Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Suburban Dream

So, after basically taking two months off, I'm back. Or at least I hope to be.
What better subject to kick things off with than a spiel on the collapsing suburban dream.

So a couple months ago, CNN ran an interesting article asking whether, "America's suburban dream [is] collapsing into a nightmare?" They noted,

This change can be witnessed in places like Atlanta, Georgia, Detroit, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, said Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, where 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.

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.

But now, Leinberger told CNN, it appears the pendulum is beginning to swing back in favor of the type of walkable community that existed long before the advent of the once fashionable suburbs in the 1940s. He says it is being driven by generations molded by television shows like "Seinfeld" and "Friends," where city life is shown as being cool again -- a thing to flock to, rather than flee.

"The image of the city was once something to be left behind,"

Continuing on that theme, the Freakonomics blog ran a quorum on the subject. They asked, "What is the Future of Suburbia?" Answers ran the gamut from 'apocalyptic utopianism' to 'brutal reality.

I then read a great article which talked about this trend featuring, of all places, Chicago. In The New Republic, in an article called Trading Places, Alan Ehrenhalt wrote about the demographic inversion of the American city. He notes,

In the past three decades, Chicago has undergone changes that are routinely described as gentrification, but are in fact more complicated and more profound than the process that term suggests. A better description would be "demographic inversion." Chicago is gradually coming to resemble a traditional European city--Vienna or Paris in the nineteenth century, or, for that matter, Paris today. The poor and the newcomers are living on the outskirts. The people who live near the center--some of them black or Hispanic but most of them white--are those who can afford to do so.

I'm not necessarily sure what to think of this trend. While part of me doesn't want to be part of a trend, I'm completely on board with the benefits of 'New Urbanism'. One of the things we love about the city is the walkability and the option of accessible public transit. Being part of a densely populated area seems to lend itself to a dynamic level of life in a neighborhood that is very appealing to us.

At the same time, there is no doubt that choices are being made. As noted, cost of living is higher. And certain amenities are being chosen over others. And I suppose it does come down to what you matter most. But I guess what most matters to me is that people make that choice not based on false reasons, like schools, but on what they actually are choosing between.
We must ask ourselves, do we want a big yard or a walkable community?

1 comment:

Greg said...

Wow, Westy's back.

And yeah, I would place a high value on walkability.