Tag Archives: suburbs

Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

If you have even an inkling of the general direction urban studies is going in (and if you’re reading this post, you probably have more than that) you probably know that the suburbs are the wellspring of all things inefficient and dirty and conceited. Loosely packed strips of suburbia spelled economic ruin for overextended budgets throughout the country, and all those two car garages meant an ever-bloating plume of greenhouse gasses floating in our planet’s atmosphere. Suburbs would be the end of this country’s greatness, we are told, and the only way to get back on track was to raze the American Dream of a detached house and a backyard and replace it with a 3rd floor walkup and a subway pass.

Easy enough, right?

But changing the living arrangements of tens of millions of Americans who have been living on stagnant wages isn’t as easy as simply changing their tastes in geography. Sure, cities are getting more and more desirable for young, creative Americans, but how many can afford to stay in the city when they start a family and need to move out of their closet-sized studio? And can you blame the couple that wants their own, personal patch of green without having to wake up the sound of garbage trucks and revelers at 4 AM?

The suburbs, more and more, resemble that escape hatch from the pressures of city life. (My temporary move from Brooklyn to Newport Beach has caused a crisis of conscience. I’m almost anxious thinking about how much easier everything is here compared to NY.) It’s the easy way out. Walking 5 blocks to the dirty, either freezing or boiling subway to wait for a train and get to the crowded and overpriced grocery store, or hop in your car, drive five minutes, and not have to carry your groceries more than 60 collective feet. Yes, there are days when I wish for the suburbs—I can hear the collective groan of my hardened urbanist friends now.

But more often than not, we here at Radials understand the severe inefficiencies and inequalities that the suburbs breed, from economic to environmental to demographic. They can’t be unbuilt though, so here’s a list of what of current problems and potential fixes that our low-density dwellers can drive in the near-future:

1. Energy and Resource Use

Vertical living relatively easy on the earth: hot water is typically communal cutting out the need for individual tanks for every 3 or 4 people, electricity distribution is concentrated as is potable water infrastructure and heating, and smaller abodes typically mean less intense energy use.  You’re also squeezing more people into less space allowing goods and services to be more efficiently parceled out—you’d be surprised how much those fleets of mail and garbage trucks affect the environment through their collective emissions when they have to go house to house instead of building to building.

 Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

Most of the efficiencies that can squeezed out of the suburbs are in transportation-related improvements (much more on that later) but there is still ground to be broken on immobile energy technology. Solar water heaters have been installed on top of 30 million households in China and the technology has gotten to the point where the panels operate under less than heliophilic conditions. District heating, where temperatures for thousands of homes can be regulated by a single, centralized plant, has been embraced by countries in Europe and Asia and plants are increasingly turning away from fossil fuels in favor of alternative energy. The best part: neither technology is density dependent. You can have your yard and trimmed hedges and nosy neighbors and still heat your house and your showers without the inconvenient plume of carbon dioxide.

(Note: I am not addressing alternative electricity sources for the suburbs here on purpose. There are quite a few choices out there on the market but none of them have been terribly successful and are almost universally price out anyone outside the top quintile of income brackets unless you’re an enterprising electrician with some spare solar cells lying around. As reductive as this sounds, the market will (with some help from choice subsidies) end up dictating the next step in residential energy production after fossil fuel production becomes either exorbitantly expensive or morally unsavory. The question is more about time horizons than innovation at this point.)

 Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

Suburbs Courtesy www.infrastructurist.com

2. Environmental Degradation Due to Development

There’s an amazing amount of resources that go into building detached houses individually, but even more disturbing is the volume of destruction that developers produce when they build clusters of tract housing. If you’ve ever traveled through the American west (Arizona and California especially; Las Vegas for true suburban dystopia) you’ll have seen the razed acres dotted with Version 1, Version 2, Version 3, etc. of a given set of prefabricated houses connected by curving asphalt and cursory greenways and bordered by a shoddy brick barrier or, in a nod to Czarist Russia, wrought iron gates.

Suburban development harms the environment for a pretty simple reason: they’re new. New buildings, even if they’re built out of recycled pizza by a hemp clad all-vegan construction crew and go LEED triple platinum, still leave a foundation-sized footprint and, as the well worn theory goes, used always trumps new when it comes to the environment. Those negative impacts are magnified when firms decide to build sub-developments in geographies that are, outside of millions of dollars in resource infrastructure, generally uninhabitable. Thousands of people were never meant to live in the Nevada of Arizona desert, so why are we building sprawling ranch houses with lush green lawns outside of Las Vegas and Tucson? Well, because we keep buying them.

