‘Is America’s suburban dream collapsing into a nightmare?’

The above is the provocative headline on a story on cnn.com. After some description of the foreclosures in suburbia, the story focuses on the shifting attitudes of homeowners.

“The American dream is absolutely changing,” (Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution,) told CNN.

This change can be witnessed in places like Atlanta, Georgia, Detroit, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, said Leinberger, where once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

The so-called New Urbanism movement emerged in the mid-90s and has been steadily gaining momentum, especially with rising energy costs, environmental concerns and health problems associated with what Leinberger calls “drivable suburbanism” — a low-density built environment plan that emerged around the end of the World War II and has been the dominant design in the U.S. ever since.

We don’t want to wish ill on the suburban dweller, but times may get tougher out there before they get better.

Read the whole story here.

— photo by respres on Flickr

What does it cost to live in your neighborhood?

The Spaulding brothers do a great service by pointing us to the Housing and Transportation Affordability Index, which shows the affordability of your Fort Wayne neighborhood based on housing and transportation costs. As you can guess, everything’s cheaper the closer you get to the core of the city.

As the Spauldings say over on their Web site, be sure to click the Advanced link for more data.

And you can go to the home page and examine the other metro areas the index covers. Chicago is among those included, but not Indianapolis.

Traditional neighborhoods and modern architecture

Scott Greider, over on his personal blog, quotes a portion of the San Jose historic design guidelines that addresses the role of modern architecture in older neighborhoods. (If you’re adventurous, you can download the entire 95-page PDF.)

What does San Jose say? It says, “Bring it on”:

Rather than imitating older buildings, a new design should relate to the traditional design characteristics of a neighborhood while also conveying the stylistic trends of today. New construction may do so by drawing upon some basic building features — such as the way in which a building is located on its site, the manner in which it relates to the street and its basic mass, form and materials — rather than applying detailing which may or may not have been historically appropriate. When these design variables are arranged in a new building to be similar to those seen traditionally in the area, visual compatibility results. Therefore, it is possible to be compatible with the historic context while also producing a design that is distinguishable as being newer.

A modern-style home can be a wonderfully contrasting complement to a historic neighborhood. It certainly beats decay and vacant lots, and it also beats a hundred suburban neo-Colonials with three-car garages in front.

I can’t say the modern home above is my style, but frankly, plenty of older, classical homes aren’t my style, either.

The style of the structure is not the main point. Urbanism is site plan more than architecture. If you bring the house close to the sidewalk, put the parking or garage in the back and make the front wall permeable (that is, not a blank wall), you are strengthening a neighborhood, no matter the style of architecture.

— photo of modern townhouse in Lincoln Park, Ill., by Scott Greider on Flickr

Suburbia: The next slum?

Next American City points us toward a sobering article in The Atlantic about the effects of the subprime crisis on the nation’s suburbs. “The Next Slum?” says these changes “may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements.”

Here are some highlights:

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

(Arthur C.) Nelson (director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech) forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025 — that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.

If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big advantages — better schools and safer communities — have eroded. Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax base — often highly dependent on house values and new development — deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.

The experience of cities during the 1950s through the ’80s suggests that the fate of many single-family homes on the metropolitan fringes will be resale, at rock-bottom prices, to lower-income families — and in all likelihood, eventual conversion to apartments.

As the residents of inner-city neighborhoods did before them, suburban homeowners will surely try to prevent the division of neighborhood houses into rental units, which would herald the arrival of the poor. And many will likely succeed, for a time. But eventually, the owners of these fringe houses will have to sell to someone, and they’re not likely to find many buyers; offers from would-be landlords will start to look better, and neighborhood restrictions will relax. Stopping a fundamental market shift by legislation or regulation is generally impossible.

Will this happen in Fort Wayne’s suburbs? It’s certainly possible. Is there any reason that the same forces that brought crime and abandoned houses to the inner cities would be stopped at the city limits? Indiana currently has the ninth highest foreclosure rate in the nation.

There should be no gloating on the part of urban advocates. This is a serious situation that will impact real families who thought they had escaped the negative effects of city living. It will be quite a shock if they discover they were wrong.

Related: Check foreclosures in your own neighborhood at RealtyTrac.

— Photo of Las Vegas suburb by Rich Lem on Flickr

Must New Urbanism look old?

Neal makes a valid point regarding my post, “New Urbanism blooming in Bloomington”:

A neat development in a neat town, but the main problem is that the new houses are old-fashioned looking. What part of “New Urbanism” says it has to look like the thirties?

I know the looks are a response to what suburban building looks like currently, but there is another direction you can take this in — new designs. I would be a lot more attracted to something more fresh looking.

Here’s some housing that’s definitely “fresh,” from useful + agreeable magazine:

uahouse1.jpg

But maybe an architect friend or two can point out some other modern designs that would work in an older neighborhood?