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Outer Ring Suburbs and the Permanent Foreclosure
Alex Steffen, 12 Mar 10


(A quick little Friday afternoon note.)

Discussion of planetary boundaries is pretty surreal everywhere these days, but in the United States, the disconnect between reality and rhetoric has reached what I think are pretty stunning proportions. Nowhere can this be better seen than in the discussions about how to "fix" the suburbs.

Many still debate that anything about the American model of sprawl development needs fixing, but most understand that something has gone seriously wrong with the outer-ring suburbs that more than a quarter of American call home. It doesn't take a futurist to look at the conditions on the ground -- long commutes, auto dependence, the expected steep rise in oil prices, environmental problems, the bursting of a massive financial bubble (resulting in millions of abandoned homes and ruined families and a wave of bankrupted suburban local governments) -- to realize that they suburbs are in deep trouble, and that trouble is just going to get worse.

Many have started to realize that the foreclosure crisis isn't a crisis in the sense that it will come and go and everything will be fine again someday. For many places, this is the new normal; a permanent foreclosure. Any plan based on the idea we're going back to some modified form of what we had before is wishful thinking, especially in the sunbelt states where speculative sprawl was at its worst. (In fact, I think that we haven't seen anything like the bottom on this bust, with millions more foreclosures in the pipeline, and little money or political will to make the massive investments it'd take to keep many newer suburbs afloat.)

As people have realized how severe the problems facing outer-ring suburbs are, designs which attempt to solve those problems by turning sprawl into something else have seen a vogue. (Part of the reason I was prompted to fire off this note was that I got yet another call from a journalist working on a suburban solutions piece, and that got me thinking.)


Often, the thinking behind new suburban design provocations seems to go something like this: the problem with the outer ring is that it's too spread out; therefore, let's make that weakness a strength and use all that land between the buildings, say, for farms and wildlife habitat. On the surface, it might appear to make sense, but reality is far less forgiving.

The reality is that because of the way we build suburbs, the land left underneath has limited value either as farmland or as habitat; it has neither the benefits of proximity of truly urban gardening, nor the richness of undisturbed land farther out; while pulling out buldings and roads, mitigating toxics, re-shaping the flow of water over the land and restoring ecosystems essentially from scratch is such an expensive process that it will never make sense as long as really critical prime habitat remains endangered elsewhere (which will likely be the case for the foreseeable future). The "asset" of open land that outer ring suburbs have is not a very valuable one, in ecological terms.

Unfortunately, it's becoming less and less valuable in economic terms, as well. Most suburbs have extremely tough times ahead.

I expect that the wealthiest quarter of the suburbs may well thrive for some time. In many cases, they have strong tax bases and the political power to demand new state and national infrastructure investments. More importantly, what those suburbs sell is exclusion, not bargain living, so rising operational costs may not matter as much to them (the rich can afford high gas prices).

The rest are in for a rough ride. Most of the outer ring is not enclaves of high-status exclusivity. Most of it is strung together from developments marketed as offering big family homes in safe areas at a reasonable price. It's designed to be upper-middle class life, on the cheap.

But it's not cheap anymore (it was never as cheap as it looked, as one glance at the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index will show). Many homes that looked like good investments during the bubble are now underwater, and surrounded by communities that will never be finished or are already in decline. Rising fuel prices are about to make big cars, long commutes and poorly insulated homes even more expensive for middle class people. What's worse (from the perspective of the suburban homeowner) is that the cultural worm has turned, and more Americans now want to live in walkable neighborhoods and increasingly associate sprawl with poverty and crime. I expect much of the outer ring's economic value is gone, never to return.

The conventional answer to the problems moderate-income outer ring suburbs face would be redevelopment: bring in more housing, retail and commercial, and rescue them by making them more like the prosperous walkable neighborhoods that now command a premium on the market. But inner ring suburbs already possess a huge set of strategic advantages in moving to meet the demand for walkable communities: its not that hard to imagine adding lots of infill development and new transportation infrastructure to make livable, fairly walkable, much more sustainable communities. They have good bones, and they have location.

