What Will Happen to All of that Urban Sprawl?

Derry_and_ThompsonMy work takes me all around the Twin Cities, quite literally all around the cities.  Several days a week I drive through the outer suburbs — the exurbs — of the cities and beyond.  What I see troubles me.

As recently as 20 years ago, some of the once-small towns that are only 30 or 40 miles from the city have added sprawling subdivisions, ugly rows and cul-du-sacs of large, bland houses.  Some of these once-small towns have added strip malls, too, but it seems that Wal-Mart has killed the strip mall as much as Main Street  in some of these newer developments. It is mostly housing that has splattered in specs and gobs all across the landscape.  It is everywhere and growing.

And I wonder:  What will happen to all of that stuff?

I wonder because the future is stacked against these exurban developments.  The wastefulness of them makes little sense to younger generations who prefer to live in urban neighborhoods, eschew automobiles, and seek the simpler conveniences of the city.

Moreover, Millennials increasingly cannot afford the cost of these oversized homes and the expense of maintaining them.  More generally, current economic trends will demand a shift in the way we live.  I don’t mean to sound snarky, but as the middle class disappears, so does the means to inhabit and support middle class infrastructure, especially in far-flung suburbs.

And maybe the threat includes suburban neighborhoods that don’t necessarily exist on the edge of the map.  The cities’ first ring of suburbs have large, expensive single-family homes, too. Who wants them?  Who needs them?  Who will be able to afford them?  Whether near or far, what will happen to all of those faraway developments when demand shifts or falls?

Some of it is happening already.  We hear more and more about hunger, homelessness, and poverty spreading into the suburbs where such problems are especially scandalous and once rare.  I think we are witnessing the start of a trend that will become familiar; it is one of migration, a shift in demographics where the better off inhabit the city and the rest fall into place elsewhere.  Eventually inner city poverty will exist at the fringe of the cities, in a belt surrounding urban prosperity.  These slums will inhabit the distant subdivisions being built today when someday no one with means will care to live in them anymore.

Suburbs of New Orleans, LA. View from over Ken...

Suburbs of New Orleans, LA. View from over Kenner, Louisiana, looking east to Metarie, Louisiana. Veterans Boulevard is the major street running into distance on center/right; Interstate 10 to left. Shore of Lake Pontchartrain seen at top left. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Certainly rural poverty exists — quite a lot of it, in fact — but this different.  The suburbs have been an escape and a refuge, an idealized place of prosperity and security.  Now look at it!  Suburbs are distant and stark.  Home security systems have replaced open porches, garage doors replacing front doors.  It is a mess, in my opinion.  And if poverty infiltrates the suburban enclave, the ideal will be entirely supplanted.

If tomorrow’s urban slums are dispersed and scattered on the edges of the cities, they would defy the remedies attempted in the past to assist the poor such as community centers, public transportation, and adequate schools.  Distance will isolate them, making these solutions impractical or inefficient.  Poverty without community.  And the suburbs seem to be perfectly designed for such bleak prospects.

Remember, once upon a time urban neighborhoods had the best homes, schools, and commercial centers.  Do you suppose a family living in a comfortable north Minneapolis neighborhood 50 or 75 years ago would have predicted the trouble that exists there today?  Probably not.

So perhaps it is a good thing that we have so much sprawl being developed.  The number of poor in America isn’t declining, it is increasing.  The once secure middle class, also at risk, is increasingly unable to support the so-called American dream.

They all will need a place to go and I think someday it will be Otsego!


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