Once again the secret to improving the environment is in the economy. When you buy a house in the ‘burbs, you are buying a final realization, a product of brick and mortar and sweat and engineering without having to pay for the externalities associated with the your home—the miles of pipe sucking water from an overworked aquifer, the stretch of concrete from your garage to a major onramp, etc. The non-inclusive (and often, non-monetized) costs are called externalities and there has been a decades’ long clamoring to capture these costs correctly in the form of excise taxes. The argument has generally been focused on drivers who have been paying a paltry $0.184 in gas taxes to the Federal government for two decades—even conservative economists say that it doesn’t even begin to capture the true cost of driving.

So what if we actually made developers and surburbanites pay the true cost of that immaculate green rectangle and spare bedroom? It sounds coldly practical but monetizing and penalizing for environmental degradation is among the only ways to actually influence development and consumer actions; if you want to move to the middle of the desert and expect a constant source of freshwater where there just isn’t any, then you (and the firm that built your home) should have to pay for more than just the infrastructure, you should have to pay what it actually costs the environment as a whole.

3. Transportation

If there’s one thing about living in suburban California I’ve learned it’s that driving is a necessity. The nearest grocery store is 1.5 miles away, my brother’s school is another 5, and the majority of jobs are between 10 and 50. There’s a bus system on main thoroughfares but, in what seems like a complete slap in the collective face of urban planning and/or simple logic, residences aren’t on any of the main thoroughfares. Getting around in these brands of suburbs is 100% car dependent that even a doubling or tripling of transit infrastructure would still only provide a marginal decrease in the proportion of families needing more than one car. Transportation in the suburbs is not a structural problem, it’s a geographic one.

As we’ve discussed at Radials recently, petroleum prices will ebb and flow with futures traders, Middle East chaos, and general demand. $4 per gallon gas isn’t enough to change driving habits significantly nor is it enough to spur ambitious and ubiquitous pursuit towards alternative methods of propulsion. The general consensus, though, is that oil production will peak and begin a relatively swift decline especially as the economies of India, China, and Brazil step up their demand for light sweet crude and Americans will eventually be looking down the barrel at $10 or $12 gasoline—more than enough to drive major automotive manufacturers towards something other than combustion engines.

suburb Fixing the Suburbs from the Inside Out

We’ve seen what industry titans like Nissan and Chevrolet can do with relatively modest cuts of their R&D budgets, as well as what boutique companies like Tesla and, more recently, Fisker can cut from whole cloth (though both companies have come under scrutiny for favoring form over function, though the form is pretty fantastic) in terms of all electric vehicles and several major builders have experimented with hydrogen-powered vehicles that spout water as their sole byproduct, but these are almost exclusively niche products favored by tony environmentalists and have yet to hit the market as anything more than a gimmick. (The rather large exception being the Toyota Prius which some say is purchased as more a badge of “conspicuous environmentalism” as a good friend puts it than a nod to true stewardship—and of course runs on gasoline. Also, it should be noted that upwardly mobile CAFE standards are not a solution to car emissions since most drivers tend to increase their miles traveled in tandem with their fuel economy.)

Of course, there is the argument that the volume of emissions and waste that goes into actually making a new car from scratch almost negates the effect that any low-or-zero emission car will have over its lifetime. But that theory lacks foresight. If alternative energy vehicles begin to switch market positions with their petrol-powered counterparts then eventually you create a secondary market that is essentially zero-impact and, by proxy, allow communities that are auto-based become saturated with earth friendly cars.

That endgame is down the road, admittedly, but one wonders what auto manufacturers could do if they really put their collective backs into creating more than niche vehicles—if electric cars could be more than a novelty for upperclass environmentalists. Would two car garages be as menacing to the progressive urbanist if they housed a Leaf and a Volt?

We’ve gotten ourselves into a mess when it comes to suburban sprawl but it’s not the type of problem that can be solved through tearing down and building back up. The imprint of the suburbs will last for decades in this country, and people will continue to leave apartment blocks for ranch houses and colonials for reasons of cost and aesthetics and health while simultaneously degrading the environment and straining the country’s infrastructure. Inefficiencies abound but razing the ‘burbs isn’t the answer (as much as many of you want it to be!), changing the culture is a much cleaner alternative.

