplify life as family members find themselves flung into different corners of their cities trying to accomplish all that they want to do… Bringing things closer together allows families to share their lives a lot more without the stress of multiple commutes, car travel and intensive coordination (if you think coordination is not a demanding task, check either the Apple App Store or the Google Android Store where there is a proliferation of ever more sophisticated software to help people organize their lives).


Some people will say this urbanization of suburbia is about millenials but I have to think it’s about more than just millenials. It’s about a return to normal human interactions amid normal building patterns for a normal life. Yes, what many of us living now in the suburbs is an aberration in the history of humanity.  We live in extraordinary times and increasingly people are desiring, longing for the simplification technology hasn’t delivered: the good old walkable town with its neighborly interactions.  (You only need two feet for this kind of sense of place).


Anyway suburbs are very much experiencing the urge to reinvent their purpose to diversify their economic base, to bring work and entertainment options to residents, to enable civic life and to build a community to speak of… in short to improve the “quality of life”.


And this is done most often through the construction of new downtowns and the redevelopment of old forgotten downtowns. New uses fill historic buildings or new buildings replace the old ones, but whatever happens is in the service of reinventing how we think about the suburban character.


This is also true for our neighborhoods. Where before McMansions replaced the old building stock, more and more we see the rise of Neo-traditional housing patterns filling in the gaps between and mixed with the old  building stock from the 19th and early 20th centuries.


My Prediction

So where does this take us? What does it mean when the suburbs reinvent themselves?


I think the popular predictions on the future of suburbs outlined in the Pulse article referenced above  are probably spot on based on how suburbs like New Rochelle have already performed. Indeed I work for a municipality in which this transformation is happening and there is no reason for me to think the predictions are exaggerated.
So in terms of the direction of development, much is and will change in suburban environments. The quality of life, from a development standpoint, should improve as work and other life necessities locate closer to people’s homes.


But there isn’t much discussion in the planning world about the affordability of this and specifically about the nature of all these future assets as liabilities.
The country is collectively on the verge of turning the corner on to a $20 Trillion national debt. Much of the development foreseen for suburbs is market driven and private investment is fueling good portions of it. But as the national debt balloons higher and higher, the liability of public debt will weigh down on private debt, increasing its chances of volatility.


I’m not saying there is a chance for another repeat of 2008 with regards to suburban urbanization in the near future.  But at some point there is going to be a reckoning of the debt situation and I hope it’s not like Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal or Ireland with the European Union. (If not at the national level, then at the State level.  Illinois, for example, is already widely panned as broke).


What I am saying, however, is that the development that will be built will inevitably be shouldered by consumers/taxpayers who will be saddled by an enormous long term tax burden and that tax burden will stifle commerce and likely preclude or make difficult a quick ROI. This will have serious implications on the development community and ultimately on the ability of homeowners to afford the suburbs that successfully retool themselves.


Lastly, if you factor the gentrification element in successfully retooled suburbs, the term affordable housing is going to become more than a euphemism for the commonly assumed “sub-market housing” or “poor people’s housing”. It’s going to be about the affordability for the middle class. The gentrification of the suburbs is already happening and not as a result of McMansions. Places that successfully implement the new “old stuff”, like New Urbanist principles, tend to experience greater real estate demand because people want to live in a place that looks like a place and  in a home that actually looks like a home. I don’t blame them after a century’s worth of snout housing… but this does and will inevitably push home prices up.
But in the new economy, where the tax burden is great and monthly property taxes alone rival the monthly mortgage cost, rising home prices might ultimately be the last thing we’ll want to see.


Comments? Thoughts?  Leave me a note in the comments section below!

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