Friday, April 3, 2009

End of Exurbia

For generations, we have relied on novelty to maintain our spaces, ring upon ring of development hawking the latest fad to the upper crust of society. We slowly drew people out of the hearts of cities, promising them addmittance to the middle class way of life through a change in address.

The farther from the center, the higher on the social ladder you went. In American, we can make even the stupidest ideas happen. Bring on the highways, the strip malls, the collector roads, parking lots and the cul-de-sacs. Somewhere along this line, several things began happening in concert. The lot sizes of suburbs grew so large that they lost their name and became a new place called exurbs. These places bore no sembalance of the small towns that suburbs are meant to emulate. Instead, this was the country, 100% rural.

It doesn't take a Nobel Prize to realize that the sticks are a losing proposition. The urbanization of the world will not decrease for a very simple reason, people like cities. Even in their neutered and sprawling state, urban and suburban areas run the table in attracting young people, families and the elderly. The biggest realization of the trip was this--development is war.

This type of warfare had become incredibly advanced, optimized by years of experience of study. It is a PR war, a war of public perception. It is a war of many fronts, and the exurbs presented a difficult choice for suburbs. The suburbs, which were based on the argument that away is better, had to switch gears. They were facing agressive challenges from exurbs that could hollow out their communities in the same way their own growth cased massive migration. This is what they faced, from a 2006 article:
"As far as we are concerned, this is very good news indeed," said Christine Brainerd, spokeswoman for Elk Grove's city government. "It's a sign that the development strategies the city has put in place are working and that we have become a place where many, many people want to live."

What ensued was a massive battle for public perception. Newspapers, tv shows, books, academics and magazines all weighed in. The growing forcefulness of the climate change community helped push the message. In is good. Density is good. Walking is good. Out is bad. Sprawl is bad. Driving is bad.

The exurbs ended up losing the battle, but the suburbs failed to win. It was the sleeping giant, the city, that truely took the day. This was the battle for the young. The singles or couples without children. It is this group that has been captured by cities. While cities still lose families and the elderly, they have soundly won their first battle in generations. Swayed by the argments of their own communities, suburban children abandon the "American Dream" in search of walkability, clubs and culture. Cities, for their part, must struggle not to just to keep these new residents, but to adapt in an effort to maintain them.

The next battle brews.

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