The Future: Shift from Suburban to Urban

I predict that the ideal suburban life that Americans have been dreaming and living upon for a century, may eventually die out someday. The traditional idea of the suburban lifestyle is that the suburbs offer a wonderful choice for a middle-class person that wants a nice bigger home to live and raise a family in, easy to drive around, some greenery, an oasis away from the dirty busy city, and friendly neighbors and such. Or for wealthy people, the suburbs offer a place to have a big sprawling estate, ritzy McMansions, and not be too far from downtown or the central business district. You know, have easy convenience to needs, but can get away from the city. The lower class has pretty much the same ideals as the middle class regarding suburbs.

However, having experience living in the suburbs outside of NW Houston myself, I know that these ideals are quickly dying out. The American dream that suburbs are the place to live, is quickly getting outdated.

I’ve noticed these common misconceptions about suburbs that are not usually true to this day:

  1. People can easily drive around to where they need to go – That’s a mistake that I notice a lot. At first, in a new development, there’s relatively little traffic to deal with. However, as more and more roads and streets are laid out, and more communities and strip malls pop out, traffic increases sharply and it becomes harder to get around quickly. Also with rising fuel prices it’s getting more costly to get around. Cars also can be very expensive to buy and maintain. You have to take in consideration that to have a car lifestyle, you got to have money to pay for driver’s ed, getting a permit or license, fuel, repairs, auto insurance, toll roads, etc. It’s not as simple as it seems. Not to mention the pollution cars offer, and the lack of alternatives for biking, walking or taking mass transit in the suburbs. Commute time can be very LONG, as places just aren’t around the corner or convenient enough to walk over to, and you’re trying to get on the road with many other suburbanites.
  2. Kids are better raised in the suburbs than the city – Not really true. The idea that suburbs have good school districts, encourage kids to play outside and be healthy in a safe environment, and such are a complete fallacy. It’s true that school districts in suburban areas are generally better than the urban ones, but that’s only because suburban school districts have more wealthier people living in the area, contributing to property taxes that help fund schools and such. Often, urban areas have been left to the really poor, and thus school district have less adequate funding to make these schools better. Until laws change, it will generally always be this way. You’d think kids, living in the suburbs with yards some parks, and less busy streets are going to be healthy and good. WRONG! It might have been in the old days, but these days, kids are too preoccupied with video games, TV, text messaging, and other things that keep them coop up in the house. Yards are nothing more than something to look at, and maintain extensively and women (or men) don’t seem to garden as much anymore. Also, with teenagers commuting only by driving, they become more obese. Also AIR QUALITY is increasingly becoming worse in suburban communities, as people drive more and more and depend on cars that emit many emissions and fumes. Urban kids on the other hand are less likely to be obese, and have more civic pride. Middle class children are generally more spoiled, and have become increasingly self-absorbed and becoming less altruistic.
  3. Citizens can be closer to nature and have access to better air quality – I wish, but that isn’t quite right. Truly rich nature is often far away from the suburbs. Urban sprawl diminishes nature until there’s nothing more but a few clumps of trees, a bunch of critters, and litter strewn throughout, especially in cities/counties where zoning isn’t placed. You hardly ever see larger creatures than a cat out there. Also, many residents would prefer nature to be diminished actually, because they don’t want animals crossing the road in front of their cars, or they think they could build some type of development on top of it. Air quality is also not as great as you would think. I bike around a lot, and it can be pretty nasty out there. I’ve noticed a large amount of stench, usually around the bayous, and depending on what part of the day. Exhaust fumes aren’t that great either. Suburbs = car haven = more air pollution
  4.  Suburbs are safer than the inner city – You’d think with a more wealthier population and people around and about, that it’d be safer. It’s not necessarily true though. Wealthy people can still commit crimes, just like any poor person can commit a crime. There’s less police and fire protection, as stations are often far away, and police and firefighters have a more expansive, sprawling area to cover. Suburban streets are also hotspots for crime, as children don’t play around outside much, and people aren’t that particular about their lawns, thus there’s less witnesses. I’ve had two really fancy looking trees stolen from my front yard, in two separate burglaries. I also heard someone’s house was broken into on my street. Considering my home is in a relatively new development with homes reaching to the $200K+, it’s not just apartment complexes or such anymore.
  5. Housing is more prettier and affordable – Another incorrect idea. At least in my opinion. Houses are very generic looking in the suburbs, especially among newer homes. Subdivisions often employ one or two home builders to build houses roughly around the same price, and with few floor and exterior plans, it’s all very similar. Sometimes its hard for friends and even family members to remember which house on the street belongs to the person they’re visiting. Also, the same old designs of bricks and stonework really bore me. You’d think these builders could be a bit more diverse and use some new ideas. Affordable? It’s true that you do have to pay less per square foot then in denser urban areas, but do you really need all this space? You may say yes, especially if you’re raising a family, but I’ve seen people live in smaller housing before, and they do fine. Most people want the extra square feet so they can have room for extra junk they don’t feel like giving up yet, or redundant pieces of furniture or fixtures that are just there for looks. It’s the same thing for many Americans that just love to waste. Really, if you need the space, just get a townhouse. It’s also not that affordable as utilities typically cost more (since it’s expensive to build infrastructure out in less dense areas), HOA dues, the expense of the car lifestyle, yard and house maintenance, etc.
  6. Neighborhood quality is great – In the old days perhaps, but in modern times, it’s usually not true. Maybe you’ve seen movies or TV series that take place in the suburbs, and you got your funny neighbors doing stuff outside or in the yard, parks where the kids and mommies bond, people out on the street exercising, neighbors visiting each other and having parties, etc. It’d be nice if this were common, but it’s not. Neighbors usually keep to themselves, and maybe a polite hand wave, but not really any bonding unless there’s (bad) desperate measures, like pooling in together in natural disasters, disputes about nuisances, etc. I don’t even know the surnames of my neighbors! Parks are often poorly made and poorly maintained. My local park has a tiny children’s playground, a small kidney shaped pool, and a view of ‘the lake’ (bayou/detention pond). That really does not encourage teenagers to bond much, well except the pool, but it’s often too hot to go there and not much room for swimming. People do exercise or walk dogs sometimes, but in the early morning, and again, they’re not so social about it. Parties? Ha! Like I said, people have big houses to occupy their lives, and they’re not interested much in neighbors, unless they’re really hot and single. The photo below shows the usual major suburban road with a messy smorgasbord of telephone/electric wires, signs, big box stores and many cars.

