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Suburbs Are Out, Cities Are In — Now What?

American public policy massively subsidizes a way of life that appeals to a shrinking number of Americans. Photo: @fineplanner/Twitter

Today’s Times devotes two pieces to the “suburbs are out, cities are in” phenomenon that has taken root in much of the country over the past few decades — the great inversion, urbanologist Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed this reversal of the suburbanization wave that swept through the U.S. in the last century. Though both pieces will pretty much be old hat to Streetsblog readers, they’re interesting nonetheless, both as signposts and for what they leave out.

Suburbs Try to Prevent Exodus as Young Adults Move to Cities and Stay,” by Times Westchester beat reporter Joseph Berger, has some startling figures on the dwindling population of young adults in iconic Northeast suburbs. Between 2000 and 2011, Berger reports, Rye had a 63 percent drop in 25- to 34-year-olds, and 16 percent fewer 35- to 44-year-olds. Outside Washington, DC, the number of 25- to 34-year-olds fell 34 percent in Chevy Chase, 19 percent in Bethesda, and 27 percent in Potomac. The same pattern holds in suburbs ringing Chicago and Boston.

Although Berger noted last month, in his trenchant article about the toll squeeze facing the new Tappan Zee Bridge, that “young Americans are not as enamored of the automobile as their parents’ generation, and are less likely to have drivers’ licenses or own a car,” his piece today largely skirts the car issue. What ails the suburbs, he suggests, are expensive housing, insufficient diversity, a lack of well-paying jobs, and not enough urban “pizzazz.” All true, as is the observation by one of his sources, Christopher Niedt at Hofstra’s National Center for Suburban Studies, that “younger adults are becoming more drawn to denser, more compact urban environments that offer a number of amenities within walking distance of where they live.” Yet the article makes no mention of the high cost to own and operate an auto (or two) in car-dependent suburbs, the boredom of driving in a landscape of strip malls, the time lost to traffic jams.

Berger cites efforts under way in Long Beach — my home town, in Nassau County — to attract young people by “refreshing its downtown near the train station” and adding “apartments, job-rich office buildings, restaurants and attractions” like the replacement boardwalk built after Hurricane Sandy. And indeed, Long Beach’s rectangular street grid, small lot sizes, and main street shopping give it a creditable Walk Score of 64, which doubtless helps residents live affordably with 25 percent fewer cars per household than the county average (1.41 vs. 1.90, according to my calculations based on the Selected Housing Characteristics dataset in the 2012 American Community Survey).

Nevertheless, when it comes to the contest for young people’s allegiance between revived central cities and their suburbs, there are deeper forces at play than even livable streets and freedom from the auto monkey. Here’s how a recent article in Tech Crunch about the Bay Area’s housing crisis put it:

San Francisco’s younger workers derive their job security not from any single employer but instead from a large network of weak ties that lasts from one company to the next. The density of cities favors this job-hopping behavior more than the relative isolation of suburbia.

In short, as lifetime employment at the suburban office park disappears, urban connectivity isn’t just an amenity, it’s a necessity.

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The Incredible Shrinking Megastore: Retailers Think Outside the Big Box

They lord over empty parking lots in Hazard, Kentucky; Twinsburg, Ohio; and Lewiston, Washington like the ruins of a lost civilization. Vacant Walmart stores are slowly decomposing in more and more American towns these days. More than 100 of them have been memorialized as part of the group Flickr pool known smugly as “They Sold for Less.”

Another one bites the dust. A vacant Walmart in Lewiston, Washington. Photo: Flickr/Happy Vampire

These empty husks — yet to be filled by any other retail tenant — are part of the detritus left behind by a paradigm shift in the real estate industry. Signs of the changing times, they tell us what kind of society we were before the bubble burst.

Now, as the commercial real estate industry regroups, evidence is mounting that Walmart and other mega-retailers will take a much different form than they have in the past. The new American shopping experience, according to many industry observers, will be less “suburban big-box” and more “urban destination.”

