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Posts from the "Suburbia" Category

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Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades — the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay,” by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

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How to “Build a Better Burb”: Advice From Author June Williamson

The suburbs are changing. As cities grow in population and the poverty once associated with urban areas becomes more widely dispersed, even the meaning of “the suburbs” is evolving in the popular consciousness.

June Williamson is a leading expert in suburban design solutions. Photo: OWA

Architect June Williamson has studied suburban evolution and adaptation for more than a decade now. She was co-author, with Ellen Dunham-Jones, of “Retrofitting Suburbia.” Her new book, “Designing Suburban Futures, New Models From Build a Better Burb,” draws on her experience leading the “Build a Better Burb” design competition, which engaged top urban thinkers and designers in strategizing to revitalize greyfield spaces around Long Island.

We caught Williamson by phone recently to ask her what she learned about successful 21st century suburbs through the competition and the process of writing her new book.

Angie Schmitt: What are some of the factors that are compelling change right now in American suburbs?

June Williamson: The need to combat climate change and high carbon footprints that are more typical of suburbanites than urban or downtown dwellers. Increased acknowledgement of the eventual approach of peak oil conditions. The need to not only reduce demand for energy, but also find more renewable resources. A third might be the demographic change in suburbia that is happening because of longer lifespans and the aging of the baby boomers, which is leading to a decreased percentage of the population comprised of households with children. You have a large supply of detached houses and a shrinking supply of households with children to inhabit them. There’s also the proliferation of immigrant suburbs or ethnoburbs combined with the recent rise in suburban poverty.

And I think these are all things that are contributing to change happening, whether people desire it or not. And then there’s the aging of the physical fabric of, especially, the post-war suburbs. The areas that were all built out 50 or 60 years ago. And a lot of them, especially the commercial structures, were relatively cheaply built. They weren’t built to be durable. That is also creating conditions for change but also opportunities for physical transformation.

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Crawlable Urbanism: Cities Are for Kids, Too

All of a sudden, I feel like all anyone is talking about is whether it’s a good idea to raise kids in the city. I’m raising a kid in the city. I feel great about it when she has a blast on the back of the bike, or makes friends on the bus, or gets excited about pressing the beg button at the corner. I feel a little less certain when we toddle down the sidewalk and come upon guys peeing on the dumpster or passed out on the stoop. When I look at the test scores for our neighborhood schools, I get a knot in my stomach.

You knew I was going to post a picture of my kid in this story, didn't you? There's Luna at the fountain in Columbia Heights.

A few days ago I visited my friends’ new home in Potomac, a wealthy, second-ring suburb with enviable schools. Their new house sits on two acres with a pool and a basketball court. After a few hours sipping beer in their landscaped yard and watching our children frolic in the pool, I had to do some mental gymnastics to remind myself why I didn’t pick this path for myself.

This City? Childless?

But the fact is, despite its obvious allure, that path is being chosen by fewer and fewer people. Even among families with kids, many who could afford 5,000 square feet with a pool are increasingly opting for a smaller house, a pool club membership, a shorter commute, and transit access.

In the current issue of City Journal, Joel Kotkin and Ali Modarres pretty much erased this reality — my reality, mind you — with their silly article, “The Childless City”:

Even the partial rebirth of American cities since [the 1960s] hasn’t been enough to lure families [with kids] back. The much-ballyhooed and self-celebrating “creative class” — a demographic group that includes not only single professionals but also well-heeled childless couples, empty nesters, and college students — occupies much of the urban space once filled by families. Increasingly, our great American cities, from New York and Chicago to Los Angeles and Seattle, are evolving into playgrounds for the rich, traps for the poor, and way stations for the ambitious young en route eventually to less congested places. The middle-class family has been pushed to the margins, breaking dramatically with urban history.

Joel Kotkin's idea of city life. Woo-hoo! Photo: Splash News/Corbis via City Journal

“The Childless City” is illustrated with a picture — I’m not kidding you — of “the casts of The Real World and Jersey Shore party[ing] it up at a New York nightclub.” That, to them, illustrates the modern city.

I’d like to take Joel Kotkin on a child’s-eye tour of Washington, DC, a city emptied out a few decades ago by crack and riots and mayhem. Talk about a rebirth.

