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More Thoughts on the Exurbs

With the spike in gas prices to more than $4 a gallon, Bloomberg pointed out in a recent story that high commuting costs are contributing to falling home values in far-flung, McMansion-style exurban communities.

I’d been a skeptic of predictions that exurbs are “the next slums” and that a dramatic flight to cities is underway, leaving subdivisions left with low-income rental housing. But if energy prices stay high, I wondered whether the exurbs might, in fact, begin to decline, and sooner than expected.

Urban planner Joel Kotkin shared some thoughts with me after reading my post to offer some perspective. Kotkin also has been suspect of the New Slums theory – and he doesn’t find high gas prices causing him to change his mind.

In the 1970s, Kotkin noted, the suburbs also were declared dead due to the energy crisis. But that never happened. People adjusted to driving smaller cars; jobs began moving to the suburbs. Today, both the suburbs and the exurbs have much more in their favor – even more jobs, better amenities, and telecommuting and job options “well beyond anything imaginable back then,” Kotkin said in an-email.

Some extreme exurbs may struggle, then re-emerge either as suburban-style villages or wind up with some low-income housing, much in the way some overbuilt “luxury” condos in downtown Los Angeles have become rentals for University of Southern California students, Kotkin said.

But he also mentioned some factors I haven’t thought about, and they’ve also made think that the movement back to the cities may not be as widespread or as inevitable as some think. For one thing, Kotkin says, nice cities are too expensive to offer the kind of spaciousness people often want, and some, like New York and Chicago, have even fewer private sector jobs than they did in the 1980s.

From Kotkin:

The notion of inexorable move to the core cities runs against many barriers — bad schools (about forty percent to half the population cares about

that), very high taxes, difficult regulatory regimes. And then there is inertia, something I have learned we often do not think about. People live

in suburbs, and seem to be staying there because that’s where their friends, churches, children, and, often, jobs/business contacts are.

Remember, the country will grow by 100 million by 2050 and many of the new people will be millenials and immigrants, most of whom seem to prefer, along

with most Americans, single family houses (or perhaps townhomes and townhouses).

I’ve always liked the density of cities and the convenience of walking, rather than driving. I’ve tried to navigate subdivisions in the exurbs that were so sprawling and look-alike that I was sure that if I took a wrong turn I might never be found. But I’ve also talked to people who live in exurbs because they’ve found houses and yards far bigger and nicer than anything they could afford closer to the city. They like the way life unfolds there, spending summer evenings sitting in lawn chairs along the grassy common areas, watching their children play, and socializing at the local pool. Many exurbs are developed now with urban-style town centers as well, which addresses some of the issues surrounding commuting costs and sprawl. As Kotkin said, critics have been predicting the demise of suburbs for decades, and they’ve survived. Despite high gas prices and a disdain for the environmental cost of big houses, the exurbs may as well.

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