The Fringe Suburb Isn’t Dead, It’s Just Not Breathing

 The Fringe Suburb Isnt Dead, Its Just Not Breathing

Copyright Allison V. Smith for The New York Times

It seems like progressive urbanism is starting to sell papers. Two pieces on suburban sprawl, that ever creeping bogey man facing every urban planner under 50, have graced the front pages of the New York Times website over the past three days. I won’t talk about Louise Mozingo’s essay, an excellent piece on the reconceptualization of suburban office parks which are so completely sterile and anesthetized that the only thing they remind me of is an outdoor mental hospital. I’m here because of Christopher Leinberger.

Prof. Leinberger (the author is a professor of planning at University of Michigan) used his space in the Times to discuss a pretty popular subtopic of sprawl: the death of the suburb, perhaps best addressed by Alison Arieff’s writing in the same paper a few weeks ago (reaction here). Leinberger takes a look at suburban decline from the perspective of real estate valuation, his thesis based on square footage prices gleaned from the Zillow real estate databases and how those prices map to the geography of a typical metropolitan area. The facts are inarguable: real estate valuations in non-urban areas were chopped while the archetypal city dwelling remained a stable holding. The conclusion then being that the precipitous price drop for exurban homes was based upon the revealed preferences of moneyed classes who apparently saw the 2011 versions of urban Washington, Columbus, and Seattle as ideal places to scoop up undervalued homes. Prof. Leinberger puts the onus of the argument on the back of the demographic shifts of the 1950′s-90′s:

The shift is durable and lasting because of a major demographic event: the convergence of the two largest generations in American history, the baby boomers (born between 1946 and 1964) and the millennials (born between 1979 and 1996), which today represent half of the total population.

Boomers want to live in a walkable urban downtown, a suburban town center or a small town, according to a recent survey by the National Association of Realtors.

What Prof. Leinberger seems to say is that the prevailing magnetism of urbane, walkable, dynamic neighborhoods marks the end of the American obsession with the white picket fence and the 1,000 square foot master bedroom. And he’s right. Most affluent people who want an interesting life are choosing to move closer and closer to the city center where only two or three decades ago they would have chosen a detached in Scarsdale or Irvine (both of which are still thriving and retained a huge chunk of their peak housing value). Exciting rich people want the West Village, not Westport.

The thesis seems half-baked, and the fact that Prof. Leinberger bases his essay solely off a growing general population without any passing reference to the shifting ethnic makeup of city centers concurrent with those booms is a little head scratching, at best. Yes, burgeoning family sizes forced many to adopt the suburban future that was so expertly marketed to returning soldiers and expectant mothers, but the resulting white flight created an urban core that was dominated by recently relocated Black Americans from the Jim Crow south and non-White immigrants who did not (do not?) command salaries on par with their White counterparts and couldn’t afford to pay the same rent and didn’t received similar levels of municipal maintenance. The cities became ugly places to live, the suburbs maintained a mystique of unique euphoria.

The current phenomenon is just an economic boomerang. When there was an overwhelming desire for spacious housing stock in neighborhoods miles from the city, prices bloated and the rolling mansions far outside of metropolises commanded seven-and-eight figure sums; now the apartments in formerly dilapidated warehouses do. The value oscillation priced out former residents, many of whom moved to the least desirable parts of the city geography, either still poor and underdeveloped barrios or to the edge of town. The shifts became a circular displacement, and the subprime mortgage crisis are drowning those caught in an especially bad tide.

(Aside: I’m not a big gentrification sabre rattler; everyone has a right to move into whatever neighborhood they want regardless of the history or prevailing cultural values or ethnic demographic. The fact that upper middle class white people may move into a predominantly Haitian or Vietnamese or Polish community and through a series of economic levers increase local price indexes and median real estate rental costs is not a problem with the interlopers but rather a system that hasn’t allowed the relatively indigenous folks there the opportunity to improve their neighborhood from the core to the crust. Consequentially that freedom of movement is based solely on financial flexibility, which is where the problems with Prof. Leinberger’s analysis begin.)

Exurbs became the modern incarnation of 1980′s era TriBeCa or 1990′s Brooklyn; underinvested, ignored, poor. But destitute places are not hewn from the landscape, they’re created by a set of circumstances, some of which are controllable and some that are wildly variable and it is the meshing and clashing and volatility of those bounds that create modern landscapes. The exurb is no different; a terrain shaped by circumstance and preference. I can imagine that 30 years ago, men and women read about the death of the city and the triumph of the sprawling development and there was no evidence to the contrary; prices and jobs were good and the city looked to be wailing a death rattle. This time it’s not so much that the fringe suburbs are dead, they’re just not breathing.

