William H. Lucy, David L. Phillips. Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs. Chicago: Planners Press, 2006. xxi + 354 pp. $55.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-932364-14-9.
Reviewed by Jon Teaford (Department of History, Purdue University)
Published on H-Urban (August, 2006)
The Fate of Suburbia
Suburbanization dominated settlement patterns in the twentieth century with millions of Americans opting out of the central cities for life on the fringe. In Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs, planners William Lucy and David Phillips argue that the course of American metropolitan history may be reversing as central cities are reviving and many suburbs, especially those with middle-aged housing built from 1945 to 1970, are sinking into obsolescence and decay. This is a theme Lucy and Phillips have already presented in Confronting Suburban Decline, published in 2000, but here they expand on the topic with emphasis on the vulnerability of aging postwar communities. They base their analysis on 2000 census data; the book is primarily an examination of this data. Anyone seeking revealing anecdotes or insightful observations from suburban residents should look elsewhere. The mission of Lucy and Phillips is to tell the reader what the federal census of 2000 reveals.
In judging the fortunes of cities and suburbs, Lucy and Phillips rely heavily on relative median income data. In other words, they focus on how the median income of the city or suburb stands in relation to the median income of the metropolitan area as a whole. They find that the fate of many central cities is not as gloomy as in the past, whereas many suburbs are falling in their relative income position. More specifically, they find that in both central cities and suburbs census tracts containing traditional neighborhoods with pre-1940 housing are improving in relative median income status, whereas the most serious slippage is in suburbs with housing built primarily from 1945 to 1970. The small houses built during this era were not as desirable to home buyers in the 1990s and thus these areas declined in status. Lucy and Phillips claim to have found a surprising degree of suburban decline that poses a major problem for the future.
Lucy and Phillips have no love for suburbia, and they proceed to discuss certain myths about the advantages of suburban life. If Americans in the future would become aware of these myths, the relative fortunes of the central cities might improve even further. Lucy and Phillips first dispel the cul-de-sac safety myth, claiming that residing on a cul-de-sac does not ensure a longer lifespan. Cul-de-sac residents must drive more with a resulting increase in injuries from traffic accidents. Unable to walk to destinations because their streets are not connected in a grid pattern, cul-de-sac dwellers are doomed to auto dependency and the obesity and hypertension that supposedly results.
Lucy and Phillips also attack the claim of exurban safety. Though fringe areas have lower homicide rates, they have higher rates of traffic fatalities. Overall, they are more dangerous places in which to live. Actually the places Lucy and Phillips deem as exurban were largely rural in the 1990s and were characterized by high-speed roads rather than suburban streets. The data presented by Lucy and Phillips demonstrate that truly suburban areas, such as Fairfax County or Falls Church in northern Virginia or even the emerging suburban counties of Loudoun and Prince William, had considerably lower combined homicide/traffic fatality rates than the central city of Washington, D.C. This also proves true of suburbs throughout the nation.
Reinforcing their portrait of a gloomy future for middle-aged suburbia, Lucy and Phillips discuss the problems associated with adapting smaller houses to present needs and the dismal fate of many areas developed in the 1950s and 1960s. They examine specifically Henrico County, Virginia, outside of Richmond, an area they believe is on the skids. They contend that the challenges to expanding and extensively updating 1950s and 1960s homes are daunting. According to Lucy and Phillips, financing obstacles and problems arising from zoning and building codes are likely to thwart adaptation.
Lucy and Phillips conclude that "the days of lamentation for central cities are not over, but signs of hope have emerged and some progress has occurred in some cities." Yet "the days of lamenting conditions in suburbs have begun" (pp. 335-336). Thus they posit a prospective reversal of fortunes that should boost the spirits of the many academics who have perennially denigrated suburbia and have lauded the virtues of the urban hub. In fact, their findings are very much in line with the planning notions currently advocated by the American Planning Association, the publisher of the volume. The prevailing planning dogma of the early twenty-first century is anti-sprawl, anti-suburban tract housing typical of the postwar era, anti-cul-de-sacs, anti-automobile, and pro-traditional neighborhoods of the pre-1940 era such as exist in older suburbs and central cities. Devotees of smart growth and foes of suburban sprawl will take heart from the work of Lucy and Phillips. Using mounds of data, they demonstrate that the prevailing planning notions are seemingly right on track.
