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JDC

Stranded in Suburbia

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Great column from Paul Krugman on gas prices that compares the American landscape and way of life to those of Berlin. This piece neatly sums up many of the reasons I'm going to school to study urban planning.

from the New York Times: Stranded in Suburbia

"Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin

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I liked his comments comparing our present and future transportation and housing needs to the chicken and egg. Most of the USA developed post WWII is in a real catch-22 when it comes to housing and public transportation. I hope our leaders and politicans can see clearly to the future and start really emphising transporation orientated development.

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Nice article. Gas won't get any cheaper for sure; dense urban villages should be the growing trend. I realize Atlanta is the poster-child for sprawl; but they do have a transit system called M.A.R.T.A. don't they??

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MARTA is in 2 counties & 3 other counties have their own bus systems - service except for the very central city core of Atlanta is very poor though.

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I think he is correct that we will have to change how we live and plan our cities. I could even see, as some have suggested, that far flung subdivisions and suburbs may even fall into disfavor and see their fortunes fade. It will take at least one or two generations to change the attitude of most families to want to live in a central core of a city, but I would say the next 100 years will see significant changes in the American metro area and the American way of life.

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I think the opposite is going to happen, and that is what we need to deal with. The American people simply do not, in general, like living on top of one another and don't like density. They like privacy and room to move around, and in general are far more in tune with nature than development.

What I am afraid of is that as gas prices go higher, people are going to save money by simply moving farther away for the cities. The cities after all are usually where the rent or mortgages are higher, prices are higher, you spend more on meals, etc. And the more wasteful sections of driving are the stop and go traffic around dense areas, not free-flowing highway travel. People are simply going to choose to work in office parks located right off the highway. And businesses are going to relocate out of the city to these parks. And that means that when it comes time to cut back, the first things to go will be urban redevelopment and natural preservation, as everything is turned into an office park.

I think right now we really need to focus on how to make the cities coexist with the suburbs and the exurbs. We need good transportation, but transportation that actually works with cars and works with suburbs, not forcing people to choose one or the other. We also need to focus on exactly what is so important about cities. those people who like cities realistically are dwarfed by those who don't. I would like to see cities become more focused on providing services and entertainment, and less trying to be all things to all people. Lastly, I think we need to focus on making our suburbs more community focused, not urban design but suburban design.

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I am not sure that I buy into this theory. When gasoline was not only high priced in the 1970s, but also unavailable (you couldn't buy it at any price) people did not all of a sudden sell their homes and move back to the city. They instead got rid of their gas guzzlers and started driving more efficient vehicles. So many people left NYC during the 1970s during the oil shocks of the period the city filed for bankruptcy in 1979.

The people live in suburbs because tax policies and federal subsidies for road building encourage it. When that changes then you might see a change in how the American landscape is developed.

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I don't see land use practices being questioned - that essentially is a threat to what we have perceived as the 'American Way Of Life'. Despite sprawl being one of the leading contributors to our gas shortage as well as real estate crisis - I can promise you, no leading politician particularly any running for office this year will ever point a finger at sprawl, or exurban flight, or decentralization of the office market. We're in this far too deep for anyone to suggest we have to cut our suburban manifest destiny.

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People moving further away from cities is why we use more and more gasoline and drive more and more. Vehicle Miles Traveled and the number of trips take have both consistently increased overtime because of sprawling development so the idea of moving further apart to alleviate things well doesn't hold any water. People are welcome to try but it has been shown that the further you live from the urban core the more you pay as a portion of your income on transportation costs. (recent reports).

Further I don't believe American's don't like cities. It has been to a large part public policy has encouraged suburbias growth. (freeway spending, mortgage programs, zoning regulations and yes even government funded advertisements).

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I think cloudship nailed it. Americans don't like living on top of one another. I could see perimeter tons and office parks springing up before I could see a general large scale movement back to the cities. We love our space and our cars. As monsoon said, we'll by more fuel efficient cars.

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People moving further away from cities is why we use more and more gasoline and drive more and more. Vehicle Miles Traveled and the number of trips take have both consistently increased overtime because of sprawling development so the idea of moving further apart to alleviate things well doesn't hold any water. People are welcome to try but it has been shown that the further you live from the urban core the more you pay as a portion of your income on transportation costs. (recent reports).

