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 areasâ€”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 pictureâ€”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 communitiesâ€”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.
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?