Saturday, December 6th, 2008

The Future of the American Suburb

The suburbanized messes we create become despised by their own inhabitants tomorrow. These dispersions lack any reasonable degree of innate vitality, staying power, or inherent usefulness as settlements. Few of them, and these only the most expensive as a rule, hold their attraction much longer than a generation; then they begin to decay in the pattern of city gray areas. Indeed, a immense amount of today’s city gray belts was yesterday’s dispersion closer to ‘nature’. Of the buildings on the thirty thousand acres of already blighted or already fast-blighting residential areas of Northern New Jersey, for example, half are less than forty years old. Thirty years from now, we shall have accumulated new problems of blight and decay over acreages so immense that in comparison the present problems of the great cities’ gray belts will look piddling. Nor, however destructive, is this something which happens accidentally or without the use of will. This is exactly what we, as a society, have willed to happen.” – Jane Jacobs, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities”

Blogger Paul Ogden casts stones at Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard about the cost overruns on the Keystone Ave. interchange project in Carmel, Indiana. Not only did Mayor Brainard lie about the costs, he says, but the city’s big spending ways finally caught up with it. Since I’ve lauded Carmel before (see this three part series, one, two, and three) and have generally endorsed Brainard’s vision, I thought I would offer my response.

Ogden is mixing three unrelated points: honesty, efficiency, and service levels. On the honesty point, it is a no brainer. If Mayor Brainard deceived the voters, then he deserves a pie in the face for it. But that is orthogonal to spending. On that front, I’ve long said we must separate efficient delivery of services at low costs, which I think we can all agree on, from what level of service you want to buy in the first place. First decide on the car that fits your general budget, then go dicker with the dealer. It is clear that Ogden thinks Carmel is purchasing too high a service level.

While one can certainly quibble with many of their projects, I think that Ogden’s attitude typifies the Midwestern mindset. Whatever it is the government is doing, it’s always too much and the price too high. In short, the implicit advocacy is for a least common denominator, el-cheapo approach.

That might have worked back in the days when the Midwest dominated a commodity marketing like manufacturing. But now it is in competition with China, Mexico, etc. In an era of competition against labor making pennies per hour, the Midwest will never be a low cost place to do business, on a global basis, again, no matter how low its states and cities cut taxes.

The driver of the 21st century economy in a high cost locale like the United States is clearly something else. Many states, including most of the Midwest and Indiana, are hanging their hat on industries like life sciences. But you can’t have a life sciences industry without life scientists. The skills that drive these industries are in demand. The people who have them have choices about where to live. The marginal cost difference in taxes saved in a least common denominator town is not going to overcome the poor quality of life and the sparse amenities these places offer. There’s a new ante in the game. Government services aren’t static. They change over time as the times progress. Sometimes services need to be added. Sometime they need to be retired. I can only imagine the howls of protest back in the 1800’s when forward thinking cities decided they needed to pay for “luxuries” like police and fire departments, which for centuries did not exist in many cities.

Beyond that, when you take the low cost uber alles approach, you’re building an environment that has no staying power. All you have to do to see where the Ogden approach leads is to drive around the formerly booming suburban areas of Marion County and see what they look like now. Take a look at the places that were the Fishers of their day back in the 60’s or 70’s. Or if you live elsewhere, go to the same places in your town. You’ll see rampant suburban decay, vacant commercial parcels, struggling retail, empty big boxes, and unmaintained homes. This is the future of the American suburb that doesn’t take care to build something with staying power.

As long as you are on the edge of growth, that growth wave powers as if by magic new subdivisions, strip malls, shiny new schools, fire stations, and so on. These seem so wonderful because not only are they new, but they are better than what came before in older generation places. But what happens in 25-40 years? When today’s boomburgs are full, with no more land to develop, when they are competing with newer sprawl on the fringe, with developments that represent the next generation of design, what will happen? If today’s sprawlburbs think their fate is any different than yesterdays’, they are in for a rude shock.

That’s why it is imperative for suburbs on the edge of growth to take advantage of their day in the sun to build an environment that will be sustainable, thinking not just about today, but about the long term. Lifestyle centers, like enclosed malls before them, will be an obsolete format at some point. Will your town’s commercial districts be able to handle the transition? And so on, and so on.

That’s why what Carmel is doing is so smart. Again, the specifics are up for debate, and there is no guarantee that their strategy will succeed, but they are doing their best to create a unique, differentiated environment that will hopefully, once the town has matured, remain relevant in the future. It’s a lessson well worth heeding.

Another point is also relevant not just locally but nationally. Other than the City Center/PAC and Central Park, both investments that can certainly be challenged as to their merits, the majority of Carmel’s spending and debt has gone towards roads. We’re talking 50 roundabouts, 5% of the entire US total, and many, many miles of arterial street improvements, including this Keystone project. With infrastructure like the road network, there is no question that you are paying one way or the other. The only debate is in what currency. Will you pay in dollars or will you pay in congestion, pollution, and reduced quality of life and attractiveness of your town? That’s the choice at hand. I’m very confident that any economic analysis of the Keystone Ave. project would show that, even at $140 million, the project will generate strong net positive benefits in user costs alone.

