Saturday, February 16th, 2008

The Next Slum

The Atlantic Monthly has an article in its March 2008 edition called “The Next Slum“. Drawing on trends in urban redevelopment and noted foreclosure problems, especially in newer, starter home communities of cheaply built houses, this article claims that it is our auto-oriented suburbs on the fringes that are destined to become the next slums, while prospects for more traditional communities is looking up. While I think they overstate the case a bit, and minimize the ever shortening cycle of living and shopping trends, this is nevertheless an interesting article.

Ground zero for this phenomenon is the southern neo-boomtown of Charlotte. I noted earlier how many starter home communities were suffering from extensive foreclosures and increasing crime. One elected official referred to these entry level communities as the “projects of the future.” This article follows in that vein.

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in the doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlottee Observer, ‘I had thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dream that stuff like this would happen.’

I’ve heard reports of similar types of incidents from other cities, though nothing this extreme. It does make you wonder if many suburban communities were prescient in banning this type of development through mandating higher end design and construction standards. I’m actually a big fan of market based solutions to affordable housing. These types of development play a key role in helping people buy into the American Dream with their own home in a solid school district. So going too far in the direction of squeezing out working class people from home ownership is something I’d definitely oppose. I do think this model needs to be revisited, and indeed I expect most of the builders in this space to start looking at how they can tweak their product and sales practices to avoid this in the future. A development that goes south like this can be a major black eye to a builder, and that’s something they will want to avoid having on their reputation. One can proudly build an entry level product that luxury buyers sniff at, but something that turns into a nightmare for buyers isn’t good for anyone. So I expect the builders, prodded by both the government and commercial considerations, to modify their development approach.

Before people with higher incomes brush this off as not their problem, it is affecting higher end communities too. The article cites a similar example from Sacramento where home prices were in the half million range. Admittedly, that’s at California prices, but the principle applies.

The authors go on to suggest that while these problems are being perhaps triggered by the subprime crisis, they are not likely to go away in a cyclical recovery because of structural changes in the preferences of Americans and shifting demographics.

In the 40’s, many Americans were cramped into squalid urban apartments that they were happy to leave behind post-WW II. This led to the decay of our inner cities and their well publicized problems. The city was the source of bad things and dysfunction, in the popular imagination as well as reality. The article cites films like “Escape from New York”. Today, it is the city that is portrayed on TV as the hip and happening locale and the suburbs that are the source of anomie. Contrast Seinfeld and Sex in the City with a Todd Haynes film or Desperate Housewives. This has been backed up in the real world with escalating urban real estate prices and condo building spurts across the country.

Other factors weigh in too. The baby boom generation is about to retire, leading to a new market of empty nesters to whom a large house where you can’t walk anywhere is a burden more than a benefit, and where school districts no longer matter. Families with children make up a smaller percentage of households every year. As gas prices remain high, the cost of commuting from a home far from work becomes almost like a tax, to say nothing of ever escalating traffic congestion.

Put together trends in lifestyle preferences, demographics, energy prices, and the lifecycle of housing and commercial development, and researchers like Arthur C. Nelson are forecasting a surplus of 22 million large-lot homes by 2025, equivalent to 40 percent of such homes now in existence.

Personally, I think this overstates the case. The urban condo boom has largely been limited to America’s largest cities, which are outliers whose experience is not applicable to most places. Even in my favorite example of Chicago, which has comparatively moderate prices and has experienced perhaps the largest condo building boom of any city in the United States, the population is still declining, or stagnant at best. People are still moving out as fast as others move in. Most of these new neighborhoods remain playgrounds for the upper classes, not the broad-based neighborhoods of yore.

Still, we’ll see what happens. I was at a business dinner a couple weeks ago at Spiaggia on Michigan Ave with a mostly 40 and 50-something crowd of business associates and their spouses. Of those from Chicago, 100% of them with children in or nearing high school said they were planning to move into the city as soon as their kids were out of the house or out of college. Friends of mine who used to live in Hinsdale put their toe in the water with a pied-à-terre, then dumped their house to move downtown full time. I have multiple younger friends in the city with small children who’ve said that they are planning to not only stay in the city with their kids, but send them to public schools. One particular woman has been volunteering at the local elementary school with other upscale parents, trying to make improvements before her daughter is old enough to go there. Perhaps the greatest hope for our urban schools is that middle and upper class parents decide to start sending their kids there.

The author doesn’t expect us to all go for the hard core urban experience. He also extols walkable suburbs, such as traditional towns along the railroad lines and those with a strong walkable core. And that traditional suburban neighborhoods closer to these walkable cores might be insulated from the shakeout. He touts especially newer “lifestyle centers” as creating walkable environments that appeal to today.

This last bit is where he really over-reaches, IMO. Lifestyle centers are shopping centers, period. Throwing a tiny amount of residential or office space in there doesn’t make them mixed use communities. The fact that many towns are now referring to lifestyle centers as their downtowns is a bit amusing to me, personally. The principal difference between a lifestyle center and previous shopping centers is aesthetic. It is retro Main St. feel. But functionally it is not that different from an enclosed mall.

This, I believe, highlights the real problem many urban lovers have with the suburbs: their key issue is aesthetic. And it can be easy to drive down some multi-mega-lane thoroughfare lined with car dealership after strip mall after fast food joint and conclude you’ve arrived in some strange version of hell. While I’m all in favor of good aesthetics, if what comes after is largely functionally equivalent to what was there before, what does that ultimately accomplish in terms of changing the game in where people want to live? Craig McCormick highlighted this to great effect in his Pecha Kucha presentation on strip malls, where he noted such design requirements as faux second stories, 360 degree facades, and “frosting” that nevertheless left the Platonic form of the strip mall intact. Lifestyle centers are simply the latest fad in commercial design. It may last a while, and indeed may be better than the soulless strip malls of the 70’s, but styles will change to something else at some point, leaving these lifestyle centers just as obsolete.

