New Urbanism and…Suburban Ghost Towns?

August 21, 2008 at 2:43 am 4 comments

By Matt Barcus
President, Precision Executive Search
Managing Partner, A/E/P Central, LLC, home of

Earlier this summer there was an ARTICLE ON CNN discussing the topic of “New Urbanism” or “Walkable Urbanism.” The article highlighted what was going on in a neighborhood in Elk Grove, CA. What only four years ago was a highly sought after suburban wonderland of well to do homes, with lush green lawns and cedar playground sets is now becoming a ghost town with dandelions, tall weeds, and broken picket fences lining the sidewalks.  Foreclosures are through the roof, the once popular and highly creative ARM’s are maturing and the low, affordable mortgage payments that people once had are out the window forcing them to leave their homes, and the subsequent maintence of, behind.  The housing market is in the dumps and developers have been putting projects on hold or even selling off land (if they can) that they once had big plans for. An example would be the 43,000 acre Coyote Springs master planned community in Las Vegas which has come to a near standstill compared to a few years ago. The same thing is happening in places like California, Florida, Michigan,  Northern Virginia and Arizona.  As suburban land development hits the skids, urban development is taking off.

Over the past few years many of my clients have been pursuing this trend of Urban Redevelopment where developers take a vacant lot, a vacant building, or a run down block in a major metropolitan area and put in fancy new high-rise apartments and condominiums with nice dog parks, restaurants, deli’s, grocery stores and public transportation all within walking distance. Great concept, a very marketable concept; so marketable believes Arthur Nelson of Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute, that by 2025 there will be 22 million large-lot homes that will be occupied by lower classes who have been forced out of their once affordable homes in the city. “What is going to happen is lower and lower-middle income families squeezed out of downtown and glamorous suburban locations are going to be pushed economically into these McMansions at the suburban fringe,” said Nelson. “There will probably be 10 people living in one house.”

I beg to differ.

I myself am a family man, married, 3 children and two dogs, and I live in the suburbs of Philadelphia, but I am pretty sure that Arthur Nelson’s scenario will not live itself out here, or in most suburbs for that matter. I feel confident, that no matter what the economy brings, the majority of families with children and pets would rather live out in the ‘burbs away from traffic, highly congested areas and areas of high pollution and increased crime. As a nation we are going through some difficult financial times and foreclosures are through the roof – but I do not see my neighbors packing up their home to move to the city. If they are struggling now, how will they be able to afford a brand spankin’ new place in the city?

Let me back up a bit by saying that I love visiting the city – Philadelphia, New York, Boston, DC – are all AWESOME, and every time I visit I am infatuated with the architecture, the convenience, and the “buzz” that exists, especially in these newly developed areas. The restaurants are great, the night life is great and public transportation is easily accessible so no need for a car. In fact, if I were single with no real commitments I would be there in a heart beat. My suspicion is though, once these young single professionals get married and start families, they are going to want a yard for their kids to run around on and to put a swing set or pool on. They are going to want safe neighborhoods where their children can ride their bikes down the street because traffic is limited and everyone knows ALL of their neighbors.  The other beneficiaries of this lifestyle would be the Baby Boomers.  Baby Boomers who have worked hard, enjoyed life in the ‘burbs, and who have accumulated some wealth where they can afford to make this move.  It also provides a little easier lifestyle where they have no lawn to groom and the maintenance issues compared to a single family detached home are far less of a concern.  These are the groups that I see most benefiting from the New Urbanism, and the group that these developers should be, and likely are, marketing to.

Call me naive, as I do not have a PhD and I have not done any research on this topic as Mr. Nelson has, but I’ve got to believe that this current trend of Urban Redevelopment or New Urbanism, which is a great idea and is very profitable to many developers across the country, will NOT replace the suburban lifestyles which is often a part of, and will continue to be a part of, the “American Dream.” This of course is the joy of having a blog, no PhD or scientific research needed here, just a place to voice one’s opinion. That being said, please voice your opinion, I would love to hear from you!


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4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Tox  |  September 28, 2008 at 10:11 am

    I have been on both sides of this as well. When it comes down to, it I would trade private space- large yards etc for more public space- parks etc. Not only is there the benefit of having a place for the kids to play, interact with other children and exercise the dog, I dont have to maintain it or pay for costly yard services! Truth is most people in subburban neighborhoods don’t really know their neighbors, more interaction in public spaces would probably go a long ways towards bringing neighbors together. Once the kids are gone most subburban neighborhoods get pretty cold, couples aren’t having as many children as they once did. My two cents. It’s just time for the housing industry to change. I am sure most subburban neighboorhoods will eventually be redeveloped. Its a cycle.

  • 2. site development atlanta  |  September 17, 2008 at 4:00 pm

    I’ve seen this from both sides, I grew up in a rapidly growing suburban area of atlanta and then moved to the most urban part of the city ten years ago. I’ve also been involved with developments in each area. As much as I hate to see my home town become a “slum,” that exactly what’s happening in several areas. These areas have recently become poorly maintained and very undesireable to new move-ins, what’s worse is that many people can’t afford the homes in these area’s anymore. I hope something changes so that these areas can be rehabed (even thought they were developed within the last ten years) but I’ve seen a trend of folks moving into the more urban areas. I think they’ve have had their big houses and are no longer interested in big yards to maintain, big utility bills, big transportation costs, big mortgage, etc. My inconsquential opinion is that with as many lots and homes as exist in the suburban area, the only significant development for Civil Engineers is going to be where the people and money are heading.

  • 3. Bert Hutt  |  September 4, 2008 at 5:14 pm

    While it is true that many of the newer suburbs are seeing a growing number of empty houses, they will probably never become the new slums of America.

    They should remain a valuable location for those who want to live outside of the urban environment. The American dream of home ownership and private property can take on different expressions from generation to generation indeed.

    However, to keep these neighborhoods vibrant, they will need to have services close at hand.

    I hope that developers, probably some of your clients, will look to erecting multi-purpose buildings that can offer smaller shops and services for the residents of the suburbs. These neighborhood stores need to be within walking distances from the homes to foster a renewed sense of community.

  • 4. Josie  |  August 22, 2008 at 2:28 am

    I could say a lot about this, but I will keep it brief. The trend the author is reporting on (which has been reported on many times over) is not supposed to be iminent.

    I think the “American Dream” is a generational concept. Your children’s opinions and values may vary from yours as they drive the shape of future communities.

    The suburban version of the American Dream was inspired by the Baby Boomer generation. Ironically, I see A LOT of empty nesters and retirees moving back to the city.


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