Fast Company

Suburbia R.I.P.

Does the downturn spell the beginning of the end for suburbia? Some experts say yesterday's cul-de-sac is tomorrow's ghost town.

The downturn has accomplished what a generation of designers and planners could not: it has turned back the tide of suburban sprawl. In the wake of the foreclosure crisis many new subdivisions are left half built and more established suburbs face abandonment. Cul-de-sac neighborhoods once filled with the sound of backyard barbecues and playing children are falling silent. Communities like Elk Grove, Calif., and Windy Ridge, N.C., are slowly turning into ghost towns with overgrown lawns, vacant strip malls and squatters camping in empty homes. In Cleveland alone, one of every 13 houses is now vacant, according to an article published Sunday in The New York Times magazine.

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The demand for suburban homes may never recover, given the long-term prospects of energy costs for commuting and heating, and the prohibitive inefficiencies of low-density construction. The whole suburban idea was founded on disposable spending and the promise of cheap gas. Without them, it may wither. A study by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech predicts that by 2025 there will be as many as 22 million unwanted large-lot homes in suburban areas.

The suburb has been a costly experiment. Thirty-five percent of the nation's wealth has been invested in building a drivable suburban landscape, according to Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere," has been saying for years that we can no longer afford suburbs. "If Americans think they've been grifted by Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff, wait until they find out what a swindle the so-called 'American Dream' of suburban life turns out to be," he wrote on his blog this week.

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So what's to become of all those leafy subdivisions with their Palladian detailing and tasteful signage? Already low or middle-income families priced out of cities and better neighborhoods are moving into McMansions divided for multi-family use. Alison Arieff, who blogs for The New York Times, visited one such tract mansion that was split into four units, or "quartets," each with its own entrance, which is not unlike what happened to many stately homes in the 1930s. The difference, of course, is that the 1930s homes held up because they were made with solid materials, and today's spec homes are all hollow doors, plastic columns and faux stone facades.

There is also speculation that subdivision homes could be dismantled and sold for scrap now that a mini-industry for repurposed lumber and other materials has evolved over the last few years. Around the periphery of these discussions is the specter of the suburb as a ghost town patrolled by squatters and looters, as if Mad Max had come to the cul-de-sac.

If the suburb is a big loser in mortgage crisis episode, then who is the winner? Not surprisingly, the New Urbanists, a group of planners, developers and architects devoted to building walkable towns based on traditional designs, have interpreted the downturn as vindication of their plans for mixed-use communities where people can stroll from their homes to schools and restaurants.

Richard Florida, a Toronto business professor and author of "Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life," argues that dense and diverse cities with "accelerated rates of urban metabolism" are the communities most likely to innovate their way through economic crisis. In an article published in this month's issue of The Atlantic, he posits that New York is at a relative advantage, despite losing a chunk of its financial engine, because the jostling proximity of architects, fashion designers, software writers and other creative types will reenergize its economy.

[painting via Sharilyn Neidhardt]

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14 Comments

  • William Shepherd

    Michael Cannell writes: "the city would demolish houses in some of the most desolate sections of Detroit and move residents into stronger neighborhoods." they did this to grangesberg and all the prosperous mining towns in sweden and the result is gorgeous - instead of having decaying ghost towns, you have green banks with flowers and walkways, and fresh clean houses when you walk around. the residents remember the former days of glory with sadness and nostalgia, but as a visitor with no memory of the past all you can see is a sleepy and green little country town (note - i'm talking about grangesberg with a population of 8000 that used to have 20000 inhabitants) they have also turned their old copper mine into a cute museum and history archive as well as a cool bicycle/skate park for the kids.

  • Margie Hoyt

    I'm an urban planner and cannot agree more with the basic premise of the article. New Urbanism is all about developing walkable places with a clear center and edge. As for those tired of the doom and gloom, try looking up Transition Towns--they have suggestions on what to do but it requires interacting with neighbors so maybe that's not your thing. Also, look up sustainability, permaculture, along with post-carbon living.

  • Tom Parks

    The premise and the conclusion of this article are too simplistic. There is a constellation of maqny factors that determine the choice of a residence and money is only one. Just the breathing room and low density of people would be enough to motivate many people to what you call the suburbs. These areas are life itself to many people and they will make great sacrifices to live there. They will forego high salaries, access to entertainment, and education, for example, just to live in these locations. The growth of the cities in the early 20th century was supposed to doom small towns. The small towns are still there and many succesive generations of people have stayed, eschewing the "big city". Many would be content to live on the meager earnings of a part time job just live the free airy lifestyle.
    The "abandoned" homes will be eventually filled by those with motivation to sacrifice and live in a spacious home away from cities with less noise, crime, and polution. The city apartments can be filled by people who crave excitement and intense social experience. People will always find a way to make a living, no matter where they live.

