25 October 2012

The implosion of cities

In some of the past blog entries, I have discussed the decline of cities in the Rust Belts of both North America and Europe.  Some of the entries were directly related to Detroit, the ‘poster child’ of the Rust Belt and its implications for other Industrial Era cities.  The decline of these cities can be directly attributed to the globalizing economy and the restructuring of most developed nations.  This has left behind vacant buildings and derelict vacant land.  At the same time, there are examples of redevelopment of some of these areas into mixed used areas.
The global economic crash of 2008, is a watershed.  The economies of developed nations will not bounce back to the level that they were before.  There are underlying socioeconomic changes that are also occurring that affect this situation.  There is increasing number of people retiring, smaller families, more people living alone, struggling young adults, increase of the number of the underemployed and a shrinking middle class.  This is compounded by the increasing number of foreclosures, stagnant wages, and sputtering economy.  All these factors are having far reaching urban consequences.

The suburbs are in slow decline, although looking at them superficially you would not know it.  In my suburban/exurban surrounding one can see the elements of this: large houses standing vacant; properties that were once single owners subdivided and mobile homes put on the parcels; subdivision that were begun and now have large number of vacant lots; smaller pockets of more dense development composed of smaller lots and condominiums; for sale signs on larger older properties, vacant or partially occupied shopping malls and 1960s-1980s era suburban neighborhoods composed largely of ‘empty nesters.’  The unraveling of the traditional suburbs is happening right in my backdoor and probably of many readers that live in the suburbs.

At the same time, there is a slow redevelopment of the central city area of many urbanized areas. Many former industrial and dilapidated areas are being transformed into mixed used development.  Older neighborhoods are being gentrified.  Former downtowns are now being filled with small shops, restaurants, cafés, and individual offices.  Although, this is not new, it appears to be an rapidly increasing trend that was once encouraged by government, but now is one driven by a developing market.

What should be construed by these trends?
1. The traditional suburbs have changed and the pre-2008 level of growth is gone and will not rebound. 2. Central cities will continue to become the focus of growth.
3. Surburban areas will start to have financial problems with subsequent reduction in services with some suburban cities and other regional intituions (i.e., schools, water/sewer districts)having to declare bankruptcy.
4. Increase in poverty
5. Transformation of suburban/exurban areas with greater density, more mixed used development,

What should be the actions that local/regional goverments take?
1. Begin a dialog among all stakeholders on the present and future condition of suburbs.
2. Consider consolation of smaller cities and regional services.
3. Develop alternative suburban public transportation modes for low density areas (i.e. subsidized shared-ride taxi, fixed route flexible services etc.)
4. Development transit-oriented nodes in suburban areas.
5. Comprehensive change in subdivision and zoning codes
6. Conversion of former urbanized areas to agricultural areas or allowance of small farms
7. Redevelopment of suburbs to mixed used and walkable neighborhoods.

Further References:
Kaid Benfield. “How history killed the suburb.” The Atlantic, 25 April 2011.

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