Further I don't believe American's don't like cities. It has been to a large part public policy has encouraged suburbias growth. (freeway spending, mortgage programs, zoning regulations and yes even government funded advertisements).

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Further I don't believe American's don't like cities. It has been to a large part public policy has encouraged suburbias growth. (freeway spending, mortgage programs, zoning regulations and yes even government funded advertisements).

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I think the main reason, by far, that most Americans choose suburbia is because the public schools in so many cities are lousy.

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Most cities have great schools that are located in town which is where the "old money" send their kids. The schools are good because of the people, not the other way around. As people continue to move back to the city, you will see more inner city schools improve and become good places to go to school again.

Further I don't believe American's don't like cities. It has been to a large part public policy has encouraged suburbias growth. (freeway spending, mortgage programs, zoning regulations and yes even government funded advertisements).

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I think the opposite is going to happen, and that is what we need to deal with. The American people simply do not, in general, like living on top of one another and don't like density. They like privacy and room to move around, and in general are far more in tune with nature than development.

What I am afraid of is that as gas prices go higher, people are going to save money by simply moving farther away for the cities. The cities after all are usually where the rent or mortgages are higher, prices are higher, you spend more on meals, etc. And the more wasteful sections of driving are the stop and go traffic around dense areas, not free-flowing highway travel. People are simply going to choose to work in office parks located right off the highway. And businesses are going to relocate out of the city to these parks. And that means that when it comes time to cut back, the first things to go will be urban redevelopment and natural preservation, as everything is turned into an office park.

I think right now we really need to focus on how to make the cities coexist with the suburbs and the exurbs. We need good transportation, but transportation that actually works with cars and works with suburbs, not forcing people to choose one or the other. We also need to focus on exactly what is so important about cities. those people who like cities realistically are dwarfed by those who don't. I would like to see cities become more focused on providing services and entertainment, and less trying to be all things to all people. Lastly, I think we need to focus on making our suburbs more community focused, not urban design but suburban design.

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I think that people are getting messed up on this old fashioned notion that people drive into cities for work. For some this is true, but like suburbia, jobs have also dispersed into the suburban landscape. More likely you have people making long commutes to other suburban locations for work than you do into an urban core.

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I think you are vastly over-generalizing about most Americans desirable living spaces. First, the trend has been for decades towards people moving to metro regions for jobs--that is a fact. Given that people depend on job in metro regions, they have a diverse choice of housing opportunities to choose from, but it's a hellava lot easier to prefer wide open spaces, 1-acre exurban fringe lots, and 80-mile commutes when gas is $2/gallon. I would argue that Americans historically, do not prefer density, but more than than almost anything else, Americans are driven by financial choices. If living in the burbs become prohibitively expensive, many Americans will choose another option. For years, cheap gas and generous public policies have made it an easy choice. The other trend that will change this is empty nester (Boomer Gen) and Gen Y's desire to live in a place where that can support their lifestyle... age in place and on the move.

The burbs won't go away, but you will probably see the market move away from many of the far-flung subdivisions and into more walkable mixed use lifestyle centers which offer some of the convenience of urban living, but with a bit more space and perceived safety of suburbia.

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I agree that financial issues are going to be a major, if not the most prevalent, driving force. But I think the assumption you are making is that the cities and the suburbs are going to stay the same, and the only thing that will change is the price of gas. You are right in that people are no longer able to afford to commute to the big city. But they aren't going to move to the big city in that case, they are just as likely to find work outside of the city. And ultimately, those people ar4e also the ones who decide zoning and development regulations. The will eventually restructure those regulations to allow for more development of traditional city jobs in the suburban neighborhoods. ultimately we are then encouraging businesses to move out of the city and into the suburban business park.

Another thing about those "lifestyle centers" - they are the same thing as suburbia. It's important to separate aesthetics from lifestyle and structure. Just because it looks all pretty and city like, it is still ultimately a development with a nearby mall. If what you want isn't in this particular mall, you get in your car and drive to one that does. Which brings me back to the point of needing to focus on what it is we really like about cities and what we really dislike about suburbs, and to fix those problems, not destroy suburbs all together.

