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The Next Slum and the New Green City
Alex Steffen, 11 Mar 08

We've written before about the idea that suburbs are the slums of the future. I've also touched on Christopher B. Leinberger's The Option of Urbanism (though I have yet to receive my review copy, ahem). But now the two have come together in a great Atlantic essay you should sprint to get your hands on:

Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics, construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

And the suburbs we're building no longer even reflect what people want or how we live:

In most metropolitan areas, only 5 to 10 percent of the housing stock is located in walkable urban places (including places like downtown White Plains and Belmar). Yet recent consumer research by Jonathan Levine of the University of Michigan and Lawrence Frank of the University of British Columbia suggests that roughly one in three homeowners would prefer to live in these types of places. In one study, for instance, Levine and his colleagues asked more than 1,600 mostly suburban residents of the Atlanta and Boston metro areas to hypothetically trade off typical suburban amenities (such as large living spaces) against typical urban ones (like living within walking distance of retail districts). All in all, they found that only about a third of the people surveyed solidly preferred traditional suburban lifestyles, featuring large houses and lots of driving. Another third, roughly, had mixed feelings. The final third wanted to live in mixed-use, walkable urban areas—but most had no way to do so at an affordable price. Over time, as urban and faux-urban building continues, that will change.

Demographic changes in the United States also are working against conventional suburban growth, and are likely to further weaken preferences for car-based suburban living. When the Baby Boomers were young, families with children made up more than half of all households; by 2000, they were only a third of households; and by 2025, they will be closer to a quarter. Young people are starting families later than earlier generations did, and having fewer children. The Boomers themselves are becoming empty-nesters, and many have voiced a preference for urban living. By 2025, the U.S. will contain about as many single-person households as families with children.

There's a giant opportunity here to forge a new market preference, a demographic shift, new technologies and a historical opportunity into cities which are machines for living bright green lives.

Cities outperform suburbs on nearly every measure of environmental well-being, and, though it may sound surprising to 20th century ears, social well-being, even in most cases health. Compact communities are so much better than sprawling ones that a quite credible argument can be made that land use reform is the most important environmental policy in the North America. We ought to be practically paying people to live in cities.

Of course, as Harvard economics prof Edward Glaeser notes, that's not what we're doing today:

While we should be encouraging development in dense, urban areas that use less energy, many of our policies work exactly in the wrong direction. Our land use restrictions push development away from dense areas, with plenty of NIMBY-ist neighbors, toward empty spaces with fewer noisy abutters. Our transportation policies fail to charge people for the full social costs of driving long distances on crowded highways. Our localized school system encourages prosperous parents to flee urban poverty. Just think of how the 1974 Supreme Court decision that limited busing to within city boundaries encouraged mass suburbanization to get beyond those city borders.

Urbanists tend to be great eliders: we look at the parts of cities which fit our desires or theories or confirm our prejudices, and conveniently do not see the rest of the urban fabric. That is a privilege we're going to have to give up. For the new cities of the bright green future, with their new forms of infrastructure and new types of commerce and industry, will only function well if they are much more integrated and fully woven than the cities of the last century. In part, that will demand that they be much denser, but even more, it demands that urban land be used intelligently, and intensively, and that policies, codes and taxes push that sort of use.

But what about the suburbs we leave behind in our wake as we create these green and gleaming cities?

"The ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier." The decline of sprawl of written: the kinds of demographic and cultural shifts we're seeing are unlikely to reverse themselves, and even without carbon pricing, oil is going to continue its march towards the sea of in-affordability. It's what we do with the ruins left behind that's interesting.

Might the next generation's suburban pioneers (the Berliners call their urban pioneers taikonauts, a word I like) find ways of taking the housing bubble sprawl housing that today sits rotting on its cul-de-sacs, and making something extraordinary out of it?

I'm often asked to suggest topics for competitions and charrettes and such. Sustainability retrofits for low-income abandoned sprawl would be a damn fine place to apply some wild creativity.

(photo credit: Cory Doctorow, Creative Commons)

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I've always wanted a house that had extra space and no other real good use and to retro-fit it with strawbale building. That is, bales on the inside of the house. It would reduce the living space squarefootage significantly but the McMansions are perfect for it. Then a bit of fencing, the same for the garage, a ground source heat pump and you have a nice little farmstead just outside of the city.

You'd have to rework the windows and rework the attic insulation - or just insulate the whole top floor, but I think it'd be doable and fun and make some real useful buildings out of the McMansions. Of course, this would be most economically feasible for the ones on a bit more land than 1/6th of an acre.

Posted by: mudlikesubstance on 11 Mar 08

You should review Doug Farr's "Sustainable Urbanism" - it came out in November addressing these issues. Farr Associates does architecture and planning, and is the only firm in the nation with three LEED Platinum buildings.

Posted by: Gabriel on 11 Mar 08

And of course, to open up some land for those returned farmsteads, some good old deconstruction will be called for, like what they're already doing in Northern Virginia.

