Lessons in Sustainability Learned from Slumburbia


Photo via All Mountain Realty

Timothy Egan has an interesting column about the fate of the foreclosed developments that now litter the nation. There are, as you're well aware, entire neighborhoods with little residing in them but foreclosed signs, empty lots, and empty homes. Many of these developments sprung up on fertile farmland, and have now been vacated or left unfilled. So what lessons can be learned from Slumburbia? Egan describes the scene in one such lot in California's Central Valley:

Dirty flags advertise rock-bottom discounts on empty starter mansions. On the ground, foreclosure signs are tagged with gang graffiti. Empty lots are untended, cratered with mud puddles from the winter storms that have hammered California's San Joaquin Valley.
And this certainly isn't unusual. In fact, such scenes are common in areas like Phoenix, Arizona, parts of Florida, and across the Central Valley. And they all have come to represent what we all recognize now as unsustainable development. As Egan points out, the notion that everyone could and should own homes--and big, resource-hogging homes at that--was commonplace just five or six years ago. Parts of the problem were faulty mortgage schemes, greedy banks, a near-nonexistent credit-checking system and irresponsible home buyers.


But behind all that lurked the driving force--an urge to consume, and consume flagrantly. The long-held American ideal that more is better. But we've learned the lesson over and over again--such rampant consumption is unsustainable. I like to look at the whole debacle from an admittedly new-agey metaphorical slant: these lots that shot up were tangibly rejected by a system righting itself to achieve economic equilibrium. And the fact that many of those lots were built on once-productive farmland only adds an environmental hue to the metaphor. It should be a simple reminder that we were trying to build too much, too fast, and too indiscriminately.

empty lots-foreclosed.JPG

Finally, Egan makes a note of what lessons can be drawn from slumburbia:

look at the cities with stable and recovering home markets. On this coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and San Diego come to mind. All of these cities have fairly strict development codes, trying to hem in their excess sprawl. Developers, many of them, hate these restrictions. They said the coastal cities would eventually price the middle class out, and start to empty.

It hasn't happened. Just the opposite. The developers' favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls -- Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley -- are the most troubled, the suburban slums.

Which is why a moral of this story is that we need to slow down, and consider how we orchestrate development more carefully. It's a moral I have little faith Americans will take to heart, however.

More on Development and Slumburbia
One Planet Living in the Suburbs ?

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