Smart Growth Federal Funds Coming to the Boston Suburbs; Do It Yourself Bike Lanes in Mexico

A couple of stories have been floating around the interweb that address at progressive urbanism from either end of the spectrum. First, the suburbs around Boston are receiving an influx of funding from the Federal government that are expressly dedicated to “smart growth.” While the terminology might be nebulous the projects are surprisingly well-targeted. Here’s a couple of examples from the Boston Globe (via Planetizen):

In Everett, $52,796 in federal funding will be used to develop specific goals for housing, transportation, economic development, and public services. Throughout the process, planners will employ innovative techniques to engage residents of diverse backgrounds.

The $60,000 federal grant in Lynn will be used to develop the best ways to reach local immigrant entrepreneurs and help them increase their businesses so that the most successful initiatives can be replicated in other urban gateway communities.”

Just as a quick geography lesson for non-New Englanders: Everett is a predominantly white (~80%) working class (median income: $49, 830) north Boston suburb; Lynn is more mixed ethnically with a slightly lower comparative economic profile (median income: $41,993) up on the North Shore. The semantics of the Globe article are important as the money—minor on the Federal ledger but a decent influx to middle class communities—goes towards studies that are predicated on utilizing “innovative techniques [and] initiatives” and not the projects themselves necessarily. It might seem like a silly use of money, i.e. using small amounts of grant funding to initiate studies, but (and this is coming from some one who used to consult for a living so there’s a little bias alert here) analyzing the project before getting too far down the road can save millions in project delays and potential fines.

Overall, the study funding will be interesting to follow as shovel-ready projects emerge in several communities around Boston. Boston itself is beginning to progress on the urbanism front with a bicycle share program unveiled this summer and the expansion of food truck permitting following soon after (yes, food trucks are important to liberal metropolitanism). Here’s hoping that the entire urban area moves forward in the same vein.

On a completely different plane we see the construction of a do-it-yourself bike lane in Mexico (via Radials’ good friends over at This Big City, I encourage everyone to check out the excellent pictures on Mr. Peach’s blog, they are especially inspiring for velo-activists; StreetsBlogNet picked it up as well):

Mexico City’s government pledged in 2007 that it would build 300 km of bike lanes around the city by 2012. However, the city still only has 22.2 km because most money is allocated to car infrastructure, leaving aside non-motorized mobility. That’s why the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy and the National Network for Urban Cycling (BiciRed) launched a campaign called ’5% for bicycles and pedestrians’, which asks national legislators to assign at least that percentage of the transportation budget to non-motorized infrastructure.

To promote that campaign and pressure legislators into action, several cycling and pedestrian organizations decided to paint their own bike lane in front of Congress on October 20th. This was our way of showing how little money and time is required to create quality infrastructure. We wanted to show that governments just need the will to promote non-motorized transport. However, that bike lane was efficiently erased just two days after it was painted, and no city official claimed responsibility.

We were all understandably angry, so we decided to do it all over again but better. We set a goal of painting a 5km bike lane that would end at Congress, the Wikicarril (wikilane). We funded our effort through Fondeadora, a crowd-sourcing site, and we managed to collect 13,500 pesos (about US$1,000) in just 4 days thanks to the collaboration of 37 generous supporters.”

The project title may not be the catchiest thing in the world (believe me, it’s not much smoother in Spanish) but the concept is pragmatic, achievable, and popular, a public policy trifecta. These are also exactly the brands of community development projects that Mexico’s neighbors to the North could stand to emulate: cheap, grassroots, and inherently beneficent. While the initial bike lane was erased by public officials the stalwart efforts of a few dozen activists, paired with even keeled interaction with police officers and city officials, put DIY-community development front and center for bicycle activists in D.F.

Lowering Speed Limits Will Save Lives if Everyone is Perfectly Moral

If you’re going to get hit by a car, you’d obviously want to be hit by one traveling 20 MPH instead of 50 MPH because you’d have a better chance of living according to brutal laws of physics. But how big is that difference, really? Is there a better chance of living if the car is traveling 40 MPH instead of 50? 20 MPH instead of 25? Well, according to Sightline Daily’s Eric de Place, the answer is categorically yes.