These are just the general discrepancies I notice in how people view the suburbs, and then the reality of how it actually is, or will at some point be. I noticed this poll on SocialVibe earlier this year, and it seem that more youths are also seeing the plus side of living in the city, or even the country. In this poll, it appears that suburbs are the least popular. Of course, this is not a scientific poll of any type, but it does seem like a good indicator of the trends I’m expecting to happen within the next few decades.

I expect this to become a trend; Americans becoming increasingly dissatisfied with the suburban lifestyle, amid fuel prices, general goods, and utilities spiking up. You can try to make a suburban house more ‘greener’ and try to consume less, but at some point, it’s going to become too much. Either the suburbs will have to be redesigned from the ground up, or there will be a mass migration to the city or the country. Here are the scenarios that I think may happen:

SCENARIO 1: Suburbs are redesigned for the 21st century

(Sophisticated modern townhome style with parking garages underground)

This is a more likely scenario, as us Americans will always still want larger houses to raise families in, and buy and store lots of junk, but that’s how it may probably be. The best way for this scenario to work would be:

  1. Suburbs adopting mode denser development codes – It won’t exactly become as dense as an urban city, but a bit more denser. No more ranch houses or lanky two-story homes with big lawns. New housing will be either a more sophisticated townhouse style with room for a patio and a mini-yard or the traditional American style architecture but with little or no lawns, and room for a porch and possibly a gate. Apartment complexes will transform into apartment buildings or condos with more better amenities. Old-style housing won’t necessarily be all destroyed, but a potential push away from that style. Businesses will also see a change. Most retail businesses will expand by floor, rather than expanding outwards, and accommodate more bikers and pedestrians, and less cars. Office businesses will be located in more office towers or office complexes, rather than strip malls or stand-alone buildings. Parking lots will transform into small parking garages. More condense shopping centers will replace strip malls.
  2. Suburbs develop a non-car dependent transportation system – Like I pointed out, cars have too many downfalls that people get tired of this system. Alternative modes will be considered. Expect bike lanes to be placed on major roads, wider sidewalk system installed (thanks to the stronger denser development codes, its more feasible), and even an extension of the city’s bus or light rail system from the city to the suburbs. Bike racks and facilities for bikers will pop up throughout, and shaded awning or tree-lined streets for pedestrians. This will help bring the ‘local’ town feel to suburbs that people who live in small quaint towns experience and like. With more transportation options, car owners will most likely only need to use their cars for much longer commute or to carry bulk items to and fro.
  3. Increase in mixed-use type of developments – I’m talking about the type of development that combines either housing, commercial, institutional, office or other types of uses in one place or building. This type of development makes it very convenient for residents who can sleep upstairs and pop in downstairs, or to an adjacent building. A group of mixed used developments connected by sidewalks or a bike lane make it an ideal place to live, without requiring the use of a car to take you about for some typical stuff. I think this mixed-use developments will inevitably replace strip malls.
  4. Benefits of a suburban lifestyle remains intact – These are still suburbs, even though the appear to be more city-like. What would make these updated suburbs be distinguishable as a ‘suburb’? Even though I’ve derided suburbs a lot, there are the still silly benefits like they are ‘family-friendly’, offer a more quiet, private sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of the even more denser city, and more affordable. Parks should remain, and even be expanded or have upgraded facilities to accommodate more dense growth. Even though a suburb doesn’t usually have a “one-with-nature’” feel to it, it would also be nice if some portions of land were preserved for natural habitats to thrive in. It would give the suburban area a more of a nature characteristic. Golf courses, and all that type of development can and should stay the same.

