Monday, January 26, 2009

Has Suburban Sprawl Reached its Limit?

Development of far reaching suburbs was stopped in its tracks by the economic implosion. Will it take up where it left off, or is a higher density life-style pattern in our future?
by Charlie Leck

Just two years ago, just a few miles west of us and 30 west of downtown Minneapolis, a developer put up a big sign in an open farm field announcing plans for 80+ homes. It’s been the American dream for a couple of generations now – build a home in the countryside with a yard, and then fence it in so you don’t have to look at your neighbor’s yard, and then put an outdoor cooking contraption on your outdoor deck and, when you get home after your hour and a half drive from downtown, you can burn a couple cheap steaks and sit with your wife and kids in front the television, watching Barney Somebodyorother, who lives in a ficticious suburban community, very similar to the one you live in, and he has kids who can’t stand his guts and they hate the long bus ride to their school and they hate the suburban place where they live because all the real action is right back in the uptown area out of which Barney just moved his entire family.

A lot of you won’t believe this, but that day may be over. The suburban dream may be a fatal victim of the 2008 economic crash and the realities of diminishing fuel sources. It all started to fall apart when the gas prices got so high, but, as it turns out, high gas prices weren’t even a sniff of what was to come.

People around here are already talking about what to do with the few homes they did sell out there in that huge farm field, now foreclosed upon, as naked as Adam in the Garden of Eden and as empty as the mind of George W. The developer has gone belly-up and no one is making payments on the big old farm field and the farmer who sold it is now having trouble making his payments on the little lot and mobile trailer he purchased in the village of Homosasse down there in Florida.

To see how crazy the discussion is getting, take a look at this little excerpt from a recent article in the New York Times (What Will Save the Suburbs?)

“There has been a nationwide shift toward de-construction (led by companies like Planet Reuse and Buffalo Reuse, the surgical taking-apart of homes to salvage the building materials for reuse, but often the building materials used in these developments aren’t of good enough quality to warrant salvaging.

“I don’t have the perfect solution for how to transform these broad swaths of subdivisions, and while I’ve heard much talk of the foreclosure tragedy, I’ve heard nary a peep about what to do about it.

“A recent article in The Times spotted an emerging trend of kids usurping the abandoned pools of foreclosed homes for use as temporary skate parks. (Interestingly, this was big in the ‘70s, as you can see by watching the rad skate documentary “Dogtown and Z-Boys.”) It’s a great short-term strategy for adolescent recreation (and for ridding neighborhoods of fetid pools, which often harbor West Nile virus), though it’s not a comprehensive solution to the problem of increasingly abandoned, ill-maintained and more dangerous streetscapes.

Oh, my god, are they crazy? I can just imagine 120 acre farm field down the road, with three lonely houses sitting it, being turned into skate parks for the 6 or 7 kids who skate out there.

But, I’m not writing this to discuss what to do about the problem of vacant and unwanted houses out in the countryside. Rather, I’m wondering if the days of suburban expansion are at an end. What do you think?

Is there a chance America will look again at higher density living. Can we really live closer to one another? Live in high rises! Live in cities!

And then we’ll leave the country as country and it will be a beautiful place in which to wander and frolic. There will be cows behind fences and deer and rabbits hopping and loping through the open fields. And all of this only an hour or so outside the city where we live – in the city where we can catch a train or bus to work and where we can buy our groceries just down on the corner, and where we can walk the kids to school on nicely paved sidewalks and catch a movie, without driving, in the theatre that’s just 3 blocks down the street.

“I’m not saying! I’m just saying!” As a well-known radio jerk around here is always saying: “Either I’m on to something, or I’m on something!” What do you think? Can the American spirit of expansion be reined in? Can we reveal the suburban dream to be more a nightmare? Is there a new life style ahead for middle-class Americans?

“I’m not telling! I’m just asking!”

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