The demise of several mega-retail chains during the recession, including Circuit City and Linens ‘n Things, helped produce a vast oversupply of retail space, particularly that of the giant, boxy, just-off-the-interstate variety. Last summer, the research arm of giant commercial real estate firm Colliers International reported that there was nearly 300 million square feet of vacant big box retail space on the market — 34 percent of total retail vacancy left behind by a recession that walloped commercial real estate almost as hard as housing.

Since 2008 alone, 120 million square feet of big box retail space has become available. To put such numbers in perspective, that is the equivalent of the total shopping center space in Cincinnati, Kansas City and Baltimore combined, Colliers reported.

This period of retrenchment has humbled even the once-mightiest of retail forces. CNN reported last month that Walmart stores suffered their ninth-straight quarterly drop in sales. Another sign of the times: Walmart is no longer enough of a bargain for U.S. consumers, it appears. The mega-retailer has been losing market share to dollar stores.

The situation has apparently reached the point where the retail monolith is rethinking its whole carbon-gulping model. Walmart is joining other retailers in thinking smaller and more urban, says Ed McMahon, a fellow at the Urban Land Institute.

“What the recession has made completely clear is that we have way too much retail,” McMahon said. “We are going from the era of the big box to the era of the small box.”

Enter the “Walmart Express.”

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Civil Rights Group Demands End to Car-Centric Transportation Policies

“This is the civil rights dilemma: Our laws purport to level the playing field, but our transportation choices have effectively barred millions of people from accessing it.”

The civil rights fight for equitable transportation didn't end with Rosa Parks.

So says a report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a project of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. The coalition wasn’t involved in the transportation reauthorization debate in 2005, when SAFETEA-LU was passed, and they’re determined to be at the table this time.

In March, they quietly published their report, “Where We Need to Go: A Civil Rights Roadmap for Transportation Equity”, and since then they’ve put out three more reports, springboarding off of that first overview. The subsequent reports focus on access to health care [PDF], access to housing [PDF], and access to jobs [PDF].

They never really released these reports to the press, which is why we’re just letting you know about them now. Some media outlets caught wind of it in late July and a small flurry of stories came out in the week or two after the Leadership Conference hosted a “fly-in” lobby day, where nearly 40 constituents from nine target states came to Washington to meet with their representatives’ offices.

According to the Leadership Conference report, racial minorities are four times more likely than whites to lack access to a car and to rely on public transportation for their commute to work. African Americans make up 12 percent of the U.S. population but 20 percent of the pedestrian fatalities. And the problem is far worse for Native Americans on reservations. Pedestrians there have the highest per capita risk of injury and death of any ethnic group in the U.S. While vehicle fatalities are dropping around the country, they’re on the rise on reservations.

All of that explains why the a group focused on civil and human rights would be interested in transportation – it’s an issue of racial justice. It’s also an economic issue, they say: with job sprawl pushing more and more jobs far outside the urban core, access to those jobs can be exclusively by private car. Even three out of five jobs “suitable for welfare-to-work participants” are not accessible by public transit, the report says.

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In a Growth-Oriented System, Youngstown, Ohio Struggles to Shrink

Youngstown, Ohio has its share of problems.

Once a single-industry steel town, the rust belt poster child has seen its population dwindle from 115,000 residents to barely 67,000 over just three decades. For the better part of the last century, the city was known for its mafia activity, and shaking off the residue of government corruption and violence has been difficult. Its homicide rate — driven upward by a not-yet-recovered economy — puts the city in league with towns three times its size.

Sprawl and deindustrialization have fueled an exodus in Youngstown. But have regional leaders learned anything? Photo: Business Insider

But undergirding all of these ills is the problem that might just be Youngstown’s biggest: its built infrastructure is simply to large for its current population.

The starkest example is its excess housing stock. At last count, demolition crews were slogging through some 3,300 vacant houses. But sewers, streets, even stoplights: all of these former amenities linger at a scale meant for the days when the mills were still turning the skies orange and filling the pockets of workers who, in turn, filled the gambling houses.