That’s pretty much how I expect suburbs to adapt to America’s new desires in Scenario 1. Basically, the suburbs will be more of a mixture between a small town and a city. It would be at a level of density that has the familiarity and quaintness of a small town, but dense enough where you can have access to some of the many conveniences urban dwellers have. An ideal city in Scenario 1 would be just like this. Examples of such places are:

  • Hercules, California
  • The Woodlands, Texas (I love this place)
  • HafenCity, Hamburg
  • Prospect New Town near Longmont, Colorado
  • Celebration, Florida

SCENARIO 2: Suburbs die out, become slummy and slowly disappear

This is a more extreme scenario in which suburbanites totally drop the suburban concept for either the urban or country living. How? Well since Americans still have some strange fondness for suburban sprawl, I guess it would take sharp rising fuel prices, a housing bubble, downfalls of a car lifestyle are more perceptible, among other things that will cause a major exodus in suburbanites moving towards the cities, and maybe some to the countryside.

The transition won’t be easy. Despite the downfalls to suburbs, these suburbanites also see cities as having downfalls too, particularly if they want/have a family and don’t think urban-areas are ‘family-friendly’ enough. Common fears of suburbanites of the city are:

  • They’re not kid-friendly – They claim that cities have horrible public schools, more expensive private schools, lack safe greenspace for kids to play, and the potential for their child’s innocence to be lost with so many different types of people living in the city
  • Annoying neighbors – Neighbors can be above, below or to the side of you, and you have to be considerate not to bother them or hope they don’t bother you in some way. You know, like turning on the stereo very loud, setting things on fire, etc.
  • Not car friendly – Like I said, people have some strange attachment to cars. In a really dense urban area, it costs more to maintain a car lifestyle.
  • Crime – People report hearing a lot of crimes in the city

All of those reasons should be non-issues by now. Why? Well I’d like to counteract by saying that:

  • They can be kid-friendly – If enough middle-class people resided in the area, schools would have more funding from property taxes, and thus they’d become more better. Private schools are still an iffy thing, but public school could be a good option again. There are plenty of parks for children to hang out at, or they could walk over to an arcade or library. Children should be exposed to what type of people there are in society, instead of being sheltered and ignorant.
  • Neighbors can become friends – Chat with your neighbors. Get a chance to meet them and have dinner together or something. You may find some common ground you can work with. In the end, you may become friends, or at least both sides can be civil
  • Pedestrian friendly – Stop being lazy. Car culture has made Americans sadly too dependent on car, and its going to be good not having to need to use it so much, and having a fatter wallet at the end of the month
  • Crime isn’t as bad as you think – It’s a common misconception. You may here more crimes happening in the city, but you do have to take into account there’s more people living here per square mile, so the ratio of crime to population isn’t as large as one would think. Also, police protection is generally more prevalent and common in cities.

So how’s this going to even be possible? Let’s say that a good amount of suburbanites are interested in moving to the urban area of the city, but they want city conditions to be better. Local officials in government take notice of this and start on making plans to help this happen. Why? Getting suburbanites moving into urban areas will help make government work more efficiently, and it will help with the local tax base in revitalizing and improving areas.