Some people say we can’t afford to upgrade our transportation infrastructure. The fact is, we can’t afford not to. Every year that goes by the price only goes up, up, up. While with the recession on, construction inflation may even go into reverse this year, the long run trend is clear. The price of civic sector construction projects is increasing at a rate in excess of consumer price inflation. This means every year you don’t fix the problem, there’s not just another year of congestion and suffering, but the price tag for fixing it only grows further and further out of reach. Just ask Hendricks County as they struggle to figure out how to pay for a Ronald Reagan Parkway project that has spiraled out of control on costs over the decade plus the county didn’t build it. Ask Louisville, Kentucky which spent 40 years debating where to build a bridge, only to discover they now face a $4.1 billion price tag to do it.

So with this, as with other things, Carmel is ahead of the game. One can enjoy the pain they are going through now to get the project done. But when you fast forward and see what Fishers and Noblesville are going to go through because SR 37 is not getting fixed, I think you’ll see Carmel is probably making the right move by holding their nose and paying the $140 million to fix their problems today rather than punting them down the road to the next generation. Other places across America should be paying attention.

I want to stress that I’m not someone who is any fan of high government spending. My tax bills are beyond unbelievable, and I’m not eager to see them go up. There’s plenty of government spending out there I’d love the opportunity to take the scalpel too. I think this economy creates a golden opportunity to attack the fat in government, such as eliminating Indiana’s 1008 townships. But I think we need to take a long term view and not a short term one. Think about the staying power and long run competitiveness of the communities we are building. Look at the ruins of formerly prosperous places that did not do this, and the immense costs that we pay as a society today for that. The best way to keep taxes and spending low in the long term is to make sure we build healthy, growing, prosperous communities for the future, not engaging in the save a buck at any cost today mentality or passing the buck on dealing with critical problems to the next generation.

Topics: Public Policy, Transportation
Cities: Indianapolis

10 Responses to “The Future of the American Suburb”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Anyone with any sense knows that the random sprawl of today, creates the ghettos of tomorrow. And the cheap (the poorly built, doomed to fall apart in ten years, disconnected crap) housing that encourages people to run away from (themselves?) only recreates the same environment that they fled.

    And they haven’t done development right in Carmel either, they just have more money (or so they thought) to fix all of their mistakes. I still think that the Kansas City area and their suburbs are more sustainable than anyplace else in the Midwest (that’s not saying much).

  2. Anonymous says:

    My thoughts….

    a – Meridian and Keystone will continue to grow and eventually will trisect Carmel, leaving 3 distinct communities. Highway 37 will do the same to Noblesville.
    b – Traffic circles/roundabouts only delay the inevitable traffic nightmare and cost of a major traffic light intersection. They also serve as a barrier to pedestrian/bicycle and other forms of traffic.
    c – Carmel’s long term plan boils down to, “build houses for Dr’s, developers and lawyers and they shall come”. It’s not sustainable.
    d – Carmel will eventually go bankrupt. Taxes will make its growth unsustainable and taxpayers will migrate away to the neighboring communities.
    e – Carmel, Fishers and Noblesville cannot continue growing by absorption of neighboring communities and taxing those residents for expensive projects they do not benefit from and had no say it it.

  3. El Hoosier says:

    Replying to Anon (Dec 7 @ 10:18)

    Just a couple of reactions to your thoughts

    A- Meridian and Keystone are major obstacles in any community. However, look at how there individual futures are being played out. Meridian is still under the control of the State of Indiana and so far the initial plans for it redevelopment call for large lane expansions and akwardly engineered intersections. Keystone however, is now under the control of Carmel and its future is drastically different. Its footprint on the surrounding neighborhoods has only increased minimally. The “expensive” underpass/roundabout/intersection design will actually serve to reduce the perception of the road splitting the community.

    B- construction of roundabouts is cheaper and handles traffic better. And lets be honest, there is nothing about Carmel (on any suburb) that is really pedestrian friendly. I would much rather cross one or two lanes a time in roundabout than try to run across up to 6-8 lanes, before the pedestrian light (if it exists) run out at a traditional intersection.

    C- there is no doubt that Carmel has positioned itself to attract the high home cost purchasers… but don’t blame Carmel for this, every city tries to attract those same individuals in this localist tax structure we have set up. Carmel just does this better, through making the investments that are up to so much redicule. If Carmel acted on the cheap and eliminated all its strict controls… turn 31 and Keystone into 37 and Plainfield Ave.