The real problem, as I’ve highlighted, is that of staying power. When you build a suburban environment that copies the fashions of the day, whether that be “power centers” and subdivisions or “walkable” lifestyle centers, you still haven’t created a reason why anyone would want to live there 25 years later when preferences have changed and there is something elsewhere that is more in tune with contemporary tastes and which is brand new to boot. The decaying older suburban areas of the Indianapolis townships should show where that path leads. If poor construction quality and the subprime crisis are causing new suburbs in Charlotte to get there faster than in the past, that’s just a difference in degree, not kind.

The author has a good idea, but it need to be tweaked a bit. You need to create an environment with staying power. One that is going to give someone a reason to want to live there 25 years later. Some of the suggestions made about mixed use, walkable urban cores and transit are a start at that. I’ve highlighted before the great things going on in Carmel, which is really trying to build a differentiated environment that will be here for the long haul.

So I recommend reading the article. While clearly it is as much wishful thinking on the part of the author as prediction, it is still definitely worth looking at and thinking over.

Topics: Architecture and Design, Public Policy, Strategic Planning, Sustainability
Cities: Charlotte, Chicago

10 Responses to “The Next Slum”

  1. thundermutt says:

    I’m a suburban kid. But since coming to Indianapolis as a young adult, I’ve lived inside 465, successively closer to downtown.

    The neighborhoods built around public transit between 1900 and 1945 (“streetcar suburbs”), of which Indianapolis has many, share many of the traits that are now buzzwords: walkable, relatively dense compared to large-lot suburbs, local shopping districts, convenient to downtown jobs and events, etc.

    This is reflected in part by the skyrocketing (in historical terms) home values in certain neighborhoods such as Meridian-Kessler, Broad Ripple, Butler-Tarkington, and Irvington, and the long-term stability of places like Little Flower, Christian Park, Watson-McCord, Meridian Park: the advantages generally outweigh the disadvantages, although the recent property tax whack has likely driven values back down some.

    Those neighborhoods fell out of fashion in the “white flight” era of the 1960s and 1970s. Some stabilized, and some are just starting.

    The one thing all those neighborhoods share is being within the IPS district. That is not the disadvantage it appears to be for careful and involved parents. There are magnet and public charter options that are among the finest public school programs central Indiana offers.

    Those pre-WWII neighborhoods share another important value: they are solidly built, even the inexpensive worker bungalows of the 30s and 40s factory neighborhoods. Compare these homes to the postwar slapdash first-ring suburbs; there is already a ring of slums around urban Indianapolis in those boom-era additions and subdivisions.

    Could it be that major American cities will become more like their European cousins, with the vital (and expensive) urban core tapering off to slums at the edges?

    Or, more likely, will a “donut” (or collar) of decay continue to be pushed outward from the core while the edges remain “the place to be” for young well-off families interested in the newest trends in suburban living? This seems the case in Indianapolis currently.

    That serious people are thinking and writing about this in light of the current sub-prime crisis is a good thing.

  2. Kevin says:

    Good stuff U-phile. I share your dislike of “lifestyle centers.” Your analysis seems right on track to me.

  3. El Fuser says:

    I read a lot of blogs that focus on the same general topics. This is the best one around… keep it up

  4. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks for the kind words.

    thunder, very thoughtful comment. I don’t know the answer either. There are many scenarios on how the future might play out, and obviously our present understanding is uncertain. The one thing I am sure of is that no matter which way it ends up, somebody will say it should have been “obvious” years ago and castigate past leaders for failing to do something. Monday morning quarterbacking is the nature of the beast. We’ve got to make our best guess on the real way trends will play and try to put in place a strategy to get ahead of it and hope we are right.

  5. Bruised Orange says:

    Nice blog! I share pretty much the same philosopies as you do. I think the market is primed for even more downtown and near-downtown redevelopment. ALthough, I’m sure it’s easier in Indy because you seem to have a really cool, amenity-filled urban center. My town isn’t nearly as small and desolate as TV makes it out to be, because it’s been vitiated by sprawl worse than most other cities, even..So, now it’s really hard to get anything going dowontown because so much has been torn down and lost forever. Anyway, that’s my problem I guess.. You have a nice blog.

  6. Anonymous says:

    The Atlantic article is now online at One thing that struck me is that Leinberger avoids using the phrase “new urbanism,” yet that’s what the whole piece is about.

    Question: in these denser, walkable neighborhoods, where do kids play? One thing large lot subdivisions offer is back yards. Whether you’re in a newer “lifestyle center” or an older walkable neighborhood, it’s important to be able to get outside — and for your kids to be able to get outside — thus parks are an essential part of the mix.

  7. The Urbanophile says:

    Thanks, anon. Updated with link.

    I appreciate the kind comments as well.

  8. Anonymous says:

    “new urbanism” as a phrase was probably avoided because in the urban design community this tends to refer to a suburban development that has walkable features within it, but is not necessarily connected to anything once you get outside. new urbanist developments like celebration FL are typically bedroom communities and commuter suburbs, rather than fully functioning centers. (i.e., you might be able to get a bottle of milk in a new urbanism type center, but you would have to get in the car and drive to the big box stores to do your actual shopping.)

  9. Bob says:

    Nice post. I have relatives in Chicago, and they live in a very nice place on Aldine and Lakeshore — spacious and reasonable, particularly compared to Manhattan (where we live). But I don’t feel the energy in the city as I do in NY. Particularly on weekends, the places we’ve seen feel a bit “hollow”. Now that is probably largely due to our lack of experience, but our relatives have commented on that as well.

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