De Place’s chart refers to studies conducted in the UK and Australia on the probability of an automotive-related fatality when a pedestrian is hit by a car traveling at a given speed, in these cases 20, 30, and 40 MPH. Put shortly: you don’t want to be hit by a car traveling 40 MPH because you will likely not make it, 30 MPH is a coin flip, and at 20 MPH you would be a deceased outlier. The range of speeds implies a rather specific scenario, i.e. these are pedestrians being hit in cities and suburbs on arterial and side streets, not subjects crossing Pacific Coast Highway or U.S. 1 in Florida where cars are often going 20-30 MPH faster than these experiments’ upper range. The conclusions, then, are even more obvious: allow cities to reduce their speed limits and you will save lives.

It’s apparently a popular conclusion, with de Place’s linear logic finding homes with The Daily Beast’s Andrew Sullivan, Crosscut’s Douglas McDonald, and the Sunbreak’s Michael van Baker all agreeing with the reduction theory. We here at Radials agree as well, at least with the premise.

 Lowering Speed Limits Will Save Lives if Everyone is Perfectly Moral

Pedestrian Walkway, Washington, D.C. (Photo: flickr/mulad)

Reducing speeds in predominantly residential areas would reduce the amount of fatalities from cars if the laws were enforced to an unprecedented degree. With budgets for law enforcement dropping nationally and municipalities facing increasingly dire economic situations there may just not be enough manpower and administrative will to complete an alteration of the automotive landscape, even if it’s a public safety concern. . A friend in the transportation world who I will leave anonymous even brought up the heuristic argument which has significant merit: “It seems like you’re much more likely to be nabbed for speeding in a non-felonious way (i.e. 10-15 mph over the limit) on  arterial roads than on side streets,” but it’s much more likely that “you get busted for felonious speeding on side streets” i.e. going 30+ MPH over the posted limit. I’ve never been cited once for driving 10-15 MPH over the speed limit in my years navigating the California suburbs and doubt that strained city budgets would be any better at enforcing those laws during an economic crisis.

There’s two competing logics here. One is that reducing speeds will help save pedestrians from fatal collisions. That is patently inarguable. The other is more cynically social: lowered speed limits won’t help people if no one pays attention to them, and with less cops on the road that is a completely understandable conclusion. Van Baker admits this second line at the end of his article:

It’s not clear how much a 20-mph speed limit on certain residential streets would affect accident rates. There is always the question of whether people would obey the limit in the first place. But it doesn’t seem like a terrible thing, does it, if people want to request a lower speed limit where they live?”

It’s a rather innocuous comment, but offers a little bit too strong of a hedge that relies on moralistic pandering and American-brand libertarianism. Of course people should be able to change their local speed limits without paying for terribly expensive engineering impact studies, but that won’t necessarily solve any problems other than changing the signs. A better decision for these communities would be speed calming strategies on residential and arterial streets where drivers wouldn’t have to depend on the better angels of their operative natures, they’d have to decide between speeding and sending their car to the shop and your wallet can speak a lot louder than your lawful loyalty. Speed calming isn’t an inexpensive venture but they are categorically effective and would go a longer way towards reducing the amount of pedestrian fatalities because they are physical manifestations of a community’s desire to reduce residential speeds, rather than just psychic ones.

The Suburbs Are Getting Poorer, So What Are We Going to Do About It?

Note: For the purposes of this article “Brookings” refers to the Brookings Institution, not to some one named Brookings which would be completely confusing. No one in this article is named any derivation of “Brookings” so that should keep bewildered looks to a minimum.

When the demise of the suburbs makes the front page of the New York Times  website you know that there might be something to this whole neo-urbanism meme after all. The Brookings Institution study highlighted in the article (you can find it here) was actually part of an artfully crafted packet of data that I received at the Ford Foundation’s Just Cities conference a few months back which I dutifully packed into my briefcase and just as fast lost track of in my subsequent move. I’m glad it popped up again because I had planned to do a few pieces as a follow up to that package but it appears the staff at the Times has done the corresponding legwork needed to really dig into a data folio of that import.

