For quite some time, urbanists and TreeHuggers have been saying that the suburbs were toast. Many were not sure that they were actually going to even recover after the last recession, let alone expand. But the Urban Land Institute tells us that the opposite is true; the suburbs are thriving. Among the key findings in their recent report, Housing in the Evolving American Suburb:
America remains a largely suburban nation. In America’s 50 largest (and most urbanized) metropolitan areas, suburbs as defined here account for 79 percent of the population, 78 percent of households, and 32 percent of the land area.
Suburban growth has driven recent metropolitan growth. From 2000 to 2015, suburban areas accounted for 91 percent of population growth and 84 percent of household growth in the top 50 metro areas.
The suburbs are “young” compared with their regions overall. Fully 85 percent of children ages 18 and younger and, contrary to popular perception and most media attention, three-quarters of 25- to 34-year-olds in the 50 largest metro areas live in the suburbs.
According to the graph, not too many people actually care about living in smaller, more efficient houses in walkable areas. About the only thing they value as little in a community than public transportation is diversity.
Overall, the strength, ubiquity, and persistence of Americans’ desire for homeownership is favorable for the future of single- family homeownership, and, by extension, the future of the suburbs. Despite the economic turmoil faced by many budding homeowners in the foreclosure crisis, housing tenure preferences have not changed, and single-family homeownership remains a core tenet of the “American Dream.”
Now it has been a core tenet of TreeHugger and other sites covering urbanism and the future of cities that this particular American Dream was no longer viable, because of the costs of sprawl. Charles Marohn of Strong Towns has called it a Ponzi Scheme:
We've actually embedded this experiment of suburbanization into our collective psyche as the "American dream," a non-negotiable way of life that must be maintained at all costs. What will we throw away trying to sustain the unsustainable? How much of our dwindling wealth will be poured into propping up this experiment gone awry?
We need to end our investments in the suburban pattern of development, along with the multitude of direct and indirect subsidies that make it all possible. Further, we need to intentionally return to our traditional pattern of development, one based on creating neighborhoods of value, scaled to actual people. When we do this, we will inevitably rediscover our traditional values of prudence and thrift as well as the value of community and place.
Then there is the question of economics: who is going to live in those suburbs in the future? Who will have the kind of jobs that can support the house, the cars, the taxes, when so few of our kids are making enough money to live? David Leonhardt looks at the research of the The Equality of Opportunity Project and is really worried about the future.
The index is deeply alarming. It’s a portrait of an economy that disappoints a huge number of people who have heard that they live in a country where life gets better, only to experience something quite different.
Then, finally, there is climate. Curbed Atlanta reads the report and concludes that its suburbs will thrive forever.
Notwithstanding that the incoming government of the United States does not believe that climate change exists and the former Governor of Georgia, in the middle of a crippling drought could only ask everyone to pray because "The only solution is rain, and the only place we get that is from a higher power," Many do believe that Atlanta is in for some tough times ahead. Amy Morsch wrote her thesis on it, A Climate Change Vulnerability and Risk Assessment for the City of Atlanta, Georgia, and it is rather dire. Atlanta is going to be very hot and possibly very dry.
Recently I wrote a post where I asked What's wrong with this picture, questioning whether we could build a society where we had an electric car in every double garage of every single family detached house in the suburbs. I was excoriated in comments, mostly for questioning the electric car and less so for questioning the suburban dream. There are many others, like writer Amanda Kolson Hurley, who note that the suburbs are changing and growing up.
But ULI studies, surveys and even the American election, the biggest survey of them all, will not change the fact that in a world of changing climate, disappearing jobs and disintegrating infrastructure, the suburbs are not forever.