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On the Times’ Freakonomics blog, leading urban theorists are debating what we’ve been talking about around here lately: the future of suburbia. The “smart people” they gathered to pontificate include James Kunstler, Thomas Antus, Jan Brueckner, Gary Gates, John Archer, Alan Berube and Lawrence Levy, who offered these predictions: The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. Or: If [gentrification] continues in a significant way, large numbers of suburban households looking for urban stimulation may end up switching places with minority central-city dwellers, stirring the ethnic pot in both places. Or, this vision: Suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid. So which is it?
What Is the Future of Suburbia? [Freakonomics Blog]
Suburbia. Photo by Stacy Magallon.

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So what happens when McMansions all over the country are downgraded in status and price to the dollar menu? According to an article in The Atlantic, it means we’re witnessing a huge shift in where Americans are choosing to live. The piece, by Brookings Institution fellow/Arcadia Land Company honcho Christopher B. Leinberger, racks up fact after fact to support the theory that the suburbanization of the U.S. has run its course:

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.

Leinberger argues that as cities have increased in cachet over the past decade or so, builders have gone gangbusters on the suburbs, leading to overdevelopment in non-urban areas and huge price premiums in our cities. One demographer he cites forecasts a “likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes 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.” There are plenty of good reasons to believe cities—and manufactured, urban-esque “lifestyle centers” outside of cities that include walkable streets and retail clusters—will only continue to grow in popularity. For example, Leinberger notes that by 2025 there will be an equal number of single-person households as families with children. The whole article is well worth a read, though it oddly doesn’t address the possible racial ramifications of a suburbia-as-slum/cities-of-gold cultural shift. Still and all, it’s a sobering look at how the McMansion developments of today may be the poverty-stricken badlands of tomorrow.
The Next Slum? [The Atlantic]
Photo by bob.