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If energy prices keep climbing, we will see a 'reordering' of cities, suburbs, and exurbs with exurbs faring the worst. However, even some exurban subdivisons may still flourish as some people will budget to live that lifestyle. I do think urban centers, inner ring suburbs, and suburbs with a type of town center will fare the best.

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From my experience, it is actually cheaper and easier to live in those outer exurb areas. Most people don't really go into the city much any more except for entertainment purposes, work if that is where their jobs are located, and for government issues where the main point of government is in the city.

Most shopping is in fact, for most families, anyways, much easier in the country. It's cheaper for the retailers to build stores, you can get everything you want in one trip, you can carry everything in your car, and you can get to the store much quicker and easier than you do in the city. You many not see the big stores when you travel to the exurbs, but then again you don't have huge strings to stores to recognize, either. You may not have the fancy shopping that you do in the city, but you tend to find more in the every day necessities. And, those big box grocery stores have become the town squares for todays society.

Entertainment is going to already be one thing that will be cut back anyways. And jobs are pretty easy to relocate into an office park. For single people, especially those who thrive on the buzz of urban life, yes you might find more willing to move closer in. But by and large families are going to find it much easier and economically feasible to survive out in the suburbs and exurbs, and simply forgo the entertainment aspects of the city. They are too busy with baseball and soccer, band practice, dancing lessons, etc. to bother going into the city anyway.

That is why I think it is important that, before it does start happening, that we get a handle on this kind of development. I don't think you are ever going to turn it into an urban type of situation. But I think you can have some positive development anyways, instead of it becoming a city center owned by Wal Mart.

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I've lived in Virginia Beach, VA for three years, in a single-family home, albeit (very) close to the primary commercial corridor. Yet to conduct my daily business, I had to attend High School; the myriad extra programs I was in required me to drive for my senior year, as buses only ran at a set time. Shopping consisted of driving to the third-closest grocery store, a mixture of brand loyalty and preference for quality. And perhaps once a month, an obligatory trip to Costco some 8 miles away was in order.

This odd suburban, yet US-recognized category-wise, "urban" development that's prevalent everywhere in the US (think of a 2x4 lane artery, with malls and restaurants lining it, there's probably one within 20 miles of where you live) is not only spread-out, function-segregated, and impossible to navigate without cars, but is also the norm.

Compared to that, an exurb offers increased privacy and safety, and when your only shopping choices are Wal-Mart and Home Depot in the same just-off-the-freeway mall, the trips are more concentrated. In effect, it's the American, car-oriented interpretation of the concept of a "market town".

Furthermore, industrial and/or office parks are typically found in proximity of highways, airports, or existing industrial parks, the latter two of which are in turn usually adjacent to highways. Thus middle and upper-class exurbanites are more likely to work in exurbs, though usually not the same one. Because the trends in US highway construction has historically favored running them through cities instead of around them, exurb-to-exurb traffic is a significant portion of daily city freeway traffic.

The fundamental difference between Europe and the US that the article fails to mention, is how European cities are structured differently. (I was born and raised in Europe, so I have seen this firsthand). In Europe, an identifiable downtown core consists of a few wide arterials in a spoke pattern usually equipped with some mass transit network, and a network of small, narrow streets that connect them. Three-to-six-story apartment buildings with courtyards are the norm. Commercial establishments are located on the ground floors of such buildings, along the arterials. As you move further out from the center, you will find either high-density housing estates (especially common in Germany and Eastern Europe), or smaller apartment buildings, then finally single-family homes. Property values for the inner city are very high, but most residents enjoy living there, and little property gets sold or bought.

In the United States, there simply isn't enough density. The downtown core of an "average" city (not NYC, LA, Chicago, etc) spans a couple blocks and is almost purely commercial (mainly office, not even retail), then single-family homes follow in all directions in a neatly-arranged grid. Transition between retail and residential is sudden and haphazard along corridors. Yet the street patterns do not allow these areas to be walkable. Oftentimes, even the crosswalks or worse, sidewalks are missing. Notoriously, the downtowns are adjacent to low-income, high-crime areas. For this reason, the higher-income populace resides in the suburbs, completely opposite of the trend in Europe.

