The Aging–and Unsustainable–Suburbs

A while ago, I noted this about Fairfax County, VA (boldface added):

When I look back at the Northern Virginian county in which I grew up–and which, at that time and still today, is one of the wealthiest counties in the country (Fairfax), I see a similar dynamic. Within the county, the less dense areas that also have high property values are doing fine. Likewise, higher-density areas aren’t decaying either. There’s enough of a tax base. But the ‘muddle in the middle’ is in trouble–or being torn down and turned into one of the two winning strategies. At the county level, the major impetus behind the Tysons Corner urbanization-like-thingee was not the sudden conversion of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors towards a belief in sustainable urban living (STOP LAUGHING! STOP LAUGHING NOW!). They needed the tax revenue, and building ‘out’–that is, sprawl–was no longer economically viable, in part because the county never recouped the costs of massive stereotypical suburban expansion.

The only thing I would add to Morahn’s analysis is that the cost of transportation is almost never considered. When it is considered, the cost of suburban living is quite high.

Nathaniel Hood, while describing the defeat of a small urban center in the Minnesotan suburb of Minnetonka, writes (boldface mine):

It’s a well-to-do middle-class community that has expensive, moderate and cheap suburban living. As far as suburbs go, it has a surprising range of housing price points.

The suburb had it’s largest growth during the 1970s, when its population jumped 43 percent, and again in the 1990s with a 25 percent gain. I only bring this up so you can paint a mental picture of cul-de-sacs of split levels and starter mansions with wooded lots. Add in a regional mall and interstate extension to complete the image.

These suburbs would like to grow their tax base, but they haven’t much additional land to grow outwards. All new growth must go upwards. It is this dynamic that has longtime residents at odds with the future non-existent residents….

However, please consider that the citizens aren’t necessarily wrong [in claiming the development will change Minnetonka’s character]. Developments like these will change the community’s character. But, is changing the character of a stagnating suburban strip mall corridor such a bad thing?

…Suburban retrofits might be the only long-term financially-viable options for aging suburbs. These places often cover a huge land mass, have lots of roadways and sewer pipes, and not a lot of population density to help pay for it. Minnetonka, for example, has a land mass half the size of its neighbor Minneapolis. Yet, its population that is approximately 8 times less.

Most of Minnetonka’s infrastructure is around 30 to 50 years, and those sewer pipes aren’t going to last forever. They’ll need people to pay for it.

I like to ask the question: If not this, then what?

Aging suburbia is going through an identity crisis. Existing residents would like the place to stay much the same. New residents, including those who do not live there yet, are demanding something else. So, what else? These places can’t continue to stay the same. Yet, the change is to difficult for many to swallow. This is why the default for most suburbs is decline. Growth isn’t built into its DNA.

For those living deep in the suburban pattern, new development doesn’t make your life a better place. Nearly the entire housing stock of the second-ring suburb is designed in a way that the lack of development is the best option. If a home’s ideal is to be disconnected, then anything near it – whether good or bad – that isn’t nature is taking away from that aesthetic.

Here in lies one of the biggest faults in suburbia: it’s not designed to change. In mature cities, as land values increased, the intensity of development would follow. That’s why downtown Minneapolis, which once housed single family homes, now has blocks of towering skyscrapers. This is change needs to occur.

The harsh reality is that these places will have to change or face an impending decline.

It’s worth noting, again, that the suburbs were never designed to be a long term solution: they originally were a response to a post-WWII urban housing crisis, fostered both by overall demographics and the great northward migration from the South of African-Americans to urban areas. Sustainability wasn’t even part of the discussion: essentially, these developments were the housing equivalent of deluxe classroom trailers for overburdened schools.

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