Among the more interesting and important land use questions of the 21st century: what’s in store for the expanses of conventional suburban subdivisions that define much of the metropolitan area land use across the United States? The mortgage crisis dealt a serious blow, hammering many existing subdivisions with high foreclosure rates and crippling many incomplete or uninhabited neighborhoods with half-finished infrastructure, or completed infrastructure but no homes, or homes but no owners (“zombie subdivisions”). Rising transportation costs will increasingly take a toll as well, making the hidden commuting costs of suburban ownership much more visible. And we are witnessing a perceptible shift in federal policy and resources: mortgage eligibility formulas that may start considering transportation costs, an unprecedented alignment of transportation grant funding criteria with environmental and affordable housing goals, and a transportation reauthorization bill that may dramatically increase funding for bike and bus projects and others that reduce the amount people drive while simultaneously impede funding for projects that result in increased vehicle miles.
Even more striking: a new Brookings Institute report, “The Suburbanization of Poverty,” found that “suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country” between 2000 and 2008, and one might readily speculate that this trend is further exacerbated through 2009 and into 2010 by the foreclosure crisis and zombie subdivision problem. As Brookings notes, “These trends are likely to continue in the wake of the latest downturn, given its toll on traditionally more suburbanized industries and the faster pace of growth in suburban unemployment.”
Certainly part of the answer has to do with transit lines. Like rivers in the desert southwest, it seems likely that suburban sprawl will be defined in part by activity centers along transit lines and especially near transit stations. Replacing malls with high density mixed use developments (like the high profile Belmar project and the CityCenter Englewood project, both here in the Denver Metro region), and creating mixed use outdoor mall environments from whole cloth, may breath life into some pockets of the expansive sprawl that defines many metropolitan areas, especially for those along existing or future transit lines.
Plenty of folks are pondering this question, and making a run at development and redevelopment projects that might help shape the future of suburban landscapes. And at least a few are putting up cash to help spur that thinking along, such as the $22,500 in prizes for the best solutions to Long Island’s “underperforming asphalt” (h/t to The Architects Newspaper Blog).