Posted by: Lyle Solla-Yates on 12 Mar 08

South Africa (particularly Cape Town) is already following this model of suburban slums. It is quite scary because it comes from apartheid spacial engineering and is now part of the neo-apartheid ANC government.

Posted by: Jared on 12 Mar 08

this fascinating subject was previously discussed on archinect

Posted by: barry lehrman on 12 Mar 08

Underpriced suburbs might offer some interesting possibilities for reorganizing agricultural production a bit. Those big yards could be good for something, namely market gardening or micro-husbandry. In the absence of direct and indirect farm subsidies, that's what we'd see after all- a decent volume of produce grown within the city, a large portion grown very close to it in small, easily accessible districts, and only the really durable crops (grains, fuel crops) grown too much farther out. In the absence of our strange farm incentives, every major city would be surrounded by green farming belts. I've heard that in Russian cities today, many people have their city home and a plot out on the edge of town where they do some substantial gardening on weekends. They just take the train out and back every weekend during growing season. Maybe a similar sort of system would evolve here.

Posted by: donald on 13 Mar 08

absolutely, smallholdings! what an opportunity. wish we had all that space here.

Posted by: gerda on 13 Mar 08

How can businesses help create and spread this awareness in their chosen spheres of influence, their ecosystem -employees, suppliers, vendors and partners....afterall these are the people who form communities and inturn societies that are responsible for the next big slum and next green city?
In our view Corporates need to spread this awareness as an integral part of their internal communication plans. See how we are doing in our circle of influence.Visit us at

Posted by: SriLanka Apparel on 14 Mar 08

This will almost certainly end in HUGE arcologies. Massive towering cityscape buildings housing tens of thousands of humans, with centralized resources, malls, entertainment, hospitals, schools - everything. These places will be citystates-in-a-building, with their own (VERY STRICT) rules. Read Larry Nivens "Oath of Fealty" to see the future.

Posted by: Khannea Suntzu on 14 Mar 08

The greening of the city can not truly happen with out the greening of the suburbs. Our cities must be fed and we can not continue to rely on agrobusiness to fill that need. For food production to be sustainable it must fit into the fabric of our lives and be intertwined with all of our thinking about land use. The density of our cities must grow in relationship to the increasing biological diversity and production capability of the suburbs. The large lots are ideal for small farming operations. Those Mcmansions could be turned into multifamily homes. The three car garages into workspace for artisans. The developments that now sit in their manicured yards could become the teaming abundant source of a local, organic food base. I see three tiers of use beginning in the city itself. The first tier is the personal rooftop, community and home-based gardens of the urbanites. The second tier is the suburbs providing seasonal fruits, vegetables and small animal products. The third tier is the larger agriculture operations providing grains and large animal resources. For a truly green cityscape to emerge food production must be taken into account and the suburbs are just waiting to be put to good use!

Posted by: Faith Van De Putte on 16 Mar 08

The planning-type for the expected community is top-down. First have the oil-refinery in the country-environment. Second have modular construction of houses made of recyclable materials, a rental toward ownership arrangement. Third this community will have property management people, to supply upkeep services to renters. These businesses which will supply for the community, can rent spaces in a building created for retail.
Educational-specialist paid for by the community can assist when children have difficulties, the reason for a contractor is to allow easier removal. There is a medical building already in some communities, where physicians rent space, this is for the reduction of administrative cost. It is possible to develop a cost effective community around a business, if mass-transit such as a train system is used then no dwellings need to exist inside the blast-zone.

Posted by: Brent Pieczynski on 16 Mar 08

Very low density suburbs may have problems, but the suburbs in California are so densley developed with no forests or raw land remaining, that people there have access to both buses and stores within walking distance. AND, they can grow crops in their backyards. Try doing that in a "green" high rise.

Posted by: ZeroGrowth on 16 Mar 08

We're getting the same message outside of the Bay Area: neighborhoods that soaked up eager homebuyers are turning into ghost-towns quicker than can be believed. And what will become of these places? Will the lack of property tax revenue hit these towns financially, to the point that they're just shell operations, providing the barest of municipal support? Scary stuff.

Posted by: matt on 18 Mar 08

I'm with all those who recommended tearing down the suburban wasteland and cleaning it up and replenishing the soil for local agriculture. Then even the transport distance between where we grow our food and eat our food is eliminated. The great thing is that these changes accumulate.

"But they can be redesigned, not over night, but steadily and with compounding beneficial interest."
Richard Register.

"A normal city is changing all the time - buildings grow old and are replaced. Just look at a picture of your city fifty or a hundred years ago. If the average building life is 60 years, then the city changes at the rate of 1.6% per year.

I took as the basis for this scenario the average size of an average Swedish municipality - 36,000 inhabitants. I assumed that instead of building the houses on that same plot as the one demolished you build eco units on the periphery of the city, along the roads preferably. Then you start to ruralise at the same pace as the normal replacement rate. After 50 years, only ten percent of the city is left."
Folke Gunther

Posted by: Dave Lankshear on 19 Mar 08



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