Thursday, February 26, 2009

Suburbs in Crisis

In October last year Levittown in New York’s Long Island celebrated a sixty-year birthday. When it opened in October 1947, it was the first of many suburbs that set in motion a major transformation and the creation of truly suburban society. However, many suburbs built at this time are now showing their age and without attention will undermine the stability of these middle class strongholds.

These inner-ring suburbs built between the opening of Levittown and 1970 are now in difficulty as their housing stock deteriorates and population losses mount. As people move back to the city or into new housing on the metropolitan edge many of these inner suburbs are in decline.

The new metropolitan reality is not one of declining central cities and booming suburbs, but of rebounding central cities, expanding outer suburbs, burgeoning exurbs and declining inner suburbs. Fifteen percent of inner ring suburbs are in crisis with deteriorating housing conditions, decline in both income and population and an increase in poverty. These inner ring suburbs in total contain 6.2 million people and 2.3 million housing units; so the problem is substantial.

Few regions of the country are shielded from this mounting social and economic crisis. Yet across the country policymakers and planners have focused attention and public dollars on the development of sprawling edge cities and the redevelopment of downtown central cities. The inner-ring suburbs are caught in the middle of these two stronger development forces and political constituencies. They are the forgotten crabgrass frontier.

If we care about the future of our inner-ring middle-class suburbs, we must act now or risk even more decline. We need only remind ourselves of the history of decline in the nation’s central cities to know what’s at stake.

Three recommendations to save our suburbs:

First, we must reinvest in our inner-ring suburban communities and make them places of destination in our metropolitan regions. In Maryland, the Baltimore County Office of Community Conservation stands out as a national example of what a jurisdiction can do to reinvest in declining suburbs. The office was created in 1995 and has invested over $1 billion in a decade in its older suburban communities that has gone towards improving dilapidated housing stock and struggling commercial strips. This is the type of public commitment required to tackle suburban decline. As part of the investment in infrastructure, a vital part of US economic recovery, we need to consider the inner ring suburbs as primes candidates for major investment.

Second, regions with politically fragmented jurisdictions must find ways to cooperate with one another, or they risk even more suburban decline. The political balkanization of American local government causes suburban municipalities to compete with each another for valuable resources, public dollars, and residents. When struggling inner suburbs compete to offer substantial tax breaks to private investment it can become a zero sum game. This ultimately undermines the ability of government to tackle the problem. Through political cooperation, jurisdictions must find a way to come together and cooperate on regional issues like transportation, housing and poverty.

Third, we need to find a way to rebuild, renew and rehab the aging infrastructure and older housing stock. Congress and the new president should reconsider legislative proposals to create a federal trust fund to revitalize older suburbs.

The time is ripe to act. After the sixtieth anniversary of Levittown, let us not let the legacy of a stable, prosperous middle-class suburbia fade and die.

This piece was written with Bernadette Hanlon, a research analyst at the Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education at UMBC and Thomas J. Vicino, an assistant professor at Wheaton College. Bernadette’s book on inner ring suburbs will be published by Temple University Press. Tom is the author of the book, “The Transformation of Class and Race in Metropolitan Baltimore: Suburban Crossroads.”