The suburbs are getting poorer. And in places like Detroit (59%) and Cleveland (57%) they are becoming the impoverished majority stripping the barren main streets of Woodward and Euclid of their manufactured stigma. Brookings’ findings aren’t astonishing, geographically speaking. While the suburbs may hold a general reservation on the American imagination, outside of major economic centers the suburbs aren’t exactly an attractive tract of land to live in. Of the nine cities listed in Brookings’ chart cataloging the shift of poverty distribution only two (Houston and Chicago) have more than a million people within city limits and the sheer size of Houston (explored here) most likely skews its data points on par with an organically lateral city like Los Angeles.

While the suburbs may hold a general reservation on the American imagination, outside of major economic centers the suburbs aren’t exactly an attractive tract of land to live in.”

What Brookings is observing is most likely the result of two different brands of pushed poverty: job access and the reentrance of affluence to urban cores (idiotically and bathetically called “gentrification”; that word holds an especially terrible place in my urban-exicon). Suburban occupational development has been dominated by service sector growth and low income jobs—there are more opportunities to work at the Gap and McDonalds than Deloitte and Caterpillar when you live far from economic hearths (NB: the qualitative difference between the two jobs is, of course, editorialized, but there can’t be much in the way of argument against the latters’ personal financial merits). The decentralization of service economies that let Westport and Irvine become wealthy and thriving communities didn’t expand itself to the industrial Midwest where industry was built upon industriousness rather than the design of algorithms and financial alchemy so when the landscape shifted underneath the detached single-family homes outside of Minneapolis and Cleveland everyone fell to the ground hard.

The decentralization of service economies that let Westport and Irvine become wealthy and thriving communities didn’t expand itself to the industrial Midwest where industry was built upon industriousness rather than the design of algorithms and financial alchemy so when the landscape shifted underneath the detached single-family homes outside of Minneapolis and Cleveland everyone fell to the ground hard.”

And then, of course, there was the credit binge and subsequent hangover that, like much else in the world, disproportionately felled the middle and lower economic tiers in places like Buffalo, Cleveland, and Provo. There was no sort of liquidity cushion that mortgage-and-credit-card holders in the rust belt had to collapse onto; when they lost, they lost everything and the geographic poverty metrics reflect a fault line that ruptured so much of the suburban landscape that boarded windows are as visible in Parma Heights, OH now as they were in the South Bronx in the 1980s.

I have an uncomfortable relationship with the word gentrification. It’s cliché and stereotypical and at the end of the day places an awkward load of emotional stigma on the skinny shoulders of symptoms and not their institutional roots, but gentrification is another genesis point of the suburban decline.

It’s easiest to imagine urban geography as a set of demographic Von Thunen circles. From the 1960s until the 1990s and 2000s the center loop was dominated by low-income, minority communities who lived in the urban core because that’s where housing prices were the cheapest with wealthy whites inhabiting the outer circle (i.e. suburbs) because they had the means to escape rising crime rates and would pay to commute from their detached single family homes. Modern trends have created a new central circle of affluent, mainly white demographics that are moving into the inner city and opening wine bars and expensive coffee shops and by proxy raising home prices to levels that are unaffordable by low-income minorities. While it hasn’t pushed the former inner city all the way to affluent enclaves way outside the city, it has forced many to relocate to the outskirts of urban areas where rent is still affordable but services are few and far between. The reformulation of these circles is a big reason we see suburban penury rates increasing and the tipping of the urban-to-suburban poverty scales.

You could go to dissertation lengths exploring the root causes of non-urban poverty (transportation costs are explored here) and the shocks that quivered the foundations of several communities (e.g. New Orleans, Detroit) will skew statistics for the foreseeable future. The Brookings’ study should serve two purposes: A yard and a fence aren’t necessarily better alternatives to a walkup and a subway and that the need for general reinvestment in urban areas (education, small businesses, affordable housing) has reached an impasse. It’s time to bring cities up to speed through a restructuring of how we see urban geography and reinvestment is a good way to start.

Shifting the Suburban Housing Price Paradigm

Note: This article is in response to the NYT’s Allison Arieff’s wonderful article on the follies of pre-fab suburbs and how the American innovation ethic should be ashamed that cookie-cutter houses are one of our most easily identified exports. You can read the article at the link above (and I highly recommend you do so). 

Disasters do well when they’re glued to our memory through a short, descriptive nickname. We have Savings-and-Loan, Katrina, and the Dust Bowl, among dozens of other branded traumas. While the most recent trouble in this country doesn’t really roll off the tongue—sub-prime mortgage crisis—it tends to bring up a similar lexicon based entirely on placard signage with “foreclosed” being the most visceral and ubiquitous. A home was the most valuable asset in most people’s lives until, suddenly, it wasn’t.