The government sets up a special ‘suburbanite’ zone within the city; an area designated as a transition site for suburbanites to live, and maybe even work and play within the city. The government will try to encourage developers with incentives or tax breaks to build more affordable housing that would suit middle-class suburbanites such as townhomes, luxury condo/apartment buildings, etc. The government will also pump some money into the schools in that zone to quickly transform them into more top-notch ones, similar in quality to the schools that exist in suburbs. Also, to discourage habitual suburbanites from turning to their cars to commute around the city, the transportation department will definitely work on making the zone as pedestrian friendly as possible, include quality mass transit, and bike lanes. This is called gentrification, though in my scenario, this is gentrification implemented more heavily throught the government.

(monorail provides a nice and efficient alternative transportation for former suburbanites to use)

Now you may think that’s pretty unfair, that the government is pumping money into this zone for the middle class, rather than helping the poorer classes that need it more. But it’s not as bad as one may think. Trying to increase density in an area, especially with middle class citizens, will greatly help the tax base in this zone. Since middle class citizens pay higher taxes compared to the lower class, the tax base will have more sufficient money to keep schools, public parks, street maintenance and other things in tip-top shape.

Most of these developments, at least the once that took that government’s tax breaks or incentives, are required to have a certain number of units set aside for the lower class, so that the lower class aren’t completely kicked out of this zone. The lower class may not like the idea of having their building or apartments torn down in place for ‘progress’ to happen. Even if they’re promised that it’s only temporarily or that the government will help find other housing places, it still feels bad.

The idea behind the ‘suburbanite’ zone isn’t necessarily to kick out the lower class, but to help revitalize and improve the area by putting in more people and businesses that have the wealth to support the tax base so that revitalization and improvements in the area are made possible financially.

So while the zone progresses, and more and more suburbanites move in and become city dwellers, suburbs dramatically get worse. Lots of houses are up on the block, businesses are disappearing, and not many people who are interested are willing to pay the same price for a declining suburban area. Eventually, the owners will probably sell it for much less than they hoped for, but at least they are rid of it. More or less likely, poorer citizens who may have been displaced by gentrification will move out here. Why? These are probably people who have already dreamed of living the American Dream, and owning (or renting if owners are that desperate) a house will come true for many. These houses left behind be more spacious than where they had lived previously (most likely an apartment or tiny cottage) and with former suburbanites willing to go for lower just to get rid of the place, the American Dream is accomplished not so difficultly as they’d expected.

At this point, you’ve got two major transitions: The middle class moving into the cities, and the lower class moving into the suburbs. So what about the upper class? Most likely they’re still clinging onto their estates, or they already also have a fancy penthouse/condo/townhome in the city so they’re not really that worried. Though they might give up the estate if desperate measures are needed.

Let’s speed it up by 15 years. By now, the urban area has transformed into a much more vibrant and hip area to really live, work, and play in. With many wealthier citizens to help with the tax base, the public school system continues to be superb with a focus on more green mega-schools, parks are complimented with many nice features, and streets feel safer and are much cleaner as automobile use dwindles and people get used to alternative transit. Businesses are booming as lots of foot traffic encourages citizens to go about the city leisurely and citizens actually take a notice to stores and businesses they pass by. Living, working, and playing IN the city has finally became a reality once again.

Suburbs on the other hand, aren’t doing so great. The poor continue to occupy most homes and businesses, and you can really see how slummy the area has gotten. Schools sadly have inevitably become worse, businesses are not doing so well, roads are filled with litter, and even the poor that live out here have gotten tired of this. Many teenagers with poor parenting are off in their ratty cars speeding about, doing crimes and drugs, and making the area worse. Yards are poorly maintained and appear ugly, though a good number of people are trying to be sustainable by growing their own food in the backyard (as well as some livestock…). Graffiti that was once common in inner cities are now seen on more fence posts, garages, and even more buildings. The majority of the lower class, no matter where they live, will continue to exercise the same type of careless attitude to their local place. Shacks and trailers pop up among the land, and wildfires from cigarettes are pretty common. The police and fire departments have a hard time protecting and enforcing such a spread out area with rapid crime soaring.

        

(empty stores in an aging strip mall)                                 (abandoned store)                           (senseless litter)

Eventually, the government steps in, and starts to work on fixing the suburbs. The best way to fix this problem? Demolish and destroy suburban sprawl once and for all. The government sets up a special area for these lower class ‘suburbanites’ along the edge of the city. Developers are encouraged to build nice, affordable apartment towers for these citizens to move into. To ensure less crime and mayhem from these folks, the government will try employ its best methods to keep this group happy. The government will try its best to make give schools, clinics, and other institutions in this area better teachers and materials so these kids can really learn. Great after-school activities will be offered so kids have something productive to do. Police will be able to patrol the area easier to remind people who’s in charge. Civic responsibility will increase through special programs. Hopefully the lower class will become better.

