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The End of the Suburbs

By Leigh Gallagher (2013)

With the recent subprime mortgage crisis in the US, as well as the renewed discussions on commute time and traffic closer to home, there’s been an increasing amount of attention on where we choose to live.

In her book, Gallagher explores the transformation of the suburb, starting with the initial exodus out of cities and away from their noise, crime, and poverty in the early and mid 20th century.  People sought the quiet comfort of tree-lined streets and close-knit neighbourhoods, and attempted to replicate a sense of that small-town feel.  When gas was cheap, everyone owned a car, and cities were gritty and dangerous, suburbs and their associated ‘American Dream’ ideals flourished.

As this model of suburban development evolved, however, trade-offs began to appear.

With the popularity of the suburbs skyrocketing, people were forced to look further and further away from cities and their jobs to find this idealistic, picturesque small-town neighbourhood, resulting in longer commutes and ironically less time at home.  With a longer commute, families became increasingly sensitive to the costs of additional maintenance of their vehicles and fluctuations in the price of gas.  Municipalities began to realize that the cost of maintaining large networks of road and other infrastructure could not be offset by low-density tax revenue.  Schools, hospitals, police, and fire services were similarly stretched over unrealistic geographic areas of coverage.  In a twist of fate, poverty and crime began to increase in these suburban neighbourhoods, in part due to their geographic isolation, relative abandonment during the longer and longer commuting hours, and lack of social services.

 

Conversely, over the past decade, urban centres have begun a rejuvenation process in part due to a change in priorities among certain demographics.  First time home buyers, perhaps having witnessed the horrors of commuting from the previous generation, are willing to trade off large yards and a basement for the ability to walk to work.  In a similar vein, this demographic may be willing to trade off the quiet and solitude of a suburban cul-de-sac for a wider selection and availability of entertainment.  Instead of paying for insurance, gas, and maintenance of a vehicle, they may instead choose the much lower cost of public transit, or the occasional car-share membership.  All these factors point to the rejuvenated urban centres as models for growth, and the suburbs for gradual decline, however there is still much work to be done.

Gallagher examines how this shift is affecting both new and old neighbourhoods, urban and suburban, and showcases the efforts of various individuals and organizations to encourage or adapt to this trend.  She describes the ‘New Urbanism’ movement, and showcases what individuals, developers, and organizations are doing to rejuvenate our previously-stagnating urban core.

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