The Suburban Spiral of Decline

One of the outcomes of bankrupt suburbs and climate change is that many residents will be left with stranded assets. Quite simply, they will own property that they can’t sell, and will either be stuck or forced to simply walk away from their homes. It might be hard to see that decline while driving through today’s apparently affluent suburbs, but the same could have been said about Detroit and other Rust Belt cities in 1965. This is a powerful argument in favor of rebuilding our suburbs when confronted by residents who don’t want to see their neighborhood change. It is in their own self-interest to allow for some change which would make their neighborhood economically sustainable, instead of allowing their neighborhood to enter the Spiral of Decline.

The Spiral of Decline

Suburbs that are unable to sustain funding for basic city services, such as police and fire services, and street repair, end up in a Spiral of Decline. First, the least valued city services are cut, such as libraries and community programs, which reduce civic engagement and sense of community. This, in turn, drives down property values because people don’t feel as connected to their community.

Second, capital maintenance projects are neglected. With limited funds, cities must triage their maintenance requirements and postpone the least severe problems. Unfortunately, problems get worse and become exponentially more expensive to fix, which leads to larger costs to fix the same problem in subsequent years. This backlog of repairs simply continues to grow, affecting the quality of neighborhoods, further reducing property values.

As property values decline, residents are presented with two options: 1) cut their loses and run; or 2) ride it out and hope something improves. If property values continue to decline, more and more residents will decide to cut their loses, even to the point of abandoning the property.

There is a third option, reinvesting in a neighborhood, that is only available before the Spiral of Decline has started or once it has reached its sad conclusion. Once the Spiral of Decline has truly started to manifest itself, once property values start to fall due to a lack of city services, there is little that can be done by the community to improve its condition. Even tactical urbanism can only go so far.

Reinvesting in Neighborhoods

While cities might be on the long road to bankruptcy due to unsustainable revenue generated by their suburbs, most have not yet begun the Spiral of Decline. These cities still have time to reinvest in and restructure their neighborhoods to be economically and environmentally sustainable.

Reinvesting in neighborhoods to ensure they are economically sustainable will require the creative destruction of parts of those neighborhoods. The only way to become economically sustainable is to increase revenue generation from the neighborhood while maintaining the cost to maintain it. Increased revenue can come from higher property values and increased sales taxes.

An easy way cities can increase property values is by increasing density. In the traditional suburban context, increased density simply requires increased street widths and other expensive to maintain infrastructure. The key to rebuilding the suburbs so they become economically sustainable is to increase density without increasing the required infrastructure. The way to do this is by creating walkable, transit-oriented communities.

Walkable and transit-oriented communities require a certain density that ensures high property values, while also limiting the size and expense of the roadway network. Walkable communities not only allow for smaller roads, they require them. A road that is too wide becomes uncrossable by pedestrians. Blocks that are too long become barriers to pedestrian movement. Speeds that are too high create sidewalks that feel unsafe. In order to achieve a walkable neighborhood, cities must first downsize roads and reprioritize how people move about the city.

Most suburban communities haven’t yet started their Spiral of Decline. The first task cities must undertake to circumvent the Spiral from taking hold is to reprioritize transportation in the city, and increase walkability and density.