Wednesday, May 06, 2009

The Exurbs

Via Yglesias, Ben Adler has an excellent piece up on exurbs and walkable suburbs. He compares Leesburg, VA to Kentlands, MD. Leesburg is the ultimate exurban disaster. Far from the metro, the community has not invested in public transportation, sidewalks, or any amenities of urban life. It exists to facilitate whatever developers want. Its primary concern about growth is traffic. On the other hand, Kentlands was a dense suburban community from the beginning with good public transportation and sidewalks. People use this public infrastructure, creating a strong community.

These are the two models of suburban development in the United States. Probably 90% of America has followed the Leesburg model. In Texas, probably 100%. Here in Georgetown, at the northern edge of the Austin suburbs, about 1/2 of the streets do not have sidewalks. It's an old city, but most of the commercial infrastructure has moved to newish strip malls on the edges of town. It's virtually impossible to survive here without a car. When I walk to work, I have to walk on the road most of the time. And people frequently pull over to ask me if I need a ride. That's nice of them and all, but they do it because they think why on earth would a white guy be walking down the road if his car didn't break down? That walking is such a foreign concept here suggests real problems in American urban and suburban living.

While I highly recommend Adler's article, I do think he misses on his predictions for the future.

The edge of today's civilization could be tomorrow's exurb. Despite the current state of the economy, plenty more Leesburgs are likely to be in America's future. According to a study by the Brookings Institution, half of our built environment in 2030 will have been developed from 2000 onward. We know the next generation of exurbs is coming, and we'd better plan for it.

But I'm not sure this is true. There's a lot of structural issues getting in the way of this analysis. First is oil prices. While oil prices are down significantly from where they were a year ago, that's strictly because of the economic downturn. Even time there's even a hint of good economic news, oil prices inch up. When the recession ends and people start consuming and producing again, petroleum costs will again skyrocket. While I know that predicting oil futures is notoriously difficult, this fact seems clear enough to me.

Second, already existing signs suggest that a lot of people are opting out of suburban life. Adler himself cites this information. He points out that one zip code in suburban Virginia has seen home prices drop by 44.7% between September 2007 and September 2008 versus a 3.9% drop in the Adams Morgan neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The exurbs are overbuilt at a time when a lot of people no longer want to live there. Moreover, we have millions of homes, mostly in suburban developments, that have foreclosed. Now owned by the banks, there is little demand for these buildings. We're probably seeing a long-term cultural shift toward urban living by a big chunk of young Americans. There's no doubt that cities now need to provide infrastructure for families, including good schools. Until that happens, a lot of people will want to live in the suburbs. But what kind of suburbs? My guess is that they will flock to places like Kentlands, where they can still live a semi-urban kind of life and get to the city on public transportation.

So I don't think that in 2030 half of our infrastructure will have been built since 2000. Or if that's true, a lot of it will be rebuilt urban infrastructure. I wonder if the future of a place like Leesburg is not one of poverty. Will the United States become like Europe, with the wealthy in the city and the poor in the suburbs? Probably not precisely because of our love affair with the car and with the idealized suburban American Dream that still affects many people. But I can see a day in the near future with the wealthy in the cities, in semi-urban suburban developments like Kentlands, and in pricey exclusive subdivisions with lots of land on the far edges. In the vision, the working-class are basically priced out of the cities and are forced to live in these Leesburg-like subdivisions, living in places with poor schools, rotting infrastructure, and forced to spend much of their meagre income on gas to get to work in the cities. I don't think of this as ideal by any means, but I do believe that we have seen the end of exurban development as far as space from the central city goes.