Now these physical amenities have become liabilities. A diminished tax base limits the city’s ability to maintain its aging streets and sewers. Signals stop drivers on abandoned streets and force them to burn fuel while waiting for the passing of phantom traffic.

Almost a decade ago, Youngstown made headlines by acknowledging this problem. No longer would the city plan for growth, the way every American city had in the history of urban planning. Youngstown was planning to shrink — but to shrink smart. The plan was known as Youngstown 2010.

The city would start by tearing down the abandoned houses that depressed neighboring property values and acted as magnets for crime. Their hope was that some neighborhoods could be depopulated and that the city might even be able to tear out some underutilized streets, in order to dispense with sending around the plows and the patch crews. This revolutionary “right-sizing” concept has since been embraced by cities like Detroit and Flint, Michigan.

The plan was called Youngstown 2010, but now — in 2011 — the city of Youngstown is just getting around to removing its first street. Part of the problem is that the state, regional and national policy framework is still oriented for growth. After all, Youngstown can’t go to the Ohio Department of Transportation and ask for money to tear out roads — yet. ODOT’s money is for building roads, and that fuels a dynamic that threatens what progress has made in Youngstown.

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Cul-de-Sacs Are Killing Us: Public Safety Lessons From Suburbia

People choose suburban neighborhoods over urban ones for myriad reasons: because they can afford it, because the schools are good, because it’s a quiet street, or crimes rates are low, or everyone walks around with baby strollers and golden retrievers, or their family is nearby. But countless other consequences stream from their decision of where to live.

Dead-end streets are deadlier than connected street grids. Photo: TheMuuj/Flickr

If people can’t or don’t walk or bike where they need to go, they’ve also bought themselves carbon emissions from excessive driving. Hours lost in traffic congestion. Growing waistlines from spending time behind a wheel instead of on two wheels, or two feet. Stress and relationship problems. And even worse: The suburb they chose “because it’s safe” ends up being far more dangerous than the city they fled.

William Lucy, a professor at the University of Virginia and former chair of the Charlottesville Planning Commission, says that people’s decision making about where to live has such sweeping ramifications that he’s concentrated his professional work on it. And it’s why he focuses on danger and death: specifically, the danger of leaving home.

At a daylong forum yesterday on intelligent cities at the National Building Museum, Lucy could barely wait to lay into cul-de-sacs, which he says were designed for safety but end up being more dangerous than through-streets.

“They turn what should be a 100-yard walk into a two-mile drive, and they put more people in cars for more reasons than they should,” Lucy said. And because they get lulled into a sense of security, he said, parents don’t teach their kids about street safety and the “difference between street and sidewalk and driveway and yard.”

But the greatest danger to a young child, he said, is being backed over by a motor vehicle – usually driven by their own parents in their own driveway. Indeed, “backovers” account for 34 percent of “non-traffic” fatalities among children under 15 years old. (“Frontovers” account for another 30 percent, meaning that 64 percent of “non-traffic” fatalities still involve children being run over by cars, according to

Because these incidents occur on private property, they’re not considered “traffic” accidents and data is not collected by national traffic safety organizations. Meanwhile, Lucy said, squeamishness over openly reporting on the tragedy of a parent killing his or her own child with a car leads newspapers to bury news of backovers – missing a “teachable moment.”

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A Growing Living Streets Community Emerges in Redding, California

Enjoying car-free streets at Redding's first-ever ciclovía-style event, Shasta Living Streets. Photo: Jeff Worthington

Redding, California, with a population of 90,000, is probably best known for its sunshine, breathtaking landscapes and conservative politics. Located 200 miles north of Sacramento in Shasta County, the lush region surrounded by the Trinity and Cascade mountains offers an abundance of recreation, including a growing number of paved multi-use trails that draw large crowds of bicyclists and pedestrians.

The seven-year-old Sundial Bridge, a 700-foot long steel marvel on the Sacramento River designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, has become Redding’s living room.