Imagining that kind of retrofit in the outer ring is a stretch. In the absence of an as-yet-unseen, brilliant solution, the outer ring suburbs, especially those recently built with funny loans at the far edges sunbelt cities, are probably just destined to become semi-rural slums. The idea that some solution has to emerge to their problems rejects both evidence and history, it seems to me; worse, it doesn't much help us think through how we might offer better outcomes to the people who've invested everything they have on the suburban fringe.

It may well be that the ruins of the unsustainable are the 21st century's frontier. I fully expect to see some really interesting experiments cropping up in half-abandoned suburbs in coming decades. But it's worth remembering the decline of the inner city from the 1940s to the 1990s, and thinking about how long it was before new answers and possibilities took hold there, and how much of urban America is still suffering. If we're going to avoid that kind of disaster in the outer ring, we need big, bold thinking -- thinking that transcends farming and other small-scale solutions to reimagine what the macro-level possibilities might be for places the 21st century has left behind.

One of the things I'd like to explore in the next few years is what truly different models for suburban redevelopment might look like. As I find interesting ideas, I'll definitely be reporting back.

Images: Damon Duncan, CC; Frog's Dream: McMansions Turned into Biofilter Water Treatment Plants, by Calvin Chiu

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Before living in China, I was never really one to pay attention to urban planning, nor understand its role. I was the product of the suburbs, and for most of my life enjoyed the ease of driving through the parking lots of newly built strip malls looking for the closest parking spots... and it wasn't until I really began living the inner city life in Tokyo/ Shanghai that I began to see just how broken the suburb model is... and why the US transition to a more sustainable (economic and environmental) plan is going to be.

Take the cities of Atlanta, St Louis, or Phoenix as the examples. They are massive "cities" that offer little real sustainability in the infrastructure. Commercial developments outside the "downtown" are limited to 2-4 floors of office park, and there is no immediate connection to supporting residential or retail developments.

So, unlike in a Shanghai model where there are 30 retail/ commercial/ residential cores that coexist, the residents of these cities are forced into cars. Walking, buses, and metros (where they exist) are not destinations in themselves, rather than the bloodlines between major organs.

So, in looking at the issues above, I think it is going to be more viable long term to allow developers to build 15-20 story commercial clusters that provide a place for the outerburb people to develop mass of commercial & retail as an option as well. That, at the end of the day, it is about building density, but part of that may be bringing density out to the burbs as well.


Posted by: Collective Responsibility on 12 Mar 10

Most suburbs have a number of retail spaces such as strip malls or larger indoor malls that are either completely dead, or heading that way. If the author is correct and the decline of these suburbs is being caused, in part, by rising fuel costs, then these centers, with their ever increasing acreage of permanently empty parking lots, will become more of an economically viable option to redevelop into higher density, mixed use retail, business and residential centers. These centers could serve as a life support system for the surrounding sprawl, whose residents could still take advantage even without having cars.

These centers could also serve as mass transit hubs, with bus/streetcar lines radiating out into the local residential areas and intercity lines connecting hub to hub. This would give the lower income residents better access to jobs and amenities outside their area.

I disagree with the author's assessment that suburban land is worthless for wildlife or food production. As a landscaper I have seen first-hand even old suburban land being turned successfully back into native plant communities. Furthermore, people in the US waste vast amounts of food each year, food which could be composted to enrich soils depleted by years of use as lawns. And, with rising fuel, water and fertilizer costs making the modern lawn harder and harder to maintain, it seems there are few other options for the future of these spaces than either for food or wildlife. Don't forget also that fruit/nut trees have always thrived, even in heavily modified suburban environments.

Any investment in failing suburbs may be a hard sell in this economy, but if we are to save these places and not leave their residents in destitution, it is an incestment that must be made.

Posted by: Zack on 13 Mar 10

Telecommuting might allow workers to stay in outer rings without the need to drive long distances daily.

Posted by: RMR on 14 Mar 10

In response to RMR's comment that, "Telecommuting might allow workers to stay in outer rings without the need to drive long distances daily," I would ask how the 75% of other miles that people drive that is not part of their commute would be addressed? That's right, Job commuting in the US only accounts for 25% of people's total driving, so telecommuting is not a solution by itself.

