“Farewell to the suburban age”?

One strategist argues that the “suburban age” is over in America:

Note how this process is self-reinforcing. As people moved out, municipal revenues stagnated in the old urban core. This meant that deteriorating urban services in downtown areas pushed out more people. Meanwhile, the expanding suburban population could use its growing political clout to demand more public spending on highways and other urban infrastructure for the suburbs. The expansion of urban infrastructure was fiscally very expensive, but America’s powerful mid-century economy could afford it. By the end of the 20th century, some suburbs had spread so far from any urban core that they were given a new name: “exurbs”.

Today, however, these very dynamics, both financial and sociological, have gone into reverse. Concerns about the state of US federal, state and municipal finances have grown sharply. In August 2011, ratings agency Standard & Poor’s downgraded the credit rating of 11,000 municipal issues following the downgrade of the federal government. In November 2011, Jefferson County, Alabama, filed for bankruptcy, the largest such filing in US history. At the very least, this means that the United States will not be able to afford further expansion of urban infrastructure for many years. Indeed, American city managers will be forced to recognise that urban services are much cheaper to supply in a concentrated urban form…

Meanwhile, the structure of American society is also changing rapidly. In 1950, households based on married couples accounted for 78 per cent of all households. Single-person households accounted for less than 10 per cent. Over the following 60 years, however, the institution of marriage went into steep decline in America. The latest census data shows that married couples accounted for only 48 per cent of households in 2010 and that their share is rapidly falling. In contrast, the single person household now accounts for 27 per cent of households.

The residential requirements of this new social structure are drastically different from those of the traditional family. The single individual, for instance, is likely to prefer an easily managed apartment and close proximity to bars, restaurants, hospitals, shops and friends. The implication of the above sociological and fiscal dynamics is that the future trajectory of American cities is towards increased density. Some old city-centres will revive even as new hubs will emerge.

There are two major arguments here against the suburbs:

1. They are too expensive to maintain in the long-run.

2. Family structures have changed and the new forms of social arrangement, such as living alone, would be best done in the city.

Both of these are problems though I’m not sure they necessarily mean that Americans will revert to city living and promoting urban policies over suburban policies. I wonder if the shift toward the densification of the suburbs, often built around New Urbanist developments or retrofitting, would adequately solve both of these issues.

The overall premise of this piece is echoed by others (see a similar argument from The Atlantic last year) and I wonder how much of this is simply the same suburban critique that we have heard now for decades: suburbs are unsustainable and their design does not cater to everyone (teenagers, singles, the elderly, etc.). Is this era of economic crisis going to be the period where these critiques actually move residents and policymakers toward other options?

There is another intriguing part about this analysis: how American policies about suburbs influence other country’s policies. This writer suggests that India is aspiring in some ways to follow the American model when the country would be better served to promote denser cities. If the American suburban model does decline (and we would have to think about how exactly you would measure this decline), would other countries abandon their smaller suburban plans?

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