The Indianapolis Star ran a major article on Sunday that provides a view of the new suburban reality facing many place in America. Called “Amenities reflect Indianapolis suburbs’ new goals” it describes the efforts of various suburbs around Indy to move away from purely a schools/rooftops/retail model of the suburb to one that offers other amenities such as first class parks, New Urbanist town centers, arts venues, etc. Incidentally, the five or so featured are all completely run by Republicans, showing again that local level Republicans today are increasingly more open to quality of life investments than their national or state brethren.
The article highlights the thinking behind some of these, such as moving from an economic model based on smokestack chasing to one based on talent attraction and smaller, entrepreneurial firms. But unfortunately the article focused on whether the attractions would support a traditional ROI equation, instead of the actual underlying strategic rationale: long term survival.
Paul Graham famously suggested that pretty much all startups are destined to fail, saying:
Death is the default for startups, and most towns don’t save them. Instead of thinking of most places as being sprayed with startupicide, it’s more accurate to think of startups as all being poisoned, and a few places being sprayed with the antidote. Startups in other places are just doing what startups naturally do: fail.
Similarly, all suburbs more or less start out as if they were sprayed with “suburbicide.” Most of them follow a fairly predictable cycle of growth, maturity, and decline. Decay is their natural destination. This is a straightforward lifecycle effect, as I’ve explained before. (It can be different in places with significant supply constraints, like California, but these come with their own set of problems such as severe unaffordability).
All the town council members at one of today’s many Indy boomburgs need to do is take a drive around Marion County see where this leads, say down West 38th St. or South Madison Ave. I think we’ve all seen these types of formerly booming suburban districts now fallen on hard times. For those who haven’t, Eric McAfee posted a chilling, if extreme, example of the genre in Kansas City. Pretty much all of Marion County’s township areas are struggling except for a narrow band of very upscale areas on the far North Side, and some remaining greenfield development areas in places like Franklin Township.
The people who built those first generation of auto-oriented suburbs can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that what they were building would not stand the test of time. Today’s leaders in emerging suburbs have no such excuse. They should know that from the minute their town takes off the growth curve, it’s already infected with suburbicide, and they’ve only got about three decades to administer a cure. And if they fail, they know the fate that awaits them.
I believe that ultimately these attempts at creating more amenity-rich suburbs are as much an attempt to create places that will still have a draw when they are full and hit middle age as they are attractors in the here and now. That’s the real question that should have been asked. What is the best cure for suburbicide? As Westfield Mayor Andy Cook put it, “do nothing” is the easy option in the now, but ultimately a foolish one.
It may be that these projects are not all the right ones. The sports complex in Westfield and the water park in Greenwood both seem on the dubious side to me, for example. On the other hand, central parks, trails, and more urban style town centers make more sense. There’s never a sure bet out there and there definitely needs to be a debate.
But too often that debate taxes place without being embedded in any larger context. It was particularly interesting, for example, to see Columbus resident Thomas Heller quoted as an opponent of amenity style investment. In a state whose communities have largely not weathered the storms of the last few decades very well, Columbus stands out as a strong economic and demographic performer – and one that took a contrarian amenity-rich path to boot. Why might that be, I wonder?
Again, it’s easy to cede the argument to opponents, who only have to say “it costs too much” as their perennial refrain. Rare is the item I’m purchased that I didn’t wish were cheaper. The real debate needs to be this: our town is infected with a fatal disease. Given that no-treatment produces death in about 80% of cases, what’s the best proposed cure?