Center cities flourish-but what about the suburbs?

Everyone loves urban areas again, for good reasons: diversity, accessibility, convenience, opportunity, sustainability.    With all the attention going to center cities, what are the prospects for American suburbs, where urban dwellers from the 50’s to the 90’s fled to get away from crime, cramped spaces, and decaying social institutions?  In The Atlantic, Chris Leinberger wrote:

…the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living…many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions…may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

Will suburbs truly become the new slums: a place where minorities from the cities are forced to live as the central cities become less and less affordable?

And does this really work if the suburbs are being abandoned due to the high cost of transit?  Leinberger wrote this nearly three years ago, at the depths of the current economic depression.  Since then, people have presumably continued their suburban exodus.  In 2010, the Washington Post reported on a study done by the Brookings Institute that ethnic diversity in the suburbs is at an all time high in 100 of the largest metropolitan areas in the United States.  The study contends that minorities have been moving to the suburbs over the past decade or so, and that American suburbs now contain the “largest poor population” in America.

The apparently insurmountable problem of urban decay seems to have been solved, largely by a change in values.  People now see urban areas as an asset.  But urban areas are limited in size, and, in the long run, we will only be able to house a portion of our population within them.  Eventually, suburban areas will have to become a part of the solution to our future growth problems.  Our approach to urban re-development will eventually have to be applied to suburban redevelopment as well.  Old, run-down factory buildings have become a dwindling resource;  when we see them, we see opportunity.   But right now, not many people are looking at the suburbs as ripe with opportunities.  No-one looks at a vacant shopping mall and says ‘wow, that’s co cool, I’d love to live there’.  Clearly we have a long way to go.



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About briandneville

Brian Neville will be completing a Master of Science in Real Estate degree in June, 2012 at the University of Washington. Mr. Neville works part-time as a development consultant to Steve Orser at Wood Partners, Pacific Northwest, performing due diligence, entitlement, market analysis, and deal sourcing for large multifamily developments in the Puget Sound area. He has also served as a consultant with Meriwether Partners in Seattle where his experience as an architect and general contractor have been valuable resources. Mr. Neville is a licensed architect in the state of Washington, where he founded and operated a design-build firm in Seattle between1998 and 2010. Examples of Mr. Neville’s work from this time can be seen at Between 1995 and 1998, Mr. Neville worked in architecture as a project manager with Environmental Works in Seattle, focusing on mid-sized commercial buildings, social service facilities, and low income and special needs housing. Originally from Denver, Mr. Neville holds a MARCH from the University of Washington and a BA from Middlebury College. He currently lives on north capitol hill with his wife and two children. He is active in the Seattle Public Schools community and in youth sports where he has coached soccer, baseball, and basketball. He is an active NAIOP member, where he currently serves on the membership committee. Mr. Neville is also a member of the Urban Land Institute. In his spare time, Mr. Neville is an avid mountain biker, a recovering free-heel skier, and endlessly injured no-longer-competitive soccer player.

3 thoughts on “Center cities flourish-but what about the suburbs?

  1. Great topic Brian. I too find the future of the ‘burbs an intriguing question. If nothing else, the trends you point out illustrate that when we witness a decaying neighborhood “revitalize” into something wonderful and beautiful, it is entirely a physical transformation. It doesn’t actually mean we’ve somehow solved deeper income and minority inequities.

    My hope has always been that the suburbs will eventually take on a more rural feel. Especially since with higher transit costs, self-sufficiency will be an important part of suburban living. As some houses deteriorate and disappear, and land prices go down, maybe people will begin to cultivate sections of land. Run a few goats or horses, around the neighborhoods. Or just keep a bunch of junker cars on the vacant land next door (perhaps the more realistic rural setting).

  2. There was a really good article in the Boston Globe a year ago about competing orientations of urban planning that have developed in the last decade. The old school is now the new urbanists and the new school is the landscape urbanists who are more concerned with the environmental aspects of sustainability rather than the the social aspects found at the seat of new urbanism.

    The landscape urbanists say they have a solution to maximize the utility of the suburban housing stock (basically through the application of new technologies and deference to environmental science in the planning process) while the new urbanists don’t have much to say about the problem because they think suburbia shouldn’t exist (at its current size) in the first place.

  3. I also agree that the future of suburbs are an interesting problem, especially in regards to transportation options. If you consider simple bid-rent theory, the cost of housing in the suburbs will decrease in proportion to the increased cost of transportation. There are a lot more influencing factors, such as character, amenties, age, etc, that are also going to drive down the price and create slum like scenarios. This is why figuring out a way to have public transit access these areas in an efficient fashion is even more important…On that note, @Josh, I don’t think they necessarily need to be more rural, I think they just need to decide what they are: rural or urban. Old suburban malls are acutally a great opportnity for infill, to create denser compact centers in places that didn’t previous have one. While it wasn’t done particularly well, this was attempted near my hometown (home-suburb actually) in Winter Park, FL. Also, the ruralization of abandoned lands is something that has started to happen in shrinking cities like Detriot.

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