To say that the suburbs once embodied the American dream is beyond cliche at this point, so we'll just get to the guts of this: The erstwhile epitomes of Americana are decaying. Experts have taken to speculating that rising oil prices will eventually render Levittowns everywhere unlivable and transform suburbs into slums, but few would have thought that it would happen so fast.
The New York Times has a front-page report today about the ballooning poverty rate in suburbs, which has surged 53% since 2000. That's compared with a 26% rise in cities. According to a new report from the Brookings Institution, 55% of the nation's poor who live in metropolitan areas now reside in suburbs. The trend is driven by declining property values, spikes in foreclosures, and the increasing allure of the city to the affluent.It's a scary thought -- over half of the most impoverished people in the nation live in suburban communities that are largely disconnected with population centers and other cities. Public transportation is poor to non-existant in many of these areas, as are social services. Food banks have seen a meteoric rise in use.
The scary thing about this is that unless some of these issues are tackled head-on, this could lead to a vicious cycle: Oil prices will continue to rise, making transportation even more difficult, and lowering property values in more remote suburbs even further. Some suburban cities are already seeing their well-off residents relocate -- as they do so, they lose vital revenue streams from property taxes and such, and lose the ability to provide the sort of robust social services that will become even more necessary in coming years.
Treehugger has railed against suburbs for as long as we've been around. But this post isn't intended to be read as a 'we told you so', yet instead a 'let's get moving' on developing better public transit and sustainable infrastructure. And regarding all the suburbs that are not yet declining -- plenty aren't, and many, in places like Phoenix and California, are still expanding -- perhaps we should take such warning signs seriously.