“It is where everyone hangs out in town, especially when the weather is nice. In a normal community, whatever normal is, you would see that sort of energy in a downtown square, or park, or even a downtown third place, but it happens to be out at the Sundial Bridge,” said Paul Shigley, the senior editor of the California Planning and Development Report (CP&DR), who lives six miles west of Redding near Whiskeytown Lake.

Downtown Redding does not draw a similar convergence of people enjoying public space because like many California cities it was designed for the automobile, and is not a particularly welcoming place for pedestrians and bicyclists.  The city ranks 40th among 103 cities in California “for the number of pedestrian collisions by population,” according to a recent report [pdf]. Just last week, a 16-year-old boy was struck and killed by a driver while walking across a bridge that lacked a sidewalk.

“The town is set up to conduct motorists fast and to allow them to drive up to 50, 60 miles an hour right through the middle of town,” said Scott Mobley, a reporter for the Record Searchlight, the city’s daily newspaper.

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The Missed Opportunity For an Urban Stimulus: Mayors ‘Were Ignored’

Two-thirds of America's population, and more than three-quarters of its economic productivity, come from major cities. So why did the Obama administration's economic stimulus law end up giving metropolitan areas the short end of the stick?

Dan_Malloy1.JPGDaniel Malloy, Democratic mayor of Stamford, CT (Photo: Bridgeport City Council)

Harry Moroz of the Drum Major Institute attempts to answer the question this week in a new article for The Atlantic. Talking with mayors from around the country, Moroz heard deeply felt frustration from mayors in both parties about the decision to route stimulus money -- particularly for transportation -- through state capitals rather than cities:

During the bill’s conception, mayors stressed that a state-focused stimulus would bring slow, inefficient results, and that more jobs could be created if money were funneled directly to urban areas. In a report issued last winter, the U.S. Conference of Mayors listed more than 15,000 “ready-to-go” projects that could provide 1.2 million new jobs in just two years.

So what happened, exactly? “I think we were listened to,” says Stamford, Connecticut, Mayor Daniel Malloy, who will run for governor of his state as a Democrat in 2010. “I just think we were then ignored. And I don’t think we were necessarily ignored by the president. I think we were ignored by the Congress.”

Congress' move to "ignore" city leaders, as Malloy put it, is all the more surprising considering how many senior Democrats hail from urbanized regions: think San Francisco, New York City, and the Washington D.C. area.

But no one can accuse the nation's mayors of failing to speak up. In a February letter to Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood [PDF], 20 city chiefs urged that stimulus funding formulas send transportation aid to metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) from regions with more than 200,000 residents as well as to state DOTs. Their pleas were not heeded, however, and cities ultimately paid a price.
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Has the Government Been Bailing Out Sprawl?

One of the themes of the financial and economic crisis we’ve faced
over the past two years is that government, pressed into responding to
serious economic pain, has often found itself supporting the activities
that got us into this mess in the first place.

3092780579_c08488ee04.jpgSign of the times? Sde-by-side foreclosures in Massachusetts. (Photo: Yovani via Flickr)

behavior by banks led them to the brink of collapse — a collapse which
would have sent the global economy into a terrifying period of decline
— and so the government stepped in to prevent bank failures (after
learning a lesson from the dreadful experiment with Lehman). But these
interventions have put banks in a situation where they stand to gain
enormously from taking large and dangerous financial bets.

Similarly, government policies such as low gas tax rates and
import protections on light trucks encouraged the development of a
bloated domestic auto industry focused on the production of inefficient

When high oil prices and deep recession then
threatened to push General Motors and Chrysler into bankruptcy, leading
to hundreds of thousands of lost jobs, the government felt it had no
choice but to step in to keep the companies afloat.

Now the
government owns large stakes in companies that will only profit if the
American public goes car-buying crazy over the next few years.

list goes on. The economic crisis that currently afflicts us has made
it clearer than ever that we need to change the way we do many things,
but because the economy is in such difficult shape, it is hard to
pursue anything other than policies designed to keep the economic
engine from stalling out completely. Big transitions must wait for

Can the same be said for sprawling urban development?
Have government interventions essentially bailed out the very places
that proved most vulnerable amid oil shocks and housing busts?