Posted by: Warren Karlenzig on 14 Mar 10

This is a serious question. I suspect the answer will be found on a community-by-community bases. The suburbs will have to keep an open mind, take a look at the resources available to them, and what they can do to best utilize those resources.

Open Source Architecture is a valuable direction to pursue. I think either the outer ring suburbs will have to deteriorate further before they fully consider investigating solutions, or communities will have to ask them to investigate solutions.

TED Talk:


Another direction to head in is the Tradition City, moving towards cities with less/no cars, low maintanence, smaller homes, etc.


I also favor The Venus Project, whose goal is a sustainable global civilization. One notable quote, "The question is not, 'do we have the money?' the question is 'do we have the resources?' Yes we do."


I'm sure there are many other valuable alternatives. I look forward to hearing them :).

Posted by: Malcolm on 15 Mar 10

Much of this blog article is boring and generically written based on lazy assumptions and easily identified philosophical leaning talking points. Use your noggins, folks, and think out each point made before buying the cataclysmic theory hook, line and sinker.

Posted by: gig on 15 Mar 10

Suburban living takes a lot of heat for being unsustainable, but for some reason I never see any mention of suburban business parks. Surely, these are as bad if not worse.

The typical business park has big buildings separated by acres of cars. They are invariably served only by dawdling occasional bus service, and services within them are flung far and wide. Think you're going to go out for lunch today? Better get in a car.

The combination of residential suburbs with business suburbs means that transit users have to break bulk twice. You start out on a milk run bus in the morning, transfer to the rapid transit system which takes you through the center of town (regardless of the relative locations) and back out to the fringe where you get on a second milk run. For myself, it's always been easy to justify the first transfer because I choose to live where I do. The second transfer, which makes the total trip time completely unpredictable, is harder to swallow.

I don't see this getting substantially better if we all live in compact walkable communities connected to transit. Any effort to get people out of their cars will fail if the place they go every day is accessible only by car.

Posted by: Rene Gourley on 15 Mar 10

Out of curiosity, has anyone ever done a study to explore (hypothetically) what fraction of current or past jobs could be done by telecommuting?

Posted by: Harris Wilkes on 16 Mar 10

You wrote: "nor the richness of undisturbed land farther out; while pulling out buldings and roads, mitigating toxics, re-shaping the flow of water over the land and restoring ecosystems essentially from scratch is such an expensive process that it will never make sense as long as really critical prime habitat remains endangered elsewhere (which will likely be the case for the foreseeable future)."

I'd be interested in any studies on which you base these conclusions, as well as any comparative ones about the toxicity of urban soil versus "suburban" soil.

Posted by: Josh Stack on 17 Mar 10

A lot of the discussion regarding these communities is the requirement for increased density (which makes sense) - but is there any formal study that talks about what a sustainable density actually is? On the materials side, more dense is better (as the services don't travel as far, more shared resources, etc.), but is the expectation that everyone lives in communities with 20-30 story building surrounding them sustainable from a human perspective?

Posted by: Jim on 18 Mar 10

Ok, first of all, I am FOR the urban movement. However, I am a lower-middle class person living in the suburbs. I have to say, I am not buying this argument.
The suburbs may be too costly for a certain segment of the population (i.e., worldchanging readers), but there are plenty plenty plenty of folks who prefer the convenience of Walmart and Costco to the responsibility / sacrifices of walkable settings. For these people, one of whom is my own wife, the joys of walkable environments are just a car drive away.
In order to be convinced of doomsday for suburbia, I'd have to see a lot more compelling evidence. Stuff like:
- Representative surveys of folks who LIVE in suburbia (across the nation) showing a strong preference to MOVE to walkable environments
- Evidence that the electric car movement will be UNABLE to sustain suburb-to-city work commutes

Again, the urban movement makes sense to people like me and other worldchanging readers, but logic doesn't supplant evidence.

Posted by: worldliness on 20 Mar 10

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