The amazing glut of financial data we’re all drowning in explains the how and why succinctly once its reduced a little, but Allison Arieff’s opinion piece in yesterday’s Times is separate from any economic jargon and it implies an interesting question from the perspective of aesthetic-economics: Did our housing stock sink because it’s junk? The supersaturation of the housing market by prefabricated single-family homes is, as Ms. Arieff drives home, consummately uncreative and could in fact be economically disastrous. Ms. Arieff makes the argument for more creative takes on home design as part of a greater drive towards altering the suburban dialogue; less about me and more about we, in the least socialistic sense of the word. Does this house fit into the aesthetic of the surrounding nature? The topography and geography of the region? Do I need a house this big?

Those are important questions to ask when reconsidering the future of the suburban vernacular, but the future of the greener, more beautiful, geographically integrated and neighborly home rests on the back on consumers and builders who both take long looks at their wallets before making real estate decisions—now more than ever. Fortunately we can use the Housing Price Index (HPI) to see where design and economics overlap, at least heuristically.

There are dozens of neighborhoods that innately chained themselves to prefab suburbia but we are going to choose three for reasons of regional and economic smoothing: Irvine, CA, Lakeland, FL, and Dayton, OH. California and Florida were disproportionately eviscerated by the housing crises so any look at their respective HPI products should be with that caveat in mind (all data points taken from the Federal Housing Finance Agency):

LowHPI 1024x665 Shifting the Suburban Housing Price Paradigm

Housing Price Indices for Lakeland, FL, Irvine, CA, and Dayton, OH from Q1 2007 to Q2 2011

Dayton floats near the neutral HPI transversal while Lakeland and Santa Ana faced anywhere from +5 to -20 HPI indices in the course of 18 reporting quarters. On the balance they are a deep red and overall housing stock worth won’t recover without an absurdly robust financial resurrection. This is the harsh hangover of the boom times especially in the sun drenched, dream states of California and Florida where the construction of cookie cutter suburbs was strongest and excess housing stock is par for the impeccably manicured, Jack Nicklaus designed course. Amazingly, and for reasons I’m sure Rick Perry would quickly take credit for, the last head of the suburban Cerberus, Texas, saw general HPI increases in sprawling Houston and Dallas showing that money can often overcome aesthetic deficiencies.

The mirrored examples we’ll use are Ogden, UT, Peoria, IL, and Augusta, GA (controlling for incomes as much as possible is important when discussing economic shockwaves so you’ll see that the media incomes for all six cities are within one standard deviation except for Santa Ana [high outlier] and Dayton [low outlier]). These communities have something in common: they’re all pretty old. Older communities understandably have a lower proportion of prefabricated suburban model homes and tend to be more heterogeneous architecturally. That isn’t necessarily a precondition for an economic bulwark (see: Baltimore, MD and Detroit, MI) but this figure does present the necessary contrast:

Lowprice 1024x610 Shifting the Suburban Housing Price Paradigm

Housing Price Indices for Peoria, IL, Ogden, UT, and Augusta, GA from Q1 2007 to Q2 2011

Both of these graphs show that 2007 was a terrible year for the housing market universally; good design or not, most people’s houses were worth a lot less in 2007 than 2006. It’s also important to note that California and Florida were twin epicenters of overextended credit and misadventures in real estate so the track of their respective lines are more tumultuous than other states. The outcome in both those states is a bit of a conundrum though; prefabricated housing made it easier—financially and logistically—for developers to build oceans of cookie cutter neighborhoods, but are the ghost towns in California and Florida barren because they were priced inaccurately or because there are too many damn houses?

What we can read (inexactly, of course) is that non-streamlined design in cities of similar size and income have done significantly better in holding their values over the course of the recent recession. Regions with high levels of new construction (<20 years) have faced precipitously tumbles from their peak worths in the years before 2007. This economic extension of Ms. Arieff’s article on the folly of large, single family, unsustainable prefabs is, at best, a heuristic analysis of post-recession housing stock. But judging from the empty acres of perfectly symmetrical homes in Florida and California, there may be something to it.

