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The Long, Slow Suburban Decline

— May 10, 2017

Cities and the suburbs around them are in a state of transition. We used to hear about urban decay and white flight, but that trend has been reversing for a while as the Millennials come into their own. Now, we’re enjoying a revitalization of some cities, and facing a long, slow suburban decline.

Cities and the suburbs around them are in a state of transition. We used to hear about urban decay and white flight, but that trend has been reversing for a while as the Millennials come into their own. Now, we’re enjoying a revitalization of some cities, and facing a long, slow suburban decline.

Before we had so many people, there wasn’t as much space between the cities and the rural hinterlands. However, after World War II, returning servicemen wanting to marry their sweethearts and start families combined with pent-up demand and saved wages to create the suburban exodus. Especially in car-centric areas like Detroit and throughout what’s now the rust belt, you could have your tract housing “castle” on a dreamy quarter-acre of recent farmland, with cleaner air, safer streets, and only a short commute for Dad to get to his job in the city.

Inner suburbs popped up like concentric rings around urban centers in order to accommodate this societal trend, with inexpensive, mass-produced houses slapped together all at once. Many of those houses are turning a venerable 70 years old now, and sadly, those cheap construction materials are reaching their expiration date. Whole neighborhoods full of houses falling apart at the same time contributes to the suburban decline. There is little incentive to rebuild in areas where the housing market hasn’t significantly rebounded since the 2007-2008 market collapse.

At the same time, our values are changing. Instead of a pretty quarter-acre that you have to keep mowed and watered, young professionals are gravitating towards walkable, dense city centers with nearby amenities, preferring affordable mass transit systems to the expense and trouble of car ownership. This is leading to a kind of flip-flop, with gentrification of the more attractive urban areas, such as San Francisco, and greater yet reluctant departure for suburbs by those with more modest means.

Those priced out of the urban housing market have to drive a pretty long way to find affordable housing, leading to a re-stratification where the areas in suburban decline become rings of poverty, police/citizen tension, unemployment, and opioid addiction. When you can’t afford a car in the car-dependent suburbs, it’s harder to climb out of poverty. Instead of benefiting economically from city incomes brought back to the ‘burbs, suburban decline both creates and results from a downward spiral of falling tax revenue and businesses that close or relocate closer to affluent customers in the cities, bleeding jobs away from the areas that need them the most. Poorer suburbanites who can only afford to rent the foreclosed houses that speculators bought as investments at the bottom of the market rub elbows with aging, isolated Baby Boomers who don’t want to leave their homes, yet find it harder to climb the stairs, and will eventually be unable to drive.

Tract housing near Union, Kentucky, from the air.
Tract housing near Union, Kentucky, from the air. Suburbs like this could be re-imagined as collections of mini-farms, turning lawns into productive food plots. Public domain photo by Derek Jensen, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

What we need is suburban renewal to combat the suburban decline. This is an ambitious endeavor to consider, since so many people are stuck in suburbia and it covers so much more ground than the urban areas that underwent renewal in the last century. Further, this isn’t the same world with the same resources we had in the 1970s and 80s. Suburban renewal must be carried out with a greater consideration of sustainability, wise land use, empowerment, and in ways that don’t exacerbate economic inequality (and therefore threaten democracy).

Fortunately, people are already exploring the possibilities. The suburban problem of wide open spaces that require a car also provides an opportunity to creatively use so much land. One attractive option is to bring some of that former century-old farmland back into production through urban farming initiatives similar to efforts in Detroit and Los Angeles. After all, the suburbs that will be the first to decay are the most urban-adjacent, near cities full of hungry foodies. Rethinking land use and zoning regulations could pave the way for cottage industries to pop up, allowing people to create their own microbusinesses. Neighborhoods could set aside some space for community centers and other common areas and bring mixed use development to the rows of houses that once served as the nearby city’s bedrooms. Make neighborhoods their own walkable, unique enclaves, with some of the conveniences of the city.

Whatever happens in the next few decades, suburban decline is also an opportunity for rebirth if approached the right way, by empowered residents, wise city councils, and planners with vision. Located between relatively wealthy, liberal-minded cities and politically conservative rural counties, our suburbs could be a much-needed source of unity and imagination for all of us.


Levittown created America’s notion of the suburbs, but it reshaped the city too
The New Suburban Crisis
Here’s Why American Suburbs Are Dying
The Complications of our Deteriorating Inner Ring Suburbs
Strung out in suburbia: Opioid drug crisis hits the suburbs
Are American Suburbs Dying?
Poverty is now largely a suburban challenge
Americans’ Shift To The Suburbs Sped Up Last Year
Many boomers in denial over problems they face growing old in suburbs
Why Renters Are Moving to the Suburbs
Fixing the New Urban Crisis

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