Sunday, August 4, 2013

Are the suburbs dying, or just evolving

Illustration: Washington Post
Have the suburbs hit a dead end? is the title of an article in Today's Post about changing demographics and the desire on the part of Millennials to live in walkable communities, not suburban cul-de-sacs accessible only by car.

We've written about this in the past, including a review of Urban Land Institute’s report Shifting Suburbs. The Post interviews Leigh Gallagher, author of “The End of the Suburbs, Where the American Dream is Moving.” From the interview:
O’Connell: Could you start by telling us why you think the suburbs are in decline? Gallagher: The suburbs were a great idea that worked really well for a long time, but they overshot their mandate. We supersized everything in a way that led many people to live far away from where they needed to be and far away from their neighbors, and that has far-reaching implications, no pun intended. People have turned away from that kind of living. Add in the demographic forces that are reshaping our whole population, and the result is a significant shift. Census data shows that outward growth is slowing and inward growth is speeding up.

The early millennials are just getting into their mid-30s. How much do we know about whether millennials want to live in the suburbs? That’s the billion-dollar question. All the studies show they want to live where they can walk, whether that’s the city or an urban suburb.

When I talk to home builders in the Washington area, some already recognize they are probably not going to be building anywhere near as many single-family, detached homes as in the past. But there are others who tell me: Every generation since World War II, when they became the heads of household and had children, wanted to live in single-family, detached homes on their own property, and there’s no reason to think that cycle has been broken. Not yet. The millennials haven’t had kids yet. They’re delaying launching. But a lot of people think they’re not going to want cul-de-sac suburbia. They grew up in the back seats of cars, they know what it’s like to have to drive everywhere. They might not mind the suburbs, but they’re going to want the sort of suburb where you can walk to a cute diner.
It's clear that the suburbs are changing. In Fairfax the focus of future development is on transit-oriented, mixed-use development. Bicycling is a natural transportation mode in this type of development. We'll be discussing this topic at our second Fairfax Bike Summit on November 2 with the theme of remaking Tysons and similar more urban areas in the county into bike-friendly communities.

It's also clear that not all suburbs are the same, a common mistake that many people make when discussing the suburbs. The article mentions urban suburbs, "the sort of suburb where you can walk to a cute diner." There are a few parts of Fairfax where this is true; parts of Reston, Burke, McLean, Great Falls, Annandale, Springfield, and the towns of Herndon, Vienna, and Clifton. There are many more places where it's not possible to safely walk to the corner much less to a store or restaurant. Those places, and similar places in Loudoun and Prince William counties, will be much less attractive in the future.

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