    D- Carmel will not go bankrupt. Its already at 85% buildout and it seems to be moving along just fine. This city does have the benefit of planning for the future and envisioning how it can add value to its already developed sections.

    E- I favor municipal absorbtion. I live in St. Louis and we have the opposite problem.. extreme municipal fragmentation. St. Louis County (only slightly larger than Marion or Hamilton County) has approximately 91 separate municipal bodies. Imagine how hard it is to coordinate anything here. Although the people of “Geist” and Clay Township will be absorbed into established, function governments. By keeping the numbers of municipals governments low, you reduce the cost of paying taxes to support new government figures and reduce regional costs of coordinating development.

  4. Dave Reid says:

    You’re point about deferring maintenance really needs to be written about and discussed further. In Milwaukee starting in the 90s we began cutting road patching crews from 15 to like 3 in an effort to “trim” the budget”. Well what has happened? The roads are falling apart and now we need to spend much more to rebuild and repave all of the streets.

    how does it go penny wise, pound foolish.

  5. thundermutt says:

    Two responses:

    1. I think we in Indianapolis are at risk of being too long a “low level of service” city, and that the present property-tax “crisis” and recession may provide the impetus to get stuck in that low-service mindset. If we don’t maintain the infrastructure we’ve built (things like the Artsgarden, Downtown Canal, Cultural Trail, American Legion Mall, sports facilities, museums, zoo, etc.) then we will create a downward spiral: people who have a choice won’t choose to live here.

    2. There is a whole swath of Marion County, roughly between 21st and 38th Streets west of White River (excluding old Speedway) and also East of the Monon Trail, where large swaths may be unredeemable. Many of the houses are plywood boxes built on slabs; once moisture ruins the plywood and the pipes under/through the slab corrode away, they’re goners. Not coincidentally, those are now the “most challenged” neighborhoods in the county. But the GINI initiative skipped over them to work on the Crooked Creek and BRAG areas, and there really isn’t anyone trying to deal with those two major problem areas.

    The next Fall Creek Place is what needs to happen in those areas BEFORE they are totally “Dodge City”. And, of course, those areas need to be rebuilt with walkability, integrated transit (whether bus or train) and retail. They still have the advantage of being 15 or 20 minutes from much of the metro area.

    Again, that scale of reinvestment may be beyond Indianapolis’ wishes or means. Not good.

  6. Graeme says:

    I agree with many of your points, but I don’t see where Ogden discusses efficiency and service levels. It appears his original post is solely concerned with accountability.

    Personally, I think Carmel is taking steps in the right direction. While I detest the reconstructed Arts and Design district as an affront to authenticity, I must admit the finished product will be effective.

    I don’t think the city will fail or default on its loans, and I think the city is making good investments. However, I also think that Brainard should not be allowed to play games with the taxpayers’ money. Overly optimistic assumptions about cost-cutting and revenue cannot be allowed to drive policy.

  7. City addict says:

    i am a urban researcher from Amsterdam.
    I am recently doing research and collecting materials regarding the renewal of derelict industrial sites in many ex-manufacturing cities all over the world…

    It seems that the reallocation of new functions to those so called “urban voids” represent a fashionable redevelopment formula in may cities. Do you think that those processes should be useful as a possible receipt against sprawl?
    (I mean, not to solve definitely the problem of course…)

  8. The Urbanophile says:

    Graeme, you’re right. He only co-mingled honesty and service levels. I do think we need to keep all three separate, however.

  9. The Urbanophile says:

    City addict. That’s a good question. Today it is more convenient for developers in many cases to treat older developed areas, industrial or otherwise, as places to be abandoned in favor of new greenfield development. This is for a variety of reasons. Older buildings may be most costly to renovate or there may be environmental problems, etc. Many older factories have been successfully converted, however. Or brownfield sites cleaned up and converted. The challenges are harder with newer rather than older developments, however. It’s hard for me to see how an obsolete big box store or bulk warehouse is as easily adaptable as the old brick factories and warehouses of yesteryear.

    The problem is fundamentally this: the liabilities attach to property, not people. This lets the citizens of communities run up big unfunded liabilities such as pension deficits, environmental remediation, or abandoned buildings, then skip town, leaving those who have no option to move behind stuck with the bills. It’s harder when the mortgage or debt is in your name instead of in the name of your town. The conceptual problem is a difficult one to design a solution to, but people who live in a place must be made to bear the true lifecycle costs of the actions they take by being there. Once that happens, then the leap to the fringe would start looking much less attractive since it would likely be cost neutral. Imagine a true “impact fee” assessed to new buildings or some such to capture this. Again, the precise model might be difficult to define, and still more difficult yet to implement, but making people internalize the externalities is probably the way to really crack the code on the problem in my view. My email address is on the blog home page sidebar if you would like to discuss further offline.

  10. thundermutt says:

    Since “big box” reuse is kind of a new thing, there isn’t a lot of experience with it. For one essay, look here:

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