A recent article from the Brookings Institution got me thinking about the long-term future of suburbs. Like many reports from said institution, the author posited that because (1) energy costs are rising, (2) the foreclosure crisis is bringing traditionally urban crime problems to the 'burbs, and (3) demographic shifts are bringing more yuppies and empty-nest baby boomers back to city centers, it is likely that (4) cities will once again surge in economic and social importance.
Well, it's a nice thought anyway. Let's unpack this logic.
Energy costs are rising: True. Oil is more expensive, and likely to remain so. Large suburban homes are, consequently, more expensive to heat and cool. It is also more expensive to travel over long commutes to and from those suburbs. Will this lead to more people living in cities? Maybe. I see a lot of press about alternate energy sources which might make it cheaper to heat/cool suburban homes. I also see a lot of press about cars that get better mileage. If these two trends make real progress, it may indeed offset the increases in traditional energy costs, thereby preserving the suburban lifestyle.
The foreclosure crisis is definitely hitting suburbs, some worse than others. It is also hitting cities (see my earlier posts on Cleveland, for instance). A few things to keep in mind, however: 1) The crisis is the of an over-hyped housing market and an over-extended credit market, both of which are likely to correct in the long run; 2) The suburbs that are hardest hit are also the most speculative, in which construction boomed very recently.
Demographic shifts are definitely increasing interest in cities. Keep in mind, however, that there has been a MAJOR condo bust across the country in the past two years. MAJOR. Developers vastly overestimated people's interest in city living. Also, remember that New Urbanist developments are growing, and will take attention away from traditional city centers. If you doubt me, go visit Crocker Park in Westlake, OH. Why move to a city center with all its attendant problems (you know the list!) when you can buy a condo next to an outdoor lifestyle center?
OK, I don't mean to be too cynical. I just think it's too easy to cherry-pick a few economic and social trends and conclude that Americans are giving up on suburban living. Americans have demonstrated their clear devotion to large-lot, large-house, high-energy-consumption suburban lifestyle. It will take more than a few lifestyle centers to convince me otherwise.