It’s a somewhat fashionable thing right now to look down your nose at the suburbs. Environmentalists and students of urban studies (rightly) point to the energy wasted by single-family houses and the gas guzzled on the trips to the grocery store.
The critique has been in Hollywood for years, but it’s recently become much more prevalent. Look to the many recent television shows and films that have aimed to “pull back the veil” on suburbia—The X Files, Desperate Housewives, American Beauty, last year’s Little Children and Disturbia (which so obviously wants to indict suburbia, it starts its critique in the title). As far as Hollywood is concerned, the horror is in the suburbs, masked by the cookie cutter houses owned by people desperately trying to fit the mold.
Writing off the suburbs, or painting them all with the same brush, is a bad idea. Those in Tacoma who, like me, want to create a healthy downtown core should recognize that our success downtown is greatly affected by what happens in our suburbs.
I don’t want to get rid of the ‘burbs in favor of high rises. I want to make sure the urban core has a good relationship with them and encourage smart suburban growth. To do that, we need to draw distinctions between the good and the bad suburbs.
The NIMBY Problem
To the suburban dweller, the distinction between a good suburb and a bad suburb is easy: the bad suburb is the development that has leapfrogged past their own and is even farther from the city center than they are. They point across the street, “It’s that development that unnecessarily bulldozed a forest!” and “It’s that development that caused the roads to be filled with traffic.” Many move to the suburbs to “get away from it all,” and once they’ve moved out there, no one else should be allowed to come clog up their little slice of paradise.
I’m exaggerating a bit here, but the point still stands: most suburban communities want further growth curbed. It’s part of a strong NIMBY sentiment common to many suburban dwellers (the very phrase “NIMBY”—Not In My Back Yard—assumes the very suburban concept of a backyard).
The worst form of this NIMBYism results in the creation of a suburban municipality. These new suburban cities usually immediately create zoning laws that prevent the creation of multi-family housing like apartments and duplexes. It doesn’t take long before the city and the suburb are stratified along race and class lines. The city gets poorer, the city’s schools start to decline because their property tax base has dropped, and then even more suburbs want to break away. Consider Detroit: in 1950 it had 1.8 million people. Today it has one half that population (918,000 estimated), even though the entire metropolitan area has grown to 4.4 million. Is it surprising it has a high crime rate and blocks and blocks of abandoned buildings?
This is not necessarily a problem that is either liberal or conservative. Democratic mayor David Rusk in Albuquerque helped launch an aggressive annexation bid that kept Albuquerque growing faster than the city itself, ensuring that suburbs couldn’t break away and take their tax base with them. The Republican-run government in Indianapolis consolidated the City and County government in 1970. In 1975 Anchorage did the same thing and as a result the city became larger than the state of Rhode Island (apparently everything must be XXL in a state the size of Alaska).
Density & Transit
Again, not all suburbs are bad. Older, denser suburbs are more likely to be on historic mass transit lines, or will be good candidates for mass transit in the future. Their age also means that commercial development is more likely to be closer, possibly within walking distance. They are also less likely to secede from their central city.
That’s not even to say all newly-built suburban communities are bad by definition. The town of Dupont, Washington, has worked hard to create a suburban town that also avoids many of the pitfalls of suburban design (or lack of suburban design, if you’re a cynic).
It’s important to point out, too, that living in the suburbs is a trade that suburban residents accept. They are choosing a commute so they may have a backyard, choosing higher transportation so they may have lower housing costs, and choosing to be away from active nightlife so they may have a feeling of security for their family. These are not necessarily bad choices, as many suggest. I would call it a “bad choice” only when it is an unexamined choice. When is the commute so long you never get to play with your kids in the backyard? Is saving 6 hours a week commuting worth a home 700 square feet smaller?
The Future of Suburbia
The April issue of The Atlantic contained an interesting piece on one of the problems that will begin to afflict many suburbs in the coming decades: too much supply. Christopher Leinberger writes, “Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, 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.” This is due to smaller families, rising fuel costs, empty-nesters who are “right-sizing,” and young people who are less likely to seek a home in the suburbs.
Leinberger calls his piece “The Next Slum?” and suggests that the suburbs on the fringes of cities are going to hurt the worst—too much supply will send prices down dramatically in the suburbs, vacant properties will be common, and transportation costs will still be high (without the trade off in “quality of life” to make it more palatable). It’s a startling forecast, but in some parts of the US it’s already started to occur. In a development 7 miles outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of 132 houses are vacant and in foreclosure; vandals and squatters have begun taking over. In Elk Grove, California, 10,000 homes were built in 4 years—some of them valued at $500,000 just a few years ago. Many are empty and the residents still there are starting to see gang activity.
With that in mind, it makes me very happy that Washington State adopted the Growth Management Act in 1990 and that Pierce County followed up this past year by adopting Transferable Development Rights to help protect farms and forests. By designating large tracts of land that may not be further developed, the State has taken the first step to curb sprawl. This is actually good for homeowners, suburban homeowners especially. It means that a new development can’t leapfrog past you anymore, unless it had filed its permits more than 10 years ago (which, admittedly, many did). It means that while the local housing supply will keep expanding, the number of large-lot suburban house will not, which will help your property values. It also means that it gets easier for the City and the County to plan where people are going to be, which will help mass transit options improve and become a more viable option for the suburban dweller.
Pierce County expects to add another 250,000 people in the next 12 years according to Washington’s Office of Financial Management. That’s a 40% increase in our population in 12 years. With the limits on growth, we will house those residents by building infill projects within the City of Tacoma and its neighboring towns. More density, more multi-family housing, and (hopefully) better transit to link them all together. Even with that growth, Tacoma’s suburbs won’t go away. But they won’t get bigger either. Creating better transit options into them will help suburbs remain a viable option for certain families and tie them to downtown.
So I don’t want to disparage suburbs or those who want to live in them. I do wish that some of Tacoma’s neighbors—Fife, Lakewood, University Place, and Ruston—would someday consider annexation into Tacoma instead of walling themselves off from us, but I also know that’s probably a long way off. We need to encourage good suburbs and better mass transit options into the densest suburban communities. We need to make sure that sprawl stops, too, and that the forests and farmland in Pierce County can stay rural. If we can effectively keep the suburbs from expanding even farther, Tacoma’s downtown core will grow that much stronger for it.
Erik Hanberg lives and works in downtown Tacoma. He blogs regularly at erikemery.com.