ABOVE: Cities, like Washington, D.C., are attracting a younger, more affluent, white population. Photo by Poldavo (Alex).
A new study from the Brookings Institution, “The State of Metropolitan America,” shows that, for the first time, America’s suburbs are more likely to be home to minorities, the poor and a rapidly growing older population, while younger, educated whites move to cities for better jobs and shorter commutes. The report analyzes census data from 2000-2008 in the United States’ 100 largest metropolitan areas, revealing a reversal of historical demographic trends. (See an interactive map here.)
So, the question is: What will suburbs like mine do to meet this challenge?
I can tell you what Franklin, Wisconsin is currently doing: Nothing.
No initiatives, projects, forums, or incentive programs. In fact, we just pledged a half million dollars to a neighboring community for a superfluous highway interchange, a move that tells the world that Franklin is still about a decade behind the curve.
And, unfortunately, the collegial environment depicted in the photo above is virtually nonexistent in my suburb, and it's something savvy first-time home-buyers are much more aware of now than they were, say, ten years ago (I, for one, was not a savvy home-buyer when it came to judging the community surrounding my house.)
Last year I proposed, via my position on the Economic Development Commission, an city-sponsored effort to work with a developer to encourage creation of a coffee shop/co-working space next to the Franklin library. A member of the Commission argued for "green space" instead - next to a park. Another wanted to add a "friendly amendment" to the Commission's recommendation stating that no money whatsoever be spent on the effort.
So much for that.
Many trade city living for the traditionally strong school districts found in suburbs; "Sure, I'm isolated and can't get anywhere without a car, but my kids are in a good school." However, strangled as they are by ill-fated TIF deals and taxpayer revolts ("My property tax is too high!"), suburban school districts are facing imminent decline. Franklin's school district is cutting an alarming number of positions, and the high school is an old relic.
Suburban public amenities? "Community columnists" decry funding community libraries!
Why bother anymore?
We may be looking at a whole new attitude toward the idea of home ownership. From The Atlantic website:
Houses make sense when you're rooted, financially and geographically. The future of the America is itinerant, flexible, and wary of burying money in an immobile "economic trap." Throw in the 100 million Americans we're expected to add in the next four decades, and you've got a congestion problem that suggests we should replace front lawns and sedans with apartments and trains.
The blog's author, Derek Thompson, is referring to opinions set forth in Richard Florida's new book, THE GREAT RESET (which is the very first e-book I purchased for my iPad).
Thompson quotes the following from Florida's book:
We've reached the limits of what George W. Bush used to call the "ownership society." Owning your own home made sense when people could hope to hold a job for most or all of their lives. But in an economy that revolves around mobility and flexibility, a house that can't be sold becomes an economic trap, preventing people from moving freely to economic opportunity. Not only has that piece of the American Dream grown dark, but it's also clear that financial excess in the housing sector was one of the central causes of the economic crisis. The rate of home ownership has been on the decline for some time now. Many of those who still choose to buy homes will choose smaller ones, while many more will opt for rental housing.
Our new way of life is likely to depend a whole lot less on the car. In October 2009, The New York Times reported "...After more than a century in which an automobile represented the American dream, car enthusiasm may no longer be a part of Americans' DNA." Car culture no longer exerts the powerful pull it once did. More and more families are deciding to share cars, and young people are putting off buying them and using public transit, bikes, their feet or Zipcars (membership-based, easy-access short-term car rentals) instead. It's not just that oil and gas have become expensive, it's that traffic and gridlock have become a deadweight time cost on us and our economy.
Compared with the end of 2008, the average household is now spending an extra $135 a month for fuel. But, to repeat: My suburb just pledged $500,000 to build a highway interchange that we don't need in a neighboring community. And it's not just money that will be going to the edge of town and over the border, it will be development as well. Why build a neighborhood-based coffee shop when you can toss up an offramp-serving drive-thru java shed right next to the freeway?
At the same time, Franklin is pouring money into a streetscape design for a commercial strip that all but ignores transit options like dedicated bus lanes and Zipcar facilities. Instead, our big-ticket item on 27th Street is "enhanced lighting" - the seventh most popular item mentioned on preference surveys, as Franklin Alderman (and 27th Street Steering Committee Chairman) Steve Olson is fond of reminding us.
If success and sustainability are a destination, perhaps it's time suburbs - mine in particular - realize that the road that brought them here won't get them there.