  • Scott Moore

    I think this article is about as far off as could be! I think it is more likely that "large city jobs" -- part of the cause of this crisis -- are more likely the ones to go than suburbia! In some areas this won't be true, but I'd rather die than move to a "city-center" and be herded like an animal. It's time to go back to small communities - that don't rely as much on the surrounding areas if we want independence and choice again. Perhaps the old world communities had something.

    You can have my suburban home over my dead body.

  • Uday Palled

    Suburban real estate is suffering big time, and the distance is the biggest factor. Take a look at metro DC. The glut of townhomes and excess capacity in towns such as Dulles, Centreville, and other outer suburbs has done nothing more than to prolong the problem. While homes in the outer suburbs which has minimal access to public transport and difficult traffic to get commodities (Target, Costco) has only made these locations less desirable. Areas that are considered inner suburbs like Arlington, Alexandria, Rockville etc, have actually held up decently due to the proximity to public transports and retail. Bottom line, anytime you have to drive a lot of sit in traffic endlessly, you'll have decreased demand for your property. The realtors that have commented on this article are in denial for the most part. Yes, people will still continue to buy these properties, but the potential appreciation and demand or the outer suburbs will be limited due to the long-term rise in energy prices and location. Even in a medium tier city that I have moved to, builders are starting to wise up and built communities that have are are walkable to retail and other conveniences that people desire. I also notice that these types of properties are holding up pretty well in the current economic climate while other suburban properties are not.

  • Dan Brennan

    Real estate is certainly suffering in Elk Grove, but it's a far cry from "ghost towns with overgrown lawns, vacant strip malls and squatters camping in empty homes." I'd like this Michael Cannel guy to cite a street or a block that resembles a "ghost town" or where "squatters are camping in empty homes"

  • Morgan Whitehead

    Before we get too up in arms, let's look at who's being quoted in this article: New York Times, The Brookings Institution, Virginia Tech. All with an arguably left/liberal agenda to one degree or another. There's certainly no doubt that high fuel prices will put pressure on suburban appeal, but to proclaim it's outright death seems rather ridiculous. Hasn't Fast Company (along with legions of others) been championing the concept of telecommuting for years now? Companies large and small will surely look to expand this concept in these tough times, because it saves them money. More telecommuting = less real commuting. Less real commuting = less fuel expense. Less fuel expense = more money for suburban housing.

  • Tom Sachdeva

    What a story to depress more of the already dead (sorry depressed souls) I think the article writer should use some ingenuity to see the glass as half full ,not empty . Give everybody some hope ,some light. Enough of this recession to sell your articles.
    http://www.TheTorontoRealEstat...

  • Laura Olesen

    Sure - there is too much gloom and doom out there. No doubt it taints the markets. But this article raises issues of which we should all be aware. One, way-out suburbs can be a gamble. Try reselling a house when buyers can get a brand-new one with tons of upgrades for the same price. Outskirts mean plenty of room for future competition/development. If your city keeps growing and growing, great! All of a sudden, you'll be in the center of it all. But if you're really out there and future growth is uncertain/unlikely, be careful. Two, the U.S. belief in suburbs is based on faith in cars. Gas prices are OK right now, but what about in the future? Should we be relying on an hour-long auto commute to get to work? That can be costly. Three, the American dream is a goal I most certainly believe in (I wouldn't be a Realtor otherwise!), but we should all approach it knowing our own limitations (just because you want 2000 SF doesn't mean it's the right thing) and the risks. Best of luck to everyone!

  • gary griffin

    This article is a prime example of the "chickens coming home to roost". And the whiny comments of the NIMBY's who are afraid of "squatters"(read: minorities and such) need to wake up and smell a cup of reality; The "American Dream" is slavery and subjugation of the populace, pure and simple. These are the sheep who allowed dictators like Bush, Cheney, et. al. to drive us over this cliff by refusing to see the truth. Well, ladies, better brush up on your Espanol and plant some veggies in your suburbayards; and while you're at it, look up compassion and sympathy in your dictionaries and practice a lot of both to your new neighbors. You might find you have more in common with them than you think.......

  • Amber Vongsamphanh

    I couldn't agree with Debra more. And frankly I think this type of gloom and doom journalism is irresponsible. I think we all remember the principle of "Self Fulfilling Prophecy" from Econ 101. This suburbanite will be unsubscribing from your RSS feed.

  • Debra DiEdwardo

    Quite frankly, I'm exhausted from reading the doom and gloom. We're obviously in economic crisis. But day in and day out to be flooded with snippets of panic about our retirement funds, the neighborhoods we live in, and the wonderful vision of squatters inhabiting our vacant homes, just leaves me cold. I'm not ignorant on the subject, just tired of the herd mentality. Let's write about what we can do within our communities to prosper, instead of plying the masses with fear.

    With love from rural suburbia.

  • Sharilyn Neidhardt

    Thank you for using my painting as a thumbnail for your article, and feel free to use any others that you like. I can be reached at sharilyn.neidhardt@gmail.com or on facebook.