I’d bring him along to the bilingual story hour at the local library, which is walking distance even for my toddler. I’d show him parents taking the bus with their kids down to the National Mall to see dinosaur skeletons and war planes in our world-class museums. I’d encourage him to play in the fountain in the plaza of the transit-oriented neighborhood of Columbia Heights along with scores of wet, shrieking children of all colors and incomes. And after getting his soak, I’d even buy him frozen yogurt, Chilean empanadas, vegan cupcakes, or Central American fried chicken from the establishments lining the plaza.

All of these child-friendly urban amenities are invisible to Kotkin. “We have embarked on an experiment to rid our cities of children,” he declares. The rent is too high, the yards are too small, the schools are too bad, the neighbors are too sketchy.

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Strong Towns’ Chuck Marohn: Why Suburban Growth Is a Ponzi Scheme

Chuck Marohn cofounded the non-profit Strong Towns in 2009. Since then he has steadily built an audience for his message about the financial folly of car-centric planning and growth. The suburban development pattern that has prevailed since the end of World War II has resulted in what Marohn calls “the growth Ponzi scheme” – a system that isn’t viable in the long run because it cannot bring in enough revenue to cover its costs.

Last year, interest in the Strong Towns message surged and Marohn, in high demand, traveled to towns and cities all over the country delivering “curbside chats” about the need to build places differently. In this Streetfilm we provide an overview of his thinking about street design, land use, and transportation funding. For more Chuck Marohn, visit the Strong Towns blog and check out their podcast.

One of my favorite pieces of commentary from Chuck is this video walk-through of a “diverging diamond” interchange in Springfield, Missouri. As usual he pulls no punches, and he delivers the critique with a biting sense of humor.

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The Next Generation DOT

Cross-posted from the Strong Towns blog

Charles Marohn is a planner and engineer in Minnesota and the executive director of Strong Towns. 

We’ve been looking at the instincts of today’s transportation agencies. While on an individual level it is clear that these organizations are filled with people who are professional, competent and want to do the right thing, the institutional inertia is carrying them in wayward directions.

Lesson for state DOTs: Don't build anything new until you're sure you can maintain what you already have. Image: Public Domain Photos

When confronted with a persistently dangerous intersection, there is no push or conversation to close it. That is not in the play book because the policies of transportation agencies are deeply rooted in misunderstandings about economic growth and development. What is in the play book is the will to make large expenditures on modest improvements in the hopes that the problem will be alleviated. This from agencies that are fatally short of funding. At least we tried.

Unfortunately, those misunderstandings we have about growth and development correlate highway spending with increased prosperity. In reality, this is an illusion brought about by quick and easy development leveraged off these massive investments. The lack of productivity in this approach means that, over the long term, the costs far outweigh the gains. It is the Ponzi scheme of the Suburban Experiment. We’re in the unwinding phase.

Nobody should understand that more clearly than our nation’s DOTs. They are simultaneously over committed and under funded. While they obsess about the latter, it is the former that they will ultimately be forced to reconcile. Many in these agencies — especially the second tier of leaders that are a little more removed from our highway building heydays and a little further from retirement than the first tier – understand this clearly, but they lack an acceptable alternative approach. They are trapped by the inertia of their organization.

It is to those people that I offer my thoughts on the principles and understandings that a Next Generation DOT should embody when making that inevitable course correction.

1. Transportation spending is not economic development.

Speaking of transportation in terms of economic development has been a convenient way to secure additional funding streams. Unfortunately, the meme has become part of the wider culture, even though we know that good transportation systems serve productive growth, not create it. Transportation systems move goods and people. They are not catalysts for productive growth. We know how much that interchange costs so we need to stop pretending that the quiki mart, pet stop and strip mall somehow justify the investment just because it makes the locals happy.

2. Transportation spending is not job creation.
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Will Cities Hold on to Younger Residents as They Have Children?

Many American cities are proving to be more resilient than suburban areas thanks in part to the shifting preferences of today’s young people. But as USA Today reported in a talked-about article earlier this week, the cohort that has flocked to cities is now reaching a stage of life which, historically, has been more closely associated with suburbia.

