There’s a great new article in The Atlantic about the trend towards urban living and the likelihood of exurbs becoming low-income neighborhoods. The takeaway is that if you own property in a place like Marysville or Black Diamond, you should sell.

I’m not the best person to critique the article, because it entirely reinforces my prejudices, but I’ve always thought that the hollowing out of our inner cities has been a peculiarly American product of mid-20th-century racism and the breakdown in law enforcement in the 1960s. As those causes recede, we’ll probably end up with a more European-style configuration where the rich people live in the city center and the poor are warehoused out on the fringes.

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…

The experience of cities during the 1950s through the ’80s suggests that the fate of many single-family homes on the metropolitan fringes will be resale, at rock-bottom prices, to lower-income families—and in all likelihood, eventual conversion to apartments.

But don’t panic, Bellevue residents:

Of course, not all suburbs will suffer this fate. Those that are affluent and relatively close to central cities—especially those along rail lines—are likely to remain in high demand. Some, especially those that offer a thriving, walkable urban core, may find that even the large-lot, residential-only neighborhoods around that core increase in value. Single-family homes next to the downtowns of Redmond, Washington; Evanston, Illinois; and Birmingham, Michigan, for example, are likely to hold their values just fine.

A little further out, though, oy:

But much of the future decline is likely to occur on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core. In other words, some of the worst problems are likely to be seen in some of the country’s more recently developed areas—and not only those inhabited by subprime-mortgage borrowers. Many of these areas will become magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.

This has implications for transit planning. For one thing, effective high-capacity transit is a crucial amenity in those dense urban centers; to not have one is a debit against the city’s quality of life in the same way that a giant chemical plant in the middle of downtown would be. Additionally, the people that will absolutely require transit — who are now the urban poor — may become the “periphery poor,” creating new challenges for transit planners. So perhaps those long-haul transit services, so derided by The Stranger and West Seattlites, may be serving the strongest future markets for transit.

BTW, Seattlest beat me to posting about this by quite a bit.

3 Replies to “Inside-out Cities”

  1. that is a fascinating piece

    reminds me a lot of james howard kunstler’s “geography of nowhere” and is in line with much of his predictions for the suburbs of the future (minus the peak-oil craziness)

  2. A little nuance in interpreting history, with Seattle as an example.

    The move to the suburbs was encouraged by the completion of the Floating bridge, in 1940, well before any “fullness” of Seattle was indicated, in 1945, by extending the city limits northward.

    One of the reasons people moved out of town in the 50s and 60s (and early 70s) was to get away from the corrupt city ‘machine politics’ of Seattle. The machine rezoned the Regrade to prohibit the kind of residential we see there today, designated Lake Union as an open industrial sewer to serve the industrial zoned lands on the shore, helped the U of W in a huge land-grab on the north shore of Portage Bay, and generally trashed the city while neglecting basic services and awarding permits to their friends.

    The county sheriffs were just as corrupt as the Seattle police, but the powers of the county were almost nil compared with the powers of the city.

    And, compared with the crimes committed by the police, the building department, City Light and the fire department, there never was a crime wave or breakdown of law and order by citizens. The worst rioting that ever happened in Seattle never destroyed a fraction of the property value that was destroyed in the Regrade, Pioneer Square, the Pike Place Market, and what is now known as the South of Lake Union district, by the actions of the city.

    Strange to say, the state Highway Department was equally lawless in extending I-90 across Mercer Island, and was stopped cold by citizens who established in court that the highway department had discarded the testimony they didn’t want to hear, and had manufactured the testimony they did want to hear. That’s the major reason it took an extra decade to build I-90 across Mercer Island.

    Now that so many readers are too young to have any personal memory of these events, I think it’s important to remember that the current good government of Seattle didn’t just happen- it took major battles in the 70s to clean up the town and break the power of the gangs formed by City Light, the Fire Department, the Building Department, and the City Council.

    And once these gangs were decisively vanquished, Seattle began to recover economically and socially, in spite of continued suburban development.

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