March 25, 2015

The Move From Suburban to “New Urban”

The American suburb, the pride of the post-WWII housing boom, is falling on hard times.  According to New Geography, a website dedicated to analyzing and discussing the built environment, many older suburbs are in decline, falling into poverty and suffering the blight and rising crime rates that young suburbanites once sought to leave behind in America’s cities. 

The article focuses on Carmel, Indiana, a near north suburb of Indianapolis, which has, for the past twenty years, invested in a long-term building and renewal project.  The project’s aim is to build a town that remains essentially suburban but incorporates the best of urban life—like a high “walk score” to shopping, restaurants, and work, and “high quality aesthetics.”  The planners have the long view in mind and are envisioning Carmel as an attractive and productive center of life and commerce for the next one hundred years.  No one knows what life in America will look like in 2115, but recent trends suggest that young people do not want it to resemble the suburban model in which many of them grew up.  A driver’s license—once an essential rite of passage in America and, if only temporarily, the ticket out of suburban sprawl—is apparently no longer the first thing 16-year-olds think about.   Some suggest that our love affair with the automobile is over; according to Business Insider, the average number of miles driven in the U.S. began to decline in 2006 after sixty years of steady growth. The preference for cars over public conveyances made the suburbs possible in the first place.

The trend toward the “new urbanism” that has been discussed for the past two decades has implications for fiscal and public policy and city plans being made now.  If driving is on the decline, how much of our transportation budget do we want to spend on new roads and highways?  Do we want to invest in public transportation with the potential to link together the new urban areas like Carmel that may well emerge to replace the suburbs? Do social services for the poor—traditionally more available in cities—need to be made available in the suburbs?  As a 2013 Time magazine article pointed out, questions like these may have more urgency in the Midwest than in the more densely settled Northeast, where, “city-suburbs like Stamford, Greenwich, West Hartford and others exist in relatively close proximity.” 

More (and more rapid) change in American life is a certainty; how we and the towns and cities we have built will be shaped by that change is yet to be seen.