At the same time, the government will work on taking down suburbs. New development outside of city limits will be banned, unless given special permission (like a fueling station for automobiles) or it takes place within a nearby town’s city limits. Lower class citizens are encouraged to move into the new lower-class suburbanite zone, with a certificate for a whole year’s free rent plus a chance to enter in contests to win new appliances and such. Those that choose to still remain (a good number of them are middle class folks who never wanted to leave) are left at their own risk. Crews will salvage parts from houses and demolish the rest of the structure, so people cannot move in or lay low in abandoned dwellings.

 

Eventually a good number of houses and strip malls will disappear. Suburban houses or strip malls rarely ever qualify for becoming a “National Historic Landmark”, and the fact that it’s not really great architecture, will have very few protests from people if any at all.

A good number of places will probably be converted for the federal government to use. Like for instance, a couple of streets may be preserved to house citizens under the Witness Protection Program. These citizens can live in a quiet underground community with other witnesses that they can relate to. The government may even construct large nuclear fallout shelters to house citizens in the case a nuclear attack is imminent. Or converting a large strip mall and its parking lot into a place to park military vehicles and have some military offices. The people who continue to insist living in the suburbs will be rather depressed, and may eventually move to the cities.

In the end, the American Dream has become the American Wasteland. Well “American Wasteland” could apply to the present as well…

Anyhow, that’s how I predict suburbs in the future will be like. Suburbs will truly adapt and change, or they just die out. Either way, the current way suburbs are now most likely won’t last the whole century. Here are some links worth checking out:

Claims suburbs will never die – http://www.newgeography.com/content/00300-the-future-suburbs-suburbs-are-future

Viewpoint similar to Scenario 1 –  http://yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/02/the_future_of_the_suburbs.php

Viewpoints similar to Scenario 2 – http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/subprime

Growing poverty in American suburbs – http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/16077694/

Feel free to comment and correct me on any mistakes you find. I’d love to hear feedback.

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8 thoughts on “The Future: Shift from Suburban to Urban

  1. No longer matters to me and mine. Our suburban/city dweller days are over. We pulled up stakes, left it behind and moved to a rural mountain community. The air IS cleaner here, fewer cars in the entire county than in the suburban neighborhood we moved away from. Practically anything we can\’t find locally can be found online. If not, the drive to find it is small enough price to pay. The crime rate IS lower because everyone knows everyone else and we all keep an eye out for each other. After nearly 50 years in large metropolitan areas we don\’t miss that type of life a bit!

  2. @Rocket Man: Yeah, I tried my best to mention that there could be a shift to the countryside too, because I know people that like less busy places would also prefer to live out there, away from it all. I think the rural countryside would be a great place to live too.

  3. The main problem is not so much the suburbs themselves, but the terrible way they are designed. Suburbs can be a great place to live if the obvious problems with it were addressed. They need to be significantly denser and designed with pedestrian traffic in mind rather than cars. Everything should be in "pods", with every house near basic needs like a grocery, school, etc., all within a 10 minute walk.Eventually suburbs will die out though. It\’s only still going strong in countries with lots of land like the U.S. and Canada. There was a special on NBC I believe, called Earth 2100, which predicted that suburbs would be the new slums due to energy shortages.

  4. This whole scenario makes me glad I\’ll be dead before it has much of a chance of happening. I hate cities, though they\’re interesting enough for occasional cultural events. I\’m headed in the way you predict, having moved into an apartment complex from a house with land enough that it was NWF certifiable and three fawns and a doe stood in my front yard to "say goodbye". I do not envy future generations.Peace, Doc

  5. I personally think #1 is a more likely choice, though #2 may happen in some cities too. Living in a town in southern California, I\’ve seen the effect of sprawling suburbs, and it isn\’t pretty. There needs to be some more control in building and developing these suburbs, but often times there isn\’t. I would actually like to live in my own house though, even with all the suburban quirks of having to deal with homeownership. I\’d still like the conveniency factors of getting around without depending on a car, and being more closer to nature too. I think that\’s how the old suburbs used to be. I really hope developers know what they\’re grappling with in the future.

  6. Sounds good except that cities enjoy lousy schools (delivering less with more), homeless, and grafitti just to name a few problems with the Urban myth.

  7. @Tom: Are you sure? I\’m quite sure most cities want wealthier people moving into the city, to keep it thriving and a stronger tax base to spend on. Not to mention for tourism and stuff.

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