Photo: Giggle Gab

The oldest “millennials” — a generation that is larger than the Baby Boomers and many degrees more urban — are turning 30 this year. Many will begin settling down and having children — and their priorities will inevitably change.

Smart cities are doing what they can to prevent these folks from moving “upward and outward” like the generations that came before, USA Today’s Haya El Nasser reports. According to the sources USA Today consulted, this transitioning generation will be looking for good schools and recreational opportunities, but they’ll still want strong transit and walkability — a key advantage of city life over the suburbs.

Places like Los Angeles, Cincinnati, and Oklahoma City are looking at ways to help young families stay. Denver been mapping “day care centers, preschools, grocery stores and jobs” to see how well-served they are by transit. Cities like Charlotte, Anaheim, and Dallas are looking at ways to provide larger, more family-friendly housing choices within smaller urban lots. The school reform movement and the push to improve the quality of public education is another major piece of the puzzle.

There’s a lot at stake for all the residents of these cities, El Nasser points out: “Hanging on to residents as they age, make more money and have kids is a plus for cities because it strengthens and stabilizes the tax base while creating an involved constituency.”

Richard Florida told El Nasser that he expects 60 or 70 percent of millennials to move to the suburbs when they start families, compared to about 95 percent of their predecessors.

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Study Predicts “Resilient Walkable” Places Will Lead the Housing Recovery

This morning, a Minnesota Public Radio host asked me if the exurbs, whose growth rate flattened when the recession hit, are going to come back. Lots of people from far-distant suburbs like Blaine and Farmington called in, saying they like the way of life out there – they like having acres of trees buffering them from their nearest neighbor — and people won’t want to stop living in communities like that.

The data suggests otherwise, though. Earlier this week, the Demand Institute (a think tank created by the Conference Board — “a global, independent business membership and research association” — and Nielsen — yeah, the TV ratings people) released a report on the housing recovery. They say the worst of the housing crash is over and glimmers of recovery are on the horizon. But hope isn’t spread out uniformly across these United States. Those exurbs like Blaine and Farmington, Minnesota? They’re not coming back so fast.

Urban areas didn’t lose as much value during the recession. Home prices didn’t crash so hard. Not so many people found themselves under water, owing more on their mortgages than their homes are worth. And urban areas are bouncing back faster. The Demand Institute calls these places “Resilient Walkables.” Only 15 percent of the U.S. population lives there.

The report bases its prognosis for recovery on seven factors: population size, walkability, severity of the crash, current affordability, unemployment, foreclosure inventory, and foreclosure policy. The Institute found what Angie noted earlier: Walk Score is positively correlated with strong housing prices. The Institute’s analysis of almost 1,700 U.S. cities showed that walkable cities had more positive price growth.

And it found that these “Resilient Walkables” were resilient indeed, with house prices projected to rise three percent next year and five percent a year for the four years after that.

Compare that to the places the Institute calls “Slow and Steady” – where more than a third of Americans live and where double-digit housing declines destabilized the market. Economic indicators are gloomy for these areas, but the authors find the planning solid, so the future is relatively bright. These are places like Charlotte, NC, Dallas and semi-urban D.C. suburbs like Gaithersburg, MD, and the study forecasts three percent growth starting in two years.

Then there are the “Damaged But Hopeful” areas – a category that encompasses big but depressed cities like Chicago and smaller ones like Stamford, CT. Thirty percent of Americans live in these places, too many of them fighting foreclosure. It will take them a little longer to get to three percent growth but from 2017 onward, the Demand Institute predicts that they’ll beat the national average.

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Brookings: Suburban-Style Zoning Linked to Educational Inequality

Metro areas in the Northeast were found to have the highest "test-score gaps," a measure of educational inequality. Brookings found this was linked to economic segregation reinforced by large lot zoning in suburban jurisdictions. Image: Brookings

What do laws that mandate large yards and prevent walkable development have to do with educational opportunity? Turns out, there’s an important connection.

The Brookings Institution recently examined educational inequality across the U.S. by race and income. One of the key findings was that large-lot zoning requirements effectively restrict access to quality education for low-income children, hindering their long-term economic prospects.

Restrictive zoning laws are widespread. Brookings reports that 84 percent of municipalities impose some minimum lot size, the average being 0.4 acres. The authors note that this is larger than the average lot size of a single-family home in America — 0.26 acres. In other words, in most places it’s illegal just to build a home of typical size.

