Thursday, August 7, 2008

A CBS News Report Harkens Back to the Uncertain Future

We have written many times in this blog about the benefits and perhaps, the inevitability, of reversing the trend to suburbia that start half a century ago. Conserving resources, shrinking commute times, re-developing old community associations and finding social benefits to living in higher density communities are all becoming increasingly obvious strategies as this century gets started. Ben Tracy, writing for CBS News, has not only captured a sample of this trend, but he also predicts that this could portend the decline of suburbia. Tracy writes:

"(CBS) The promise of the suburban dream is what brought Nichole Cinaglia and her daughters to a neighborhood more than 30 miles outside of Sacramento, California. 

"I mean I think it's everybody's dream to own a home and then have their kids grow up in their home, you know, like they used to so many years ago," Nichole says. 

Sixty years ago, cheap gas and new highways helped fuel suburbia's rapid rise, creating a new American utopia. But as CBS News correspondent Ben Tracy reports, the triple threat of falling home values, empty nesters returning to the city and sky-high gas prices is driving suburbia to the brink. 

Some developments are left half built while other homes look abandoned. Demand for suburban housing is dropping so fast that a recent study predicts that by 2025 there will be a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes in suburban areas. 

Nichole can't afford the $800 in gas she burned each month commuting to her job, so she's selling her house for less than half what she paid for it. 

It sounds hard to believe, but some experts are now predicting that this could be the beginning of the end of suburbia -- that far-flung neighborhoods could be tomorrow's slums. 

Author James Howard Kunstler has been predicting the decline of the suburbs for more than 15 years. 

"I think the project of suburbia is over," he says. 

Kunstler says housing far away from job centers won't survive. 

"We've put so much of our national wealth and even identity into the idea of suburbia that we can't imagine having to let go of it or substantially change it," he says. 

But change is building in Sacramento. The region adopted a back to the future approach known as "smart growth": high-density development in walkable neighborhoods near job centers and transit. 

In the past three years, projects with apartments, condos and town homes increased 533 percent, while the number of subdivisions with large homes dropped 21 percent. 

"The rapid rise in gas prices over the last six months has made that general direction this region has decided to go look like an especially good decision," says Mike McKeever of the Sacramento Area Council of Governments. 

McKeever doesn't believe suburbs will disappear overnight, but says buying on the far edges of a region is now an economic gamble. 

"That's a risky bet. It might pay off but it's a risky bet," he says. 

Nichole Cinaglia plans to rent near her job. But she still thinks about the life she used to have. 

"I don't miss the commute, but I miss the idea," she says. "I miss that it was mine." 

A dream abandoned miles away now is beginning to fade. "

And what does that suggest for the many common interest developments that have been built far from urban centers? Perhaps their greater density and more efficient use of the land will forestall their obsolescence.  Or not. Perhaps their slide into economic uncertainty will be hastened by these broader trends. In any case, Tracy offers an interesting perspective and perhaps it is time for us to examine the old government policy of subsidizing suburbs at the expense of the more efficient urban core.

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I received my Ph.D. in Government from Claremont Graduate University and my law degree from the University of California, Davis. Berding|Weil has represented community associations for over 35 years. For more information, please call 925-838-2090, or email: