Monday, October 12, 2009

Saving the Suburbs

"On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everything drops to zero."

A cautionary tale: no outlet in the fourth dimension.

The Radical Honesty? There is no saving them, but there is a future.

I know I've written about and cited studies of the trend towards increased crime in the suburbs, but alas I can't find those articles despite blogger's supposed search capabilities, so instead, today's article re: suburban decay du jour comes from MSN Real Estate, "Is Your Suburb the Next Slum?" (special bonus points for the title of the video on the sidebar "Has Housing Finally Turned" - no need for editorializing which way it's turning):
That's already happening in places such as Elk Grove, Calif., a community 15 minutes outside Sacramento. Here, builders rushed to build subdivision after subdivision — putting up 10,000 tract homes in just four years at the height of the boom — confident that buyers from all over the Bay Area would trade up to these larger homes.

They were wrong.
Succinct. I admire traits I lack.

I've probably written it before, I know I've spoke of it many times to friends, colleagues, clients, etc., but I'm always struck by the irony of the city's with the most laissez-faire attitude toward development (ie allowing sprawl) never fail to end up having some of the highest tax rates simply b/c they have to in order to pay for the amount of infrastructure per capita that is required for what the easiest possible development model entails.

Many suburban Dallas cities (and even the City itself) are feeling the pinch. Some b/c of the spread out nature, others due to the "drive til you qualify" nature of their outlying housing; in either case the tax base simply can't afford it. Paraphrasing a quote from Green Metropolis (the book is sitting next to me, but when I came across this quote I failed to dog ear the page nor highlight the passage as I typically do ruining all books I've ever owned), the author talked about the stigma of the countryside around times of the French Revolution where only Aristicrats and Rubes lived out there despite the City having undrinkable water, poor sanitation, and worse air.

The Aristocrats' (not the joke) streets were paved in gold, while the country bumpkins were dirt roads at best (b/c both had to pay for themselves in times where classical economics (read: sanity) still ruled the day). It is no different in today's times as we're seeing the bottom drop out of the American Dream and the Middle Class standard of living.

But, that standard of living can be molded. It can be shaped. I'm living proof that you can manipulate your costs to still live like a king. Of course, I don't have kids. But, the underlying point is that the suburban way of life is no longer the ideal model, particularly for the largest generation in American history that are rewriting the rules of the American Dream as they march thru their lives like Sherman from Atlanta to the Sea. Hopefully however, we will be rebuilding railroad tracks rather than mutilating them.

Suburbs are chosen these days for a variety of reasons, none of which are the same as when they were a new creation. They were strictly a reaction to the plagues of what Cities had become and were an embodiment of a democratic ideal that every man was his own king, in charge of his own life.

But, all of that is changing as suburbanites find themselves trapped in traffic jams, chained to their car keys (and the costs associated), stuck in Generica because for the most part there were no other choices. That is hardly free. Today, people leave the cities for schools (which I'm a firm believer that they can be as good as we want them to be once ideology is stripped from the conversation) and for the perception of crime or safety, whichever way you want to think about it.

Turns out that yeah, well, the school thing is still a major (nay, GARGANTUAN) issue not just for a return to urbanity, but for society and this country as well. But, as for the rest of suburbia, we are learning that it's not safe, it's not healthy, it's not sociable, it's not enjoyable, and it certainly isn't lovable. Hat tip to Steve Mouzon on this one, it's his point that for things to be sustainable, they must first be lovable, or they'll just get bulldozed for the next thing, whatever that might be.

The issue about safety is the indefensible nature of suburban design. For lack of a better word, they are unpoliceable. There is too much space.

Watch the time lapse of Detroit's decay. Take a close look at the 1916 years and how little "white" space there is (black is buildings obviously). What this does is minimize the public realm, which means less space per capita, which means higher affordability for high quality spaces and less to maintain, a focus on convergence points forming key public gathering spaces, creating a natural hierarchy where important civic or public buildings can be placed celebrating accomplishments of art, culture, or self-governance.

The beauty of good urban design is the focused nature of the open space...if illicit activity is happening in the privacy of a home, it doesn't affect the public realm unless it is so concentrated as to plague entire districts and overwhelm any efforts at policement and regulation. Furthermore, when Bill Lucy was speaking here, he pointed out data showing that when calculating per capita safety numbers and removing all violent crimes that are committed by friends or relatives, haphazard mortality rates are much higher in suburbs than cities.

The flip side of the ZOMG suburbs are awful commentary is that we've pushed all of our chips into the center of the table. We're pot committed vis a vis that shear amount of infrastructure that I've just been bitching about. So we have to work to save them, but how?

I see two choices and mentioned this in the Transect post from a while back that seems to have quickly become the most clicked post I've ever written. As the rough graphic shows we have an over supply of T2 - what we know as suburbia - and this has to either densify or de-densify.


Jane Jacobs, in Dark Age Ahead, wrote:
Sprawl can become less wasteful only by being used still more intensively. If that happens, suburban sprawl will turn out to have been an interim stage, a transition between land in agricultural use and land densely enough occupied to support mass transit, to form functional and inclusive communities, to reduce car dependency, and to alleviate shortages of affordable housing.
We are already seeing densification occuring in strategic locations, Las Colinas, Addison Circle, Legacy Town Center, Downtown Plano, etc. in some cases these are defined by new transit lines, in other cases the density formed with the idea to be served by transit sometime in the future. This densification allows the outlying communities to become more dense, livable communities with a greater variety of housing product and affordability levels, as well as increased tax base, which we will need to support and fund schools.

Those that densify will have to have a reason for doing so, and will need a certain measure of a real, supportable economy themselves. This entails an infusion of new uses into all single use districts, whether they be retail strips, light industrial parks, suburban office campuses, or single family neighborhoods. But, for the most part, these communities still act as bedrooms for downtown and nearby workers, which is fine for the most part as it still allows for transit use, and the opportunity for choice.

But, what of the further outlying suburbs that will never have any forms of mass transit?

If we're not careful (or if we intentionally allow to do so for environmental reasons) some of the lesser positioned and poorly constructed neighborhoods may turn to dust, or reclaimed by nature as some killer shelters with two car garages and walk-in closets for whatever furry creatures decide on Mulberry Lane to raise their roost.

As Jacobs writes, the way for these areas to maintain themselves as productive members of their metropolitan area, is to intensify their use. And that means import replacement. The way to de-densify is either go back to nature (which for all it does with water and air, IS productive) or replacement of things we truck, pipe, train, ship, or wire in from further locations via local food and energy production.

With giant agribusiness depleting arable soil at an alarming rate, there may just be a plentiful amount of food giving earth still remaining in suburbs that were sold by small farmers, who cared for their land family's b/c their livelihood depended upon the perpetuation of its production value. Often, they were forced to sell their land to developers for a retirement nest egg as their children moved city-ward and/or plummeting commodity prices made it impossible to make a living and compete with said earth rapers corporate agri-business.

The other potential option is as energy production - solar or wind farms, or hell even nuclear - go here to see treehugger's debate on nukes, which might just be a necessary evil as we transition into a post-carbon world, allowing time for technology to fully take advantage of all the Sun's potential.

As I've said, the suburbs to have a future, must have an economy to do so, beyond being strictly bedroom communities, however many industries will learn that they need the synergies of urbanism and will move back to the city following the demographic shift center-ward (being near employees was one of the major reasons for the move of businesses out of cities). Suburban communities have two choices, and neither is the status quo: 1)Densify or 2) start thinking about what kind of imports they can replace with local production - I'm of the opinion that it's food or energy - or maybe it's even water as areas return to nature's natural cleansing ways.