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There goes the neighbourhood: mortgage crisis sees suburbs slump

Dan Glaister, Guardian
… The full onset of the mortgage foreclosure crisis, coupled with demographic changes, rising fuel prices and a host of other factors means that the suburbs could be on the way out. One analyst has postulated a future in which the suburbs, which once promised so much domestic happiness, are transformed into the new slums, with rampant crime fuelled by poverty and decay. The term “slumburbia” was not far behind.

… But empty driveways and unmown lawns are the least of suburbia’s problems, according to Christopher Leinberger, an urban theorist and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC. Leinberger, who wrote an analysis of the problem in the Atlantic Monthly, argues that suburbia is doomed, condemned by the mortgage crisis and demographic change.

“For the past 50 years we’ve left the city and headed to the suburbs,” he says. “Now the pendulum is swinging back, aided by $4 per gallon gas.”

The move has also been helped by cultural and demographic changes, argues Leinberger. Couples are having children later in life, so the need for the suburban mansion with five bedrooms and a huge garden is not quite as pressing. And popular culture not only identifies suburbia as the place of dystopian nightmares, but promotes urban living as the embodiment of that most important of 21st century values: sexy fun. Potential buyers are being seduced by the concept of walkable, urban living over driveable, suburban living.

“Transport now accounts for 19% of household costs, compared to 3% a hundred years ago,” says Leinberger. “At some point this country has to get serious about reducing carbon emissions. The built environment is responsible for 72% of our carbon emissions. It’s a very significant lever that we’re going to have to pull if we’re serious about this.”

… what most alarms urban theorists is what might become of these developments once people can no longer afford to live there. Unlike the inner city that was abandoned in the latter half of the last century, it is hard to adapt suburban developments to other uses. “These spaces are custom made for residential only,” says Leinberger. “They don’t convert easily to retail or office or hotel.”
(28 April 2008)

Melbourne: A city on the edge

Royce Millar and Simon Mann, The Age
… Melbourne is supposed to be on its way out of the predicament of urban sprawl. In October 2002 then premier Steve Bracks released an “action plan” to control the city’s growth. The Melbourne 2030 blueprint was meant to make the city more compact and affordable, and less car-dependent. Its central thesis was to move from a city-centric hub-and-spoke landscape to one of a network of almost self-contained commercial and community centres. Car dependence and greenhouse emissions would be reduced through the building of stronger local economies and communities allowing Melburnians to live, work and play in their own neighbourhoods. Though how that was to be achieved was never exactly clear.

The reality has been vastly different. In the six years since the blueprint’s launch, Melbourne’s outer suburbs have expanded as fast as ever, though into designated growth corridors congregated around rail lines and freeways. More than half of Melbourne’s population growth measured by the 2006 census was in fringe municipalities. And the commuter trap remains: the West Gate Bridge is choking in part because one-in-five Werribee workers commutes to the CBD.

… Looming peak oil and plunging housing affordability are especially troubling for a sprawling, car-reliant city such as Melbourne. The city’s rail network stopped expanding with its suburbs long ago, leaving two-thirds of residents beyond its reach and creating a massive imbalance between inner and outer Melbourne.
(3 May 2008)

Cities of the Future, Today

Alex Steffen, WorldChanging
As cool as ultra high-performance green buildings are individually, the real action is all with districts. Individual buildings may blaze paths, and as we engage in acupunctural infill (changing sprawling or underused areas into walkable, compact mixed-use communities by adding new buildings and redeveloping older properties — something we’ll be writing more about soon) we’re going to need a lot of small-scale, even individual architectural solutions.

But if we want to really push the environmental performance of urban areas down to zero-impact levels, we need to think in terms of districts; we need to look at settings where a number of buildings can be built afresh or creatively re-used, and where the infrastructure and public space they share can be recreated in ways no piecemeal agglomeration of individual projects can usually match.

The ideal sites for new districts are abandoned urban and inner-ring brownfields.

… We’re going to need huge amounts of urban development in the next 20 years. The innovation challenge we face in making sure that the new cities we create in the process will be bright and green is a difficult one: these kind of innovations give me hope.
(2 May 2008)
WorldChanging has just posted another essay on urban design and architecture: Book Review: Verb Crisis.