So while Atlanta and Berlin might have similar populations, and it'd be certainly nice it Atlanta embarked on transit-oriented redevelopment, the more likely option is that exurbs will become (almost) self-contained small towns with concentrated retail and services and pleasant single-family housing. While this does seem to perpetuate sprawl, it's paradoxically a reimplementation of the basic structure of a town on an automobile-friendly scale. Unless the fundamental structure of existing cities were changed (which is unlikely to happen), exurbs are a way of ignoring the chaos of American cities and recreating the way towns should work. Now if these exurbs were walkable, transit-oriented towns, that would be progress. Unfortunately, however, mass transit and Wal-Mart are almost directly antithetical... I can't see middle-class stay-at-home women lugging hundreds of bags on a light rail system. Smart growth is the answer: build the exurbs as mixed-use, and link them with other, similarly structured exurbs. It's nice to dream.

(Disclaimer: I am a huge supporter of mass transit, but it's hard to ignore reality.)

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So while Atlanta and Berlin might have similar populations, and it'd be certainly nice it Atlanta embarked on transit-oriented redevelopment, the more likely option is that exurbs will become (almost) self-contained small towns with concentrated retail and services and pleasant single-family housing. While this does seem to perpetuate sprawl, it's paradoxically a reimplementation of the basic structure of a town on an automobile-friendly scale. Unless the fundamental structure of existing cities were changed (which is unlikely to happen), exurbs are a way of ignoring the chaos of American cities and recreating the way towns should work. Now if these exurbs were walkable, transit-oriented towns, that would be progress. Unfortunately, however, mass transit and Wal-Mart are almost directly antithetical... I can't see middle-class stay-at-home women lugging hundreds of bags on a light rail system. Smart growth is the answer: build the exurbs as mixed-use, and link them with other, similarly structured exurbs. It's nice to dream.

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I think we are missing a factor here. Europeans have, by and large, developed smaller family groups, spend more time eating out and shopping for entertainment, and spend more money on retail, entertainment, and travel. Americans are still a much more needs-based spending group than Europeans - we are far more likely to spend our money on appliances, bigger ticket items, groceries, and other home goods. European cities often have dense shopping streets that have lots of fashion and luxury goods retailers, that aren't necessarily able to survive in America. One only has to look at the local mall to realize small shops like that don't last, and the big retailers are the only ones who stay around for a while.

That's not to say we need to concentrate on the big box retailers - just the opposite. We need to make sure the smaller retailers have the chance to make it. But the other side of that coin is making the big boxes more in tune with a desirable lifestyle. We can't force people to be urbanists. But we can try and find a more pleasant, more efficient style of living that works for everyone.

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We can't force people to be urbanists. But we can try and find a more pleasant, more efficient style of living that works for everyone.

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I hope the "we can't force people to be urbanists" comment was not directed at me. I--nor anyone on this thread that I've noticed--has proposed that. It's funny too, because that's the typical "red scare" reactionary response that many folks in the suburbs try to argue when opposing anything resembling increased density, transit, etc. Again, the market for urbanism has been rapidly increasing for at least a decade in most markets in the US... a look at any major city's downtown reveals that. Now, the double whammy of the mortgage crisis plus energy prices is placing even more pressure on many exurban communities. People can't sell their auto-dependent, suburban homes *and* are having to eat high gas prices. Not a good combination.

Yes, a lot of people are addicted or attached to a suburban lifestyle... big SUV, big lot, spacious home, big electric bill, big transportation costs. Hey, that's fine with me. The 'you'll only take my Hummer keys from my cold, dead, hands' types will do what they please, regardless of the consequences. I just think that most Americans aren't like that. The reality is that those folks will have less disposable income to spend on their family due to increased energy costs, and over time, some of those people will decide that their family (time, money) is more important than that energy-intensive lifestyle they have come to live. Throw in the trends of the younger 20/30s crowd entering the workplace and housing markets, and I still think you will see a strong growth trend towards more urban living and working.

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