Thursday, March 13, 2008

Atlantic Monthly: The Next Slum?

The following is a larger condensing than I would perform on a regular news article. The length of the piece as well as the value of the discussion that would follow demands more thorough treatment.

The story comes to us from the March 2008 edition of the Atlantic Monthly and author Christopher B. Leinberger. Leinberger is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, a professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, and a real-estate developer. His most recent book, The Option of Urbanism, was published by Island Press in November. Please take a moment to visit his website linked above. It spells out in roughly five paragraphs essentially everything that I stand for and haven't been able to easily express in 25 wordy blog posts.

The Next Slum?
by Christopher B. Leinberger, Atlantic Monthly

Article Key Points:

  • Charlotte suburbs seeing large foreclosure rates on recently built starter home developments. Accompanied by vandalism, theft of copper, and squatting issues
  • In Lee County, Florida residential burglaries (35%) and robberies (58%) rose where one in four homes is vacant
  • Arthur C. Nelson (Metro Inst. @ Virginia Tech) forecasts a surplus of 22 million large lot homes by 2025
  • Television and motion pictures began de facto advertising of the city's renewal to Gen-X/Millenials
  • Price premiums show the early stages of market demand shift: Per sq. ft., urban residential space sells/rents for 40-200% more in New York, Portland, Seattle, and Washington
  • City scale is less of a factor than anticipated: "People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods...even when those neighborhoods are small."
  • The lifestyle center, or pre-planned urban neighborhood whether built as infill or new development is catching on in this decade compared to the 1990's due to the experience of developers/lenders
  • Consumer research by Jonathan Levine and Lawrence Frank (Universities of Michigan and British Columbia) suggests that 1/3 of homeowners would prefer to live in an urban environment, but had no way to do so right now due to housing options
  • Rising costs of heating and gasoline will render suburban living increasingly economically difficult
  • Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas proportionate to gentrification
  • Infrastructure supporting large-lot suburbia cannot support the dense development of urbanization
  • Modern suburban houses are cheaply built compared to their older urban counterparts, complicating division into apartments
  • Shift toward urban living has physical health and environmental benefits in addition to increased efficiency
  • Nelson: " much as half of all real-estate development on the ground in 2025 will not have existed in 2000."

While this article might seem alarmist to those who fiercely defend the U.S. American way of life, the most reasonable and probably most factual statements center around the fact that this fundamental shift is not going to be as dramatic as the government subsidized (roads are "free") shift that proliferated suburbia, but that there will be more of a balance of community types. This is a very realistic prediction for the near term (next 5-10 years), but I feel market forces (energy) may dictate an even greater societal adjustment. It is unfortunate, but its human nature for economy to drive behavior instead of social consciousness but I suppose New Urbanists must be grateful for all renewal participation regardless of motive.

Leinberger constrasts a 1981 apocolypse-style feature film with a possible 2021 flip of that scenario where a protagonist attempts to escape the suburban fringe. Personally I feel like I'm living that scenario in a way right this minute. Not from a violence or disease standpoint, but with respect to the difficulty of selling a suburban location in a neutral housing market. Obviously there is a reason for me to seek a move into the city, how can I expect to make top dollar in a sale when I wouldn't buy the property again? I'm hopeful that foul weather is a partial culprit and that April openhouses will have more luck attracting flies to honey, though my well-maintained unit may indeed be actual honey bottled in a mislabeled vinegar container. I suppose my ideal buyer would be someone who works in the offices at the Webster Woods retail/office plaza or some other place of employment nearby.

The last issue I'd like to address is city scale. Contrary to popular belief, a town as small as 2,000 or so (possibly less) can be urban and walkable. Some of the best examples are the myriad of villages (a municipal designation, sometimes called boroughs in other states) in New York. Many of these retain quality 'Main Street' three-story buildings and some still have functional older school buildings within the municipal boundary allowing (not forcing!) children to walk (gasp!) to school. Perhaps its the relative optimist in me or engineer's practicality taking over, but there are fundamental sets of civic equipment in an urban core and surprisingly many of these small towns possess enough of them to be viable places to live and live happily on some level, depending on the individuals requirements. For instance, the expansionists would call the lack of a big box grocery store nearby a "sacrifice." I like to call it a challenge or a creative opportunity.

Down off the soapbox again, I'd like to draw some attention to a real-life project I'm hoping to institute in the coming weeks. At, there are 10 Rochester area people interested in a New Urbanist group to meet to discuss responsible land use and improving of urban communities. I will be launching it later today or tomorrow and would encourage local readers of this blog to come out for anything from discussion to literature review to a possible mini-charrette depending on the level of professional expertise present.

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