The Slums of Tomorrow Might Be here Today

Last year the Atlantic published an article questioning whether the fringe communities – the suburbs – would become the next slums. (great discussion at Bacon’s Rebellion)

But much of the future decline is likely to occur on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core. In other words, some of the worst problems are likely to be seen in some of the country’s more recently developed area, and not only those inhabited by subprime-mortgage borrowers. Many of these areas will become magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction.

Despite this glum forecast for many swaths of suburbia, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture – the shift that’s under way toward walkable urban living is a healthy development. In the most literal sense, it may lead to better personal health and a slimmer population. The environment, of course, will also benefit: if New York City were its own state, it would be the most energy-efficient state in the union; most Manhattanites not only walk or take public transit to get around, they unintentionally share heat with their upstairs neighbors.

Perhaps most important, the shift to walkable urban environments will give more people what they seem to want. I doubt the swing toward urban living will ever proceed as far as the swing toward the suburbs did in the 20th century; many people will still prefer the bigger houses and car-based lifestyles of conventional suburbs. But there will almost certainly be more of a balance between walkable and drivable communities allowing people in most areas a wider variety of choices.

For what it’s worth, I see the Charlottesville and the surrounding communities as being “close enough” to each other with enough “town centers” to support self-sufficient communities outside of the City center. (see this Charlottesville relocation map).

Most things in and around Charlottesville are within 15 minutes or so of everything. The “exurbs” – Palmyra, Ruckersville, Gordonsville – are developing and branding their own identities, independent of Charlottesville. We just don’t have the huge swaths of vacant land with unfinished homes miles and miles away from an urban center.

Now Allison Arieff at the New York Times asks (hat tip: Waldo):

For a long time now I’ve been obsessed with suburban and exurban master-planned communities and how to make them better. But as the economy and the mortgage crisis just seem to get worse, and gas prices continue to plunge, the issues around housing have changed dramatically. The problem now isn’t really how to better design homes and communities, but rather what are we going to do with all the homes and communities we’re left with.

In urban areas, there’s rich precedent for the transformation or reuse of abandoned lots or buildings. Vacant lots have been converted into pocket parks, community gardens and pop-up stores (or they remain vacant, anxiously awaiting recovery and subsequent conversion into high-end office space condos). Old homes get divided into apartments, old factories into lofts, old warehouses into retail.

But similar transformation within the carefully delineated form of a subdivision is not so simple. These insta-neighborhoods were not designed or built for flexibility or change.

So what to do with the abandoned houses, the houses that were never completed or the land that was razed for building and now sits empty?

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11 Comments

  1. Daniel Nairn January 13, 2009 at 13:11

    It could be helpful to keep an eye on places like Detroit and Flint, MI, in this regard. There are many people thinking hard about ways to shrink gracefully or adaptively reuse some of the developed land. They really are on the cutting edge in this task and may prove to be laboratories for the rest of us to decipher between which policies work and which don’t.

    Reply
  2. Brant Meyer January 13, 2009 at 17:02

    Though not directly related, here’s an article that talks about using defunct shopping mall space for charter schools. Makes me think about Cloverleaf Mall in Richmond. I think the idea of redevelopment outside our urban cores extends not only to master planned communities but these large retail spaces that are suffering as well.

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  3. Jim Duncan January 14, 2009 at 07:42

    Thanks for the comments, Daniel and Brant. What do you think about my assumption that our region will be relatively unaffected by what these articles are stating?

    I absolutely agree that our community should look within the urban areas for redevelopment first – and even offer incentives for doing so if the re-developers can build environmentally intelligent buildings.

    Reply
  4. Brant Meyer January 14, 2009 at 10:33

    I agree that Charlottesville/Albemarle won’t be affected the way the article describes. But not for the reasons stated.

    The article raises a great discussion point but uses a simplistic approach to what causes people to live in certain areas. Could we see developments go unfinished for years to come? Yes. Does that mean suburban areas will become slums? Not necessarily. I see school districts and job opportunities as having a far greater impact. Let’s use two examples. Richmond and Waynesboro.

    In Richmond, some of the newest public shools are on the Southside. I grew up there and actually went to private school in the city. Many of my classmates at the time grew up in the fan, loved the walkable ease of city living and never dreamed of ever even visiting the southside. Now I know three of them that have moved from the city to the burbs. Reason: schools, affordability and a back yard. It’s not my cup of tea, but here are three families, under the age of 30, moving from the city to the burbs.

    Now lets look at Waynesboro. I lived there for 9 months. You couldn’t ask for a more picturesque setting, quaint main st. buildings, affordable housing and a river running right through the middle of town. You can literally pull over and trout fish right off of main street. Yet downtown is deserted. All the economic development eggs of Waynesboro seemed to go into the factory/manufacturing basket. And now that jobs have vanished, so have a lot of the young people. I know – this is a very general and simple view – but just illustrating a point.

    I think Charlottesville’s “immunity” to suburban slumhood is more rooted in UVA, good county schools, mix of vibrant downtown living and suburban communities and a diversity of job opportunities from tech, finance, health care, government, etc. As long as those thing remain, I don’t think we’ll ever see suburban slums in our area – but the types of project that go forward will definitely change.

    Reply
  5. Daniel Nairn January 14, 2009 at 16:21

    I’m not sure what will happen with the suburbs here, but I just read a very interesting article on this topic in a NYtimes blog. She mostly focuses on salvaging some of the New York City suburb/exurbs (assuming they all do become unusable in their current form), but I imagine some of the strategies could be used elsewhere.

    Reply
  6. Daniel Nairn January 14, 2009 at 16:28

    oh, how stupid? That’s the same article you quoted from!

    Reply
  7. Jim Duncan January 15, 2009 at 07:41

    Daniel – I wasn’t going to say anything. 🙂
    Brant – mind if I use your comment on RealWaynesboroVA?

    I think we’ll see developments taking longer to develop – and the Four Seasons development in Greene is one about which I’m more concerned; I would be surprised if many residents/buyers there came from within the region …

    Reply
  8. Brant Meyer January 15, 2009 at 10:13

    Jim,

    Feel free to use the comment for RealWaynesboro.

    Reply
  9. Paul Erb January 16, 2009 at 19:40

    Demographic trends in Cville and surrounding areas are changing. We’ve seen the addition of larger numbers of people from other countries who don’t mind living in close quarters together. If they’re all from the same family…….I will be interested to see which Greene County 4-bedroom-10-year-old subdivision is the first to play host to the 4-earner (4-owner) household that doesn’t speak English.

    Reply
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