Last week, my colleague Chris Leinberger wrote a provocative op-ed in the New York Times titled "The Death of the Fringe Suburb." Leinberger, who is president of LOCUS: Responsible Real Estate Developers and Investors, which is a project of Smart Growth America, highlighted the convergence of a number of factors in heralding the decline of far flung, auto-dependant exurbs. Rising gas prices, demographic changes, and shifting consumer preferences have all made these areas less attractive to homebuyers -- a fact reflected in the financial troubles and foreclosure crises many of these communities face.
This gloomy portrait, however, is only the prelude to Leinberger's discussion of an exciting new wave of demand for real estate. Today, the most valuable housing is in center city and inner suburb communities where shops, schools and homes are within walking distance of one another. More and more Americans want to live in these affordable and accessible neighborhoods -- and the proof is in the prices of homes in these areas. Perhaps even more importantly, this type of development is where the knowledge economy thrives, helps support regional economies and promotes environmental sustainability.
As he often does, smart growth critic Joel Kotkin quickly weighed in to refute this version of events. Kotkin cites data from the 2010 Census to show that suburbs are growing faster than central cities, but includes in this definition of "suburbs" many dense, wakable cities (Jersey City is one such example.) This difficultly in defining what exactly constitutes a suburb illustrates why the urban/suburban divide proffered by Kotkin misses the mark. Indeed, the rise in walkable development that Leinberger describes is largely taking place outside of central cities in suburbs that were unwalkable not long ago.
In the Washington D.C. area, for example, 70% of walkable centers are in places like Bethesda and Silver Spring, outside of the District. New features like restaurants, music venues, and affordable housing options -- all of which are accessible by public transportation -- have made these communities more appealing. The trend is spreading to additional DC suburbs like White Flint and Tyson's Corner, which have seen the success of Silver Spring and Bethesda and learned that walkability is a feature they can't afford to ignore.
Rather than a threat to existing communities, these changes are an enormously exciting opportunity. We should be helping cities and towns adapt to the shifting preferences of their residents by making them more livable. That means creating a variety of housing and transportation options near jobs, shops and schools, and allowing for mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods that so many Americans want to live in.
Today local regulations and federal policies often make it hard to implement reforms like these while encouraging the same type of low density, auto-oriented development that helped contribute to the economic downtown. By adopting these smart growth reforms we can help the market provide more of what consumers are demanding -- walkable communities, while also spurring our economy and creating more vibrant places.