The End of the Exurbs?

In the ongoing debates over development generally and housing specifically in the post-boom era, there’s considerable discussion and tension among planners and urbanists regarding the fate of the suburbs and the farther out exurbs (those outer rings of residential development beyond the existing suburbs).

I have long argued that increasing gas prices, the costs of road construction, the degradation of the environment and natural resources like water, and changing standards about what Americans want from their residential communities (alternate transportation, walkability, mixed-use, etc.) will doom many exurbs. And there was never a strong case to make that the suburbs would inevitably reach the exurbs, as many municipalities, planners, and developers have assumed.

A couple of reasons why that was a weak case: 1) any cities have lost population and can accommodate far more residents, easily, than they currently hold and 2) by mid-century the number of white Americans — the demographic group that has fueled exurban growth — will level off.

Let me emphasize that I’m not talking here about relatively close suburbs, which are near transit hubs and have easy access to a wide range of services. With a little more attention and a long-range plan, some of Savannah’s Southside neighborhoods could flourish as walkable, sustainable places to live with a much richer culture of place. (In the absence of a clear plan, attention, and money, I’m quite concerned about the Southside’s fate decades from now.)

Anyway, I just ran across a great piece going into much more detail about some of these issues, balanced by various counter-arguments, in the Philadelphia Inquirer from a week ago: Changing Skyline: Suburbia’s outer ring losing shine, some economists say by architecture critic Inga Saffron.

From the piece:

Is Oakcrest [a zombie subdivision on the fringe of the Philly suburbs where homes aren’t even selling for their replacement cost] a sign that the region’s suburban sprawl has finally reached its limit, or is it just a casualty of the housing bust?

Back then, experts maintained that the relentless march of suburbia would resume just as soon as the overstock of houses was exhausted. But five years after the market seized up, planners and economists aren’t so sure, and they’ve begun to ponder a previously unthinkable notion: The heyday of the suburbs may be over.

Not for every suburb, of course. The original, close-in, commuter suburbs, such as those on the Main Line, aren’t likely to lose their luster anytime soon. The next ring of suburbs can probably survive, too, if they make some structural adjustments, such as adding more townhouses and apartments. It’s low-density, fringe exurbs like Oakcrest, beyond the orbital pull of the big city, that may not have much of a future.

Saffron then cites Joel Kotkin’s counter-arguments and moves deeper into the issue.

The piece is highly recommended.