Richard Florida
by Richard Florida
Tue Jan 27th 2009 at 9:23am UTC

Suburbs and Crisis

Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley make the case for extending urban policy to the suburbs, creating a broader metropolitan-oriented policy:

America can’t ensure its leading place in the global economy unless we grapple with the problems and opportunities of our suburbs. Nonprofits, long focused on inner cities, need to reach out to poor families and immigrants in the suburbs. The federal government should support the production and preservation of affordable housing there. Even more important, Washington needs to recognize that suburban governments are being flattened by the housing crisis—they don’t have the experience or the capacity to slow the tide of foreclosures or deal with neighborhoods strafed by vacancies. The Feds need to use some of the billions in recovery funding to help local governments buy up foreclosed properties and put that land to productive use.

Ryan Avent weighs in here.

Sure, some suburbs need help. Sure, there will be a lot of adaptive reuse work to be done there. Sure, we can us regionally oriented metropolitan policy. But in the main, we need to reorient urban policy from social policy to economic competitiveness policy. The cornerstones of that policy must be to enable mobility (which has all but stopped now), encourage scale and density, and dramatically increase speed and velocity of the movement of goods, people, and ideas within urban areas. The scale of the problem is gi-normous and there is precious little indication the U.S. political system is up to it, or even aware it. One thing is for certain, getting this geography right is key to broad U.S. recovery, critical to any stimulus, and essential to  long-run competitiveness and proseperity. The historical analog is of course suburbia’s role as the spatial fix for post-World War II capitalism and the spur for Fordist production. So what is the spatial fix for today’s economy? The place that gets this right generate huge first-mover advantages in capitalism’s next phase.  For something so important, I’m amazed so few people are even thinking about it.

11 Responses to “Suburbs and Crisis”

  1. Robert Says:

    Excellent point.

    Going back to a previous debate on here about suburbs – if governments’ responses are for a “Green New Deal” in various guises (Obama, Gordon Brown) then I can’t see how that tallies with rezoning large areas of defunct industrial land for more “family” housing at low densities, as a sop to volume housebuilders and banks who won’t touch high-density housing with a very long bargepole for many years to come.

    If all that industrial land is built on with houses, where exactly are the windturbines, off-site manufactured housing, ground-source heat pumps, electric vehicles going to be made? China? How is that carbon efficient, and more importantly, where are the jobs?

    Poorer areas in the UK have the lowest carbon footprints, as consumption is comparatively lower and residential densities much higher. And yet, ironically, interest in “green” issues is lowest in precisely the same areas – memberhip of environmental organisation and The Green Party, purchase of “ethical” goods etc. If the UK (at least, I don’t know if there’s the same tally in the US) is serious about a Green New Deal then it needs to reduce consumption, not increase it through ineffective, or even counter-effective, “ethical” or “green” consumption.

    Reduced consumption of material goods probably means higher density housing close to goods, services and jobs – i.e. inner cities.

  2. Buzzcut Says:

    The place that gets this right generate huge first-mover advantages in capitalism’s next phase.

    I think that we’re already there.

  3. Buzzcut Says:

    The biggest issue in my built out suburb is trying to get the commuter rail from Chicago to build a spur into town. The town has a plan and options on land to go whole hog into transit oriented redevelopment should that ever occur.

    The biggest impediment is getting some sort of local tax revenue to match federal spending on the spur. Despite there being an in-use freight railroad right through the middle of town, the cost to upgrade it for commuter rail use is $1 billion! The feds might kick in $500 million, but that’s still a lot of money to have to raise with a local income tax, wheel tax, food and beverage tax, or whatever.

    There is a lot of local resistance also from people who simply don’t want the train to come to town. Many people moved out from closer in ‘burbs as a result of white flight, which they blame in part on the commuter rail coming to their old towns. These same people, or their parents, are also white-flighters from Chicago, so there’s a lot of bitterness there that isn’t easy to overcome. Richard’s ideas about the economic returns to diversity would fall on deaf ears, for sure.

    Lots of issues… but the bottom line is money. I suppose if Obama came to town with $1 billion, the thing would probably get built pretty quickly.

  4. tpk-nyc Says:

    We already possess an extraordinary model of “scale and density, and … movement of goods, people, and ideas.” It’s called the New York City Metropolitan Area. The problem is that the majority of people in the U.S. hate (or think they hate) this model. The best plan in world will not get anywhere politically without changing the mindset (and aesthetics) of the general population. Even Manhattanites fight proposed increases in density with astonishing ferocity. It’s hardly surprising that people in other areas are equally opposed to increasing density. How do we change this without dictatorial measures? Are aesthetics enough? Does gas need to go to $10 a gallon?

  5. Nashvilian Says:

    “Does gas need to go to $10 a gallon?”