Yet Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs could have benefited from a stronger awareness of the nature of yesterday's suburbs. Lucy and Phillips embrace the myth of stereotypical middle-class suburbia, regarding the suburban past as homogeneous and prosperous. They correctly note that suburbia is growing more diverse ethnically and economically, yet they fail to adequately emphasize that there has always been a diverse range of suburbs. Throughout the twentieth century there were working-class suburbs as well as middle-class and wealthy suburbs. And the laments for suburbs have not just begun. Lamentations have been heard in every decade. In the 1920s, Chicago's largest suburbs included working-class, immigrant Cicero, notorious as the headquarters of Al Capone, as well as teetotaling, genteel Evanston. If one wanted alcohol, prostitutes, and gambling, one headed to suburban roadhouses in outlying jurisdictions where mobsters had paid off local authorities. Likewise, in the Detroit area, the corrupt Polish suburb of Hamtramck was a slum and moral disgrace in the eyes of more affluent Motor City residents who lamented its existence. In the postwar period, there has been a long list of laments regarding the fate of such older industrial suburbs as Camden, New Jersey, and East Saint Louis, Illinois. Many of the suburbs that Lucy and Phillips identify as deeply distressed have been so for decades, and many were never more than working-class settlements that failed to approximate the middle-class ideal.
Given the dominance of suburbia today, it is not surprising that Lucy and Phillips should find it growing even more diverse with large swaths of territory inhabited by residents with below median incomes. As metropolitan areas become almost wholly suburban, the suburban median inevitably approaches the metropolitan median. For example, in the Atlanta metropolitan area suburbs house 91 percent of the population; metropolitan Atlanta and suburban Atlanta are virtually synonymous. As the metropolitan area has grown overwhelmingly suburban, it is no surprise that the suburbs have increasingly come to approximate the metropolitan norm in diversity and that a number of suburban communities fall below the regional median. In the twentieth century, suburbia included diverse types of communities. In the twenty-first century, suburbia has become the metropolitan norm with all the problems and the diversity of the metropolitan whole.
Whether impending decay is the fate of small-house suburbs built from 1945 to 1970, however, is questionable. Lucy and Phillips repeatedly cite the considerable obstacles to expanding and adapting small, older homes and dooming them to obsolescence. Yet they ignore the fact that such expansion and adaptation is commonplace. Home improvements are such a national pastime that an entire cable television channel is devoted to adapting and upgrading houses, and home improvement stores are among the most successful big box retailers. The Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University has found that each year from 1985 through 1999 "about one million homeowners spent more than $10,000 on a major kitchen or bathroom remodel, an addition, or other major interior alteration. This means that in any given year about 1.5 percent of all owner-occupied units undergo significant modification--about the same share added to stock each year by new construction." Over this period, 19.2 percent of owner-occupied homes added bathrooms, 14.6 percent added bedrooms, and 24.5 percent added other rooms. Moreover, the Center reported that annual spending on improvements reached its highest level for middle-aged dwellings that were twenty-five to twenty-nine years old, the very dwellings that Americans were supposedly eschewing because of the daunting obstacles to adaptation. Americans are not finding the shortcomings of middle-aged homes insuperable; instead, they are spending billions of dollars each year to bring these homes up to date.
This is evident in the stereotypical postwar small-house subdivision of Levittown, New York. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, when its myriad inexpensive look-alike houses were rising from Long Island potato fields, planners and urban commentators lamented the creation of what they deemed a slum of the near future. Yet Levittowners invested their savings in expanding and adapting their homes. Though the original houses had only 4 rooms, by the 1960 census the median house size was 5.6 rooms, and according to the 2000 census the median was up to 6.6 rooms. In the latter year, 26.2 percent of the houses, 91.1 percent of which were built from 1940 to 1959, had 8 rooms or more. Moreover, Levittown houses have retained their value relative to the metropolitan median. In 1960, the Levittown median owner-occupied home value was 79.1 percent of the metropolitan figure; in 2000 it was 93.4 percent of the metropolitan area median.
In other words, one can place too much emphasis on the original size of a home or when it was built as factors in the relative income decline of a neighborhood. There are many other possible factors influencing the fate of communities that might be difficult to perceive from census data. Lucy and Phillips reinforce the common perception that many older central-city neighborhoods are becoming more attractive to some upper-middle-class Americans. And they bring attention to the long-standing fact that some suburbs are considerably poorer than others. Yet further work and a closer examination of local factors are needed to understand why some neighborhoods attract reinvestment and others do not.
. Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, Remodeling Homes for Changing Households (Cambridge, Mass.: Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University, 2001), pp. 3-4.
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Jon Teaford. Review of Lucy, William H.; Phillips, David L., Tomorrow's Cities, Tomorrow's Suburbs.
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