Suburbs are mostly disposable

Johnny Sanphilippo thinks your town is a financial time bomb. So much of his point is illustrated in pictures, so you really need to click through to understand his point. But to excerpt a bit:

I keep up with the reports and journalists proclaiming that America’s suburbs are thriving and will continue to do so forever. Yet I keep scratching my head since these depictions are in conflict with what I keep seeing on the ground as I travel around the country.

The folks who declare the permanent triumph of suburbia must live in the prosperous enclaves near the lake and golf course, not the poorly aging subdivisions that are rapidly losing value and becoming reservoirs for the downwardly mobile former middle class. …

If the 1950’s subdivisions are looking dogeared you should check out the older neighborhoods from the early twentieth century. They’ve been neglected even longer and the collective deferred maintenance shows. I checked the real estate listings in this Georgia town and many of these homes can be bought for as little as $20,000. The average price seems to be closer to $40,000 or $50,000. …

Downtown and the adjacent residential areas are mostly small-scale, compact, multi-story buildings with a minimum amount of roads, pipes, and wires connecting them. The new stuff is overwhelmingly huge roads, attenuated water and sewer lines, endless cables and a tremendous amount of surface parking and grass. The productive elements of the shopping malls are puny in comparison. And those buildings are extraordinarily disposable.

How much of suburban America is destined to be reclaimed by nature as state and municipal governments wipe away entire neighborhoods and shopping districts? On the other hand, how many cities and towns are vulnerable by comparison? Cities and great towns are the safest bet, and suburbs in general are poor bets.

Rehashing what I wrote in May: “Suburbs kill dynamism because they fragment people, families, and communities that could have existed as towns. Cross pollination, randomness, and locality aren’t possible in these physically stretched out places.”

(It’s important, by the way, to distinguish between “towns” and “suburbs.” Towns have a center of gravity. Suburbs tend to literally be company towns, built as a corporate project, lacking a downtown, lacking gathering spaces, lacking throughways, etc.)

New York isn’t going away. Boston isn’t going away. Philadelphia isn’t going away. Their fringe suburbs might. Where do you want to live for the next 50 years?

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