Cities Beyond the Horizon

The data artist and Creative Director of the Data Arts Team at the Google Creative Labs, Aaron Koblin, likes data points. The digital representation of information— flights, sounds, physical addresses— provide an oddly relatable medium. It brings the digital into the analog; it’s impossible not to be enthralled by his most ambitious projects because they tend to have people just like you as willing collaborators. Flight Patterns, a hypnotic blizzard of national flight paths musically backed with kitschy and endearing electronica, announced Koblin’s rise to infographic stardom. The most fascinating part of the piece is also the most mundane: the bursting eggs of light along the edges of the central shape (as well as two or three in the center) create a web of fireworks that is oddly mesmerizing but in reality those explosions of static are flights leaving from JFK, LGA, LAX, MIA, DFW, ORD, and ATL.

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

(Copyright Aaron Koblin)

The significance of the light concentration in Koblin’s work shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who finds themselves reading through the information on Next American City. The CIA Factbook —something of a clearinghouse for geopolitical factoids—puts the United States’ urbanization rate at 82%, or about 255 million people, but what does that really mean? According the U.S. Department of Transportation, the entity in charge of city planning because, well, think of how much money a given area needs to spend on getting around, tells us that “[a]n urbanized area is comprised of one or more places and the adjacent densely settled surrounding area together include at least 50,000 people.” A nebulous definition, at best.

The blurred definitions of town, city, and urban area potentially negates the entire concept that many of us have of the traditional American city: a densely populated core with tendrils expanding out towards a less populated, but still packed, periphery. Beyond that are the suburbs and exurbs, which endure those monikers because they are so inherently “un-citylike”, but they are still included in the calculations behind urbanization rates. When did a part of the landscape that urbanists disdain so much become an inextricable part of the movement towards making cities important? And how do we fix it?

Being at the mercy of outdated metrics seems to a global pastime. Most famously, Robert F. Kennedy’s criticism of Gross National Product as a measure of prosperity, and by proxy a majority of the drier economic rubrics, offered that “[GNP] tells us everything about America except why we are proud to be Americans.” Kennedy was not an economist but had a singular talent for accessing the most beatific notions of being American and attempting, until his tragic assassination in 1968, to drive progressivism by appealing to the more emotional angels of magnanimous patriotism. What he was asking for was a more complete way to judge our surroundings and, more specifically, how well people were doing in their every day lives. While concepts like purchasing power parity (how much that paycheck is really worth) and consumer price index (how much things actually cost) have caught on in the U.S., our economic well-being is still based upon the statistically sharp but practically enigmatic concepts of Gross Domestic Product and Gross National Product.

The same argument could be made for cities today. Does all 579 mi2 of Houston, Texas (twice the size of Singapore in terms of land mass and a little more than half the population) count as a city? Of course not, and for everyone that has been to Houston it’s obvious that there are pockets of density where most of the people live and stretches of bucolic perpetuity where people, well, don’t. The USDOT, whose lexicon apparently hasn’t been updated since we used wagon trains to go west, labels the areas of a city with more than 1,000 persons per square mile as “densely settled”.

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

To put that statistic into perspective New York City has a density of 26,402 persons per mi2 while Farmington, New Mexico has a density of 1,613. In terms of urbanization rates these two places are siblings of similar weight but different heights; adobe and steel. The blindly empirical approach to judging how many of us live in “cities” is starting to fray at both ends: we are mathematically urban because of our suburbs, but we are functionally rural because of our cities.

In a vacuum, cities will always be defined by population. A town of 30,000 living on a plot of 30 mi2 in Arizona may look as dense as some parts of Los Angeles on paper but that, as geographically prejudicial as it may sound, does not qualify a place as a city not its people as urban. Urbanization rates need to be reconciled with the unkind realities of affluent modern America: suburbs and highways dominate our landscape. 82% of us do not live in cities like Philadelphia and Chicago but more likely live in Hamden, CT (pop. 58,119) or Lorain, OH (pop. 70,263). Are the latter two cities? According to government definitions, yes. But are they urban?

 Cities Beyond the Horizon

Aaron Koblin’s Flight Patterns gives us a stylized view of America: making out the concave edges of the east coast and the vertical beach chair of the west is easy if you just follow the lights. Cities, usually where those points explode from, are surely the centers of innovation, creativity, and dynamism that thinkers like Richard Florida and Edward Glaeser make them out to be, but they are not where most of us choose to live. More and more young people are attempting to regenerate cities from the inside out and are, as young people are wont, recoiling at the thought of moving back to their detached family homes. Real cities with tangible urbanity are still the exception. We’re not static though, we can shift the demographics and data and give Mr. Koblin and his team another movement to track; not planes but people.