A few months ago, the Atlantic picked up on it, and now it’s CNN.

…once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

I think it’s important to point out how important rail is to this kind of car-free vision. Rail encourages the high-density housing that spurs high-density retail within walking distance. Furthermore, as someone who sometimes uses the bus mid-day and weekends, I’ll point out that without the large capital investment in rail (and ever-spiraling gas prices) the temptation to reduce bus service to inconveniently long intervals is just too high.

When distances are at most a couple of miles and parking is free, the only way transit can compete is with frequent and reliable service, which is much easier to do with rail. The easy platform-level boarding is also a big plus for those pushing carts and strollers (because they’re going about their daily lives!).

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls “drivable suburbanism” — a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

Thirty-five percent of the nation’s wealth, according to Leinberger, has been invested in constructing this drivable suburban landscape…

I wish they’d broken down that 35% figure a bit more, but it’s a useful reminder that the current drive-everywhere status quo isn’t some sort of state of nature, but a directly intended product of subsidies and that right-wing bugaboo, “social engineering.”

The result is an oversupply of depreciating suburban housing and a pent-up demand for walkable urban space, which is unlikely to be met for a number of years. That’s mainly, according to Leinberger, because the built environment changes very slowly; and also because governmental policies and zoning laws are largely prohibitive to the construction of complicated high-density developments.

Zoning is the ultimate affordable housing issue. Today’s “luxury condos” are tomorrow’s middle class flats, and the day after’s run-down apartments. If our laws essentially prevent building this kind of landscape, Seattle will become an unattractive place to live, which will, uh, solve a lot of our growth management problems.

(Via FP Passport)

11 Replies to “Suburban Slum Watch”

  1. Pssst. Guess where many of those same young professionals are going to move when they get married and have kids? Yup. The suburbs.

  2. Sam,
    Maybe, but a lot of my friends with young children have moved to places like First Hill, CD/Madison and the Rainier Valley. I think it’s changing slowly.

  3. Ok, then that would be a change from past trends, where once the kids hit school age, it was off to the suburbs to chase a better education.

  4. James Kunstler once said suburbia was “the greatest mis allocation of resources in the history of the world”

  5. Sam, of course it would be a change, which is why daimajin used the word “changing” in his post. It’s also a change that gas is $4 per gallon and that many cities no longer have a reputation for being unsafe or only for the poor.

    I agree with you that our culture places an emphasis on suburbia as the American dream and this will likely continue for some time. However, how we define suburbia can change. Suburbia doesn’t have to sprawl or require a car, for example. More and more young families are going to consider things like walk-ability and access to transit — especially after living in city city and perhaps continuing to work/commute there.

  6. Sam, the past trend you’re talking about is a change from the past trends before that, which is a change from the past trends before that. We’re changing.

  7. The mindless, unoriginal suburb bashing is getting old.

    I’m traveling (in Calgary, which has a fine LRT system btw). But when I get back, I’m gonna post a long reply about what life is like for some of us out here.

    Let’s just suffice it to say, my neighborhood was here WAY before most of you were even born.

    There’s a significant part of the outlying areas that are, you know, actually providing a service to the city dwellers.

    Don’t lump everyone together.

  8. Brad,

    Many of Seattle’s suburbs actually match the description in the article of cities that have a future, except that they lack rail transit.

    Bellevue, in particular, seems to be on the right track.

    The classic car-centric suburb, though, is in trouble. (Hello, Sammamish!)

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