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A Solution for Suburbs: Bypass the Roads

tigardtrails.jpgA map of a neighborhood in Tigard, Oregon. Some of the proposed new trails are marked in blue.

The demand for walkable neighborhoods is up,
but in order to fill that demand, we’re going to have to transform our
suburbs. How that might be accomplished was one of the most vexing
issues discussed at last week’s Walk21 Conference.

layouts aren’t about connectivity; they’re about space, with lots of
separated roads and cul-de-sacs, and few direct routes from one place
to another. But the folks at Kittelson & Associates, a transportation planning firm, have one suggestion: bypass roads entirely. That’s what they’re doing in Tigard, Oregon.

is a pretty typical Oregon suburb: It’s about 10 miles from downtown
Portland, it’s 11.5 square miles, and about 47,000 people live there.
That low density gave Kittelson and officials from the Oregon DOT the
chance to connect areas of town by building trails that bypass
roundabout suburban street design, allowing residents to easily walk or
bike around their city, and get direct access to their neighbors, local
businesses, and city parks. The idea came organically: For years,
residents had carved out their own informal "desire paths"
to get around. The Tigard Neighborhood Trails Project is meant to make
existing trails safer, and to build new ones to form a better overall

On top of gathering community input at formal town meetings, Kittelson and ODOT also put together a website
where residents could draw and comment on new trails on a Google Map,
as well as point out existing informal ones. Jamie Parks, a planner on
the project, said that the web interactivity made it so that far more
members of the community had input into the project and, hopefully,
will use the trails when they are completed.

The plan is
done, and Tigard has begun implementing each trail, so it’ll take some
time to see how well this idea works out. Still, this could be a great
way make disconnected suburban street networks much more walkable. It’s
a relatively cheap way too — a network of 42 trails is set to cost
approximately $1 million.

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How Congress Can Help Create Suburbia 2.0

As Obama administration adviser Shelley Poticha noted this week, building more energy-efficient and hospitable cities -- not to mention suburbs and rural areas -- starts with clear terminology. "Sustainability" and "livability" are positive concepts that can be hard to define, but how can "transit-oriented development" be brought home to someone unfamiliar with the nuts and bolts of policy?

Foreclosure_Rate_Homes_Sale_Chicago_Suburbs_5wKfNDSWQE0l.jpgWeeds spring up near a foreclosed home in Illinois. (Photo: Getty Images)

The beginnings of an answer, surprising as it is, lie in an MSN report with a scary headline: "Is Your Suburb the Next Slum?" In stark terms, the piece outlines the consequences of a housing (and energy consumption) boom gone bust:

The one-two punch of a crippling recession and higher gas prices have quelled demand for many of the nation's fringe communities from Charlotte, N.C., to Sacramento, Calif., while at the same time demographic trends have begun pushing an aging population back to the nation's urban cores.

That's prompting some planners to predict a huge surplus of large-lot suburban properties in the years ahead — as many as 25 million homes by 2030, according to Arthur C. Nelson, presidential professor of city and metropolitan planning at the University of Utah and director of its Metropolitan Research Center.

Not all of these homes will sit vacant, Nelson says. Many of them will be divided up into multifamily rental properties.

"You will have two or three households living in these large mansions in the suburbs," Nelson says, adding that this will bring property values down and put extra strain on public services.

It's true that an influx of new residents into suburban areas will place new burdens on local governments. But that's exactly why the office of sustainable communities that Poticha was appointed to lead and the $4 billion in new development grants now pending in Congress are worthwhile -- even for suburbanites who still crave more space than they need.

As demographics shift and the recession forces Americans to start living within their means, mixed-use development like the sort that has kept Arlington, Virginia, booming -- will be what helps communities remake themselves. And though that remaking will mostly occur on the local level, Congress and the administration can lend a helping hand to those who want it.

Instead of "transit-oriented development," could it be called "saving the suburbs"?