Co.Design

Suburbia R.I.P.

Does the downturn spell the beginning of the end for suburbia? Some experts say yesterday's cul-de-sac is tomorrow's ghost town.

The downturn has accomplished what a generation of designers and planners could not: it has turned back the tide of suburban sprawl. In the wake of the foreclosure crisis many new subdivisions are left half built and more established suburbs face abandonment. Cul-de-sac neighborhoods once filled with the sound of backyard barbecues and playing children are falling silent. Communities like Elk Grove, Calif., and Windy Ridge, N.C., are slowly turning into ghost towns with overgrown lawns, vacant strip malls and squatters camping in empty homes. In Cleveland alone, one of every 13 houses is now vacant, according to an article published Sunday in The New York Times magazine.

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The demand for suburban homes may never recover, given the long-term prospects of energy costs for commuting and heating, and the prohibitive inefficiencies of low-density construction. The whole suburban idea was founded on disposable spending and the promise of cheap gas. Without them, it may wither. A study by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech predicts that by 2025 there will be as many as 22 million unwanted large-lot homes in suburban areas.

The suburb has been a costly experiment. Thirty-five percent of the nation's wealth has been invested in building a drivable suburban landscape, according to Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Howard Kunstler, author of "The Geography of Nowhere," has been saying for years that we can no longer afford suburbs. "If Americans think they've been grifted by Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff, wait until they find out what a swindle the so-called 'American Dream' of suburban life turns out to be," he wrote on his blog this week.

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So what's to become of all those leafy subdivisions with their Palladian detailing and tasteful signage? Already low or middle-income families priced out of cities and better neighborhoods are moving into McMansions divided for multi-family use. Alison Arieff, who blogs for The New York Times, visited one such tract mansion that was split into four units, or "quartets," each with its own entrance, which is not unlike what happened to many stately homes in the 1930s. The difference, of course, is that the 1930s homes held up because they were made with solid materials, and today's spec homes are all hollow doors, plastic columns and faux stone facades.

There is also speculation that subdivision homes could be dismantled and sold for scrap now that a mini-industry for repurposed lumber and other materials has evolved over the last few years. Around the periphery of these discussions is the specter of the suburb as a ghost town patrolled by squatters and looters, as if Mad Max had come to the cul-de-sac.

If the suburb is a big loser in mortgage crisis episode, then who is the winner? Not surprisingly, the New Urbanists, a group of planners, developers and architects devoted to building walkable towns based on traditional designs, have interpreted the downturn as vindication of their plans for mixed-use communities where people can stroll from their homes to schools and restaurants.

Richard Florida, a Toronto business professor and author of "Who's Your City?: How the Creative Economy Is Making Where to Live the Most Important Decision of Your Life," argues that dense and diverse cities with "accelerated rates of urban metabolism" are the communities most likely to innovate their way through economic crisis. In an article published in this month's issue of The Atlantic, he posits that New York is at a relative advantage, despite losing a chunk of its financial engine, because the jostling proximity of architects, fashion designers, software writers and other creative types will reenergize its economy.

[painting via Sharilyn Neidhardt]

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