    Even at ten dollars a gallon, I’ve calculated that buying a home ten miles out of town, buying and maintaining a car and commuting costs less than buying in town and walking. At least where I live.

    For the most part, I think we can forget any kind of demographic inversion wherein the middle class moves into town and the poor move to the suburbs. The middle class can’t afford the city. Yes, some percentage of suburbs trend towards lower economic classes but so do inner-city neighborhoods.

    It’s more feasable economically to move office space out (or add new office space) to the suburban retail nodes than to move people into downtown to live where they work. Employment opportunities in the suburbs will cut down on commuter miles significantly, while contributing to urbanization of areas where those jobs are located.

    The key to economic recovery, when consumers are tapped out, is to consume with less credit, thereby paying less interest. That preserves more earnings than tax cuts ever could. For example, when we save for retirement concurrent with paying a mortgage, most people end up with a thirty-year loan. If SS and individual retirement money, and it’s employer match, went into the home first, that same home would be bought in around 10 years and around 70% of the cost of financing saved.

    That’s well over $100,000 in interest saved on the average mortgage if retirement and mortgage were paid consecutively rather than concurrently. In turn, having that cash means putting even less on credit cards, saving even more interest.

    There’s no other public policy with the potential to have this much upside for the average person. And when you save money, you reduce the need for increasing economic output to increase income. That, in turn, reduces the demand on natural resources and risky financial manipulations to create the temporary illusion of prosperity.

  6. Wil Says:

    In the USA suburbia is indeed the frontier. The model for future development is seen in locations like Silicon Valley, the Microsoft neighbourhood of Redmond, Wa, and in hub cities. The key phrases are “low rise”, and “low impact”. The highrise is an anachronism, and people resist the 19th/20th century programme of super high density, the consistent answer is n.i.m.b.y….Two primary challenges in suburbia are how to enhance transportation, the answer includes greener, more efficient cars, more freeways, as well as rail transportation. Any solution that fails to recognise the primacy of personal transportation will not succeed. The other issue is the need to modify zoning to allow for diverse uses of suburban land. Zoning could encourage the creation of very small, but intensely developed hub cities scattered around the rim of a metropolitian area. The idea of everyone commuting to one big important downtown is from the industrial era, and is no longer relevant…….

    When it comes to the factories that Obama wants for building wind turbines, etc, there re lots of shuttered industrial buildings, closed schools, and vacant commercial building that could be retrofitted for green industry.

  7. Swordsman Says:

    “I think that we’re already there”

    Dude, that is awesome. Great mix of rail, car, and walking.


  8. Scott Says:

    I wanted to reply to tpk-nyc. NYC is the result of one man: Robert Moses. He existed at a certain point in time and railroaded a lot of stuff through. That situation would be very difficult to recreate today in other cities. See the book “The Power Broker” for more on Moses.

  9. tpk-nyc Says:

    My point about New York is that there is tremendous opposition (from all sides) to even simple, efficient and cost-effective plans.

    Many people don’t want enhanced transportation. The people in the city think it will increase density and lower property values. The people in the suburbs think it will increase density and raise property values. I have several friends in the Hudson Valley (in Woodstock and Red Hook) who commute to NYC several times a week by bus or car. Passenger train tracks (used by Amtrak) are already in place and extending service would be easy and cost effective. People up there don’t want the commuter train to service the area because they think they will priced out of their homes if it’s too easy to commute into Manhattan.

    Infill of abandoned land is also controversial. The recently built condos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn (on the East River facing Manhattan) faced tremendous opposition. I used to go down to the waterfront before they were built and there was absolutely nothing there. You had to crawl under a chain-link fence and walk on broken vodka bottles to get to the river. It seemed a perfectly sensible place to build housing in a city faced with a perennial housing shortage.

    Ryan Avent is surely correct when he writes, “there is precious little indication the U.S. political system is up to it.” The difficulty is the political system is the people. Of course there are vested corporate interests lobbying as well, but if the people don’t want “adaptive reuse” or “a regionally oriented metropolitan policy” is it any surprise that the government is impotent?

  10. Buzzcut Says:

    tpk-nyc: right on.

    30 years ago, a new building in Manhattan would have been 50 stories high. These days, they’re maybe 30 stories. It’s all about managing neighborhood opposition.

    Long Island City has been on the verge of renaissance for 30 years or more. Lots of old industrial land that could be redeveloped. Nothing ever becomes of it.

    On that link I posted regarding transit oriented development in the suburbs of Chicago, it is pretty amazing to me that similar development doesn’t happen around the Long Island railroad stations in Nassau County. The residents simply don’t want it. They say things like, “We don’t want to be like Queens”.

  11. Buzzcut Says:

    Actually, there is one transit oriented development on LI that I know of: here.

    It’s maybe half a mile from the LIRR station.