The authors report that these laws “effectively block low-income students and their families from living near or attending” public schools where students perform well on state exams. In areas with large lot laws, it is significantly more expensive to live near good public schools than it is in areas without restrictive zoning, according to the study.

This in turn has a significant effect on educational attainment and economic opportunity. Low-income students who attend top schools score two percent higher than state averages, according to Brookings. Low-income students attending low-performing schools score 18.5 percent below average.

The authors believe their research points to the inadequacy of education reforms like school vouchers or merit pay for teachers:

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The Incredible Shrinking Megastore: Retailers Think Outside the Big Box

They lord over empty parking lots in Hazard, Kentucky; Twinsburg, Ohio; and Lewiston, Washington like the ruins of a lost civilization. Vacant Walmart stores are slowly decomposing in more and more American towns these days. More than 100 of them have been memorialized as part of the group Flickr pool known smugly as “They Sold for Less.”

Another one bites the dust. A vacant Walmart in Lewiston, Washington. Photo: Flickr/Happy Vampire

These empty husks — yet to be filled by any other retail tenant — are part of the detritus left behind by a paradigm shift in the real estate industry. Signs of the changing times, they tell us what kind of society we were before the bubble burst.

Now, as the commercial real estate industry regroups, evidence is mounting that Walmart and other mega-retailers will take a much different form than they have in the past. The new American shopping experience, according to many industry observers, will be less “suburban big-box” and more “urban destination.”

The demise of several mega-retail chains during the recession, including Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things, helped produce a vast oversupply of retail space, particularly that of the giant, boxy, just-off-the-interstate variety. Last summer, the research arm of giant commercial real estate firm Colliers International reported that there was nearly 300 million square feet of vacant big box retail space on the market — 34 percent of total retail vacancy left behind by a recession that walloped commercial real estate almost as hard as housing.

Since 2008 alone, 120 million square feet of big box retail space has become available. To put such numbers in perspective, that is the equivalent of the total shopping center space in Cincinnati, Kansas City and Baltimore combined, Colliers reported.

This period of retrenchment has humbled even the once-mightiest of retail forces. CNN reported last month that Walmart stores suffered their ninth-straight quarterly drop in sales. Another sign of the times: Walmart is no longer enough of a bargain for U.S. consumers, it appears. The mega-retailer has been losing market share to dollar stores.

The situation has apparently reached the point where the retail monolith is rethinking its whole carbon-gulping model. Walmart is joining other retailers in thinking smaller and more urban, says Ed McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

“What the recession has made completely clear is that we have way too much retail,” McMahon said. “We are going from the era of the big box to the era of the small box.”

Enter the “Walmart Express.”

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How Seniors Get Stuck at Home With No Transit Options

According to AARP, 88 percent of seniors want to stay in their own homes as long as they can. But where are those homes? In auto-dependent suburbs. That’s where most Baby Boomers grew up, in the postwar era, and that’s where most of them have stayed – even as the largest (and longest-living) generation ever enters its golden years.

As baby boomers age, more of them are finding that auto dependent suburbia doesn't work for everybody. Photo: Transportation for America

However, more than 20 percent of seniors (age 65 and up) do not drive at all. In the spread-out, transit-poor communities where many of them live, seniors who don’t drive miss out on countless opportunities. According to a report released today by Transportation for America called “Aging in Place: Stuck Without Options”:

Absent access to affordable travel options, seniors face isolation, a reduced quality of life and possible economic hardship. A 2004 study found that seniors age 65 and older who no longer drive make 15 percent fewer trips to the doctor, 59 percent fewer trips to shop or eat out, and 65 percent fewer trips to visit friends and family, than drivers of the same age.

The Center for Neighborhood Technology conducted the analysis for the T4A report, finding that a large proportion of seniors lack transit access currently, and that in 2015, just a few short years away, 15.5 million seniors will find themselves without transportation options

“My generation grew up and reared our children in communities that, for the first time in human history, were built on the assumption that everyone would be able to drive an automobile,” said John Robert Smith, former mayor of Meridian, Mississippi and co-chair of Transportation for America.

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