Rethinking the Dream

The suburbs occupy a special place in American cultural mythology. They are the land of 2.5 kids and a white picket fence; well-kept houses with manicured lawns and two-car garages—not to mention the seedy, tortured underbelly of cheating spouses, rebellious teenagers, and chafing nonconformists that’s fueled a whole genre of American cinema. But a film about today’s suburbs wouldn’t necessarily be filed under Americana. Try “horror” or at least “post-apocalyptic sci-fi.”

Since the US housing market began its collapse in mid-2007, foreclosures have forced millions of people from their homes. Families leave behind neighbors, possessions, even pets in ever-growing ghost towns. Then there are the thousands of homes that were never filled in the first place: swaying high-rise towers and cookie-cutter single-family houses built for residents who never came. Nationwide, about three percent of homes sit vacant. For homes built since 2000—the beginning of the boom—the vacancy rate is nearly ten percent.

What to do with these empty spaces? And who should be in charge of doing it? The sheer scale of the task makes it a daunting problem. To try to sort it out, I talked to Allison Arieff, editor-at-large for Menlo Park-based Sunset magazine and author of the New York Times’ “By Design” blog.

Arieff has a background in architecture, and she has been keeping an eye on the American landscape for some time. Earlier this year, she wrote two long “By Design” columns surveying the state of the suburbs and contemplating their future. A solution won’t be easy to figure out, she wrote: The American suburb is not only vast and decentralized, it’s often connected only to vast and decentralized supply chains. It’s much easier to build a Wal-Mart on top of farmland than it is to tear down that Wal-Mart and put a local food source in its place, especially when the customer base has all but evaporated. “I feel really, really bad for anyone who bought a home in the first phase of a development that then didn’t continue,” Arieff tells me. “Because they’re never going to sell what they’re in, so they can’t leave, and it’s tragic.”

This is a key point: despite all the problems with the suburbs, Arieff doesn’t advocate abandoning them altogether. Her hope, she says, is that those spaces can become more livable for the people who remain there; that the foreclosure crisis, awful as it is, represents an opportunity. “I still dream that some major overhaul can occur: that a self-sufficient mixed-use neighborhood can emerge,” she wrote in one of her columns. “That three-car-garaged McMansions can be subdivided into rental units with streetfront cafés, shops, and other local businesses. In short, that creative ways are found not just to rehabilitate these homes and communities, but to keep people in them.”

Since Arieff published her musings in early 2009, things have only gotten bleaker. Is there still hope for a suburban turnaround? I spoke with Arieff in mid-October to find out.

What do you find most striking about abandoned developments?
It was pretty striking even before things started to get bad. I’ve visited a wide range of master-planned developments, mostly in Phoenix and Tampa, and I remember thinking, “God, they’re building an awful lot of these!” There were things that just intuitively made no sense. People in Phoenix telling us how much they loved their water view, but their water view was a man-made lake. It was wrong on every level. The ones I’ve visited more recently are around Merced, which I think has the highest foreclosure rate in California. And what’s amazing is just how much a lack there was of any kind of thought or planning. In some of these places, what’s as bad as the empty houses is the amount of land that was prepared for houses to be built but where no houses have gone up. It’s ravaged land. I went to developments where it was like, “We’re going to have ten thousand houses here,” and maybe two thousand were built, but they went ahead and prepared for the rest of them anyway. There are roads, maybe even signs, but no houses.

Do you have a sense of how Northern California’s suburbs compare to those elsewhere? Are we in better or worse shape than, say, Phoenix, and why?
Northern California is vast. Marin County is doing great, for example, while Modesto is falling apart. Phoenix is probably worse, though equal to the Central Valley. The potential for reuse is different here and everywhere else throughout the country. So much depends on cost of living, climate, codes, etc.

What are some of the other barriers to reuse? What would it take to repurpose the land and/or the buildings into, say, multi-unit apartments?

I’ve come across some innovative ideas but the costs are often so high so real transformation is difficult: If you build a four thousand-square-foot house that has one kitchen, turning it into apartments is not just a matter of putting on a few new doors. So not a lot of change has happened yet. But the biggest problem for the majority of the houses is that they weren’t built with the greatest materials. There’s not a lot of flexibility for repurposing when the buildings were not constructed well to begin with, or with healthy or recyclable materials. It’s not like you can repurpose vinyl siding.

In a perfect world, someone would sit down, look at the community plan, and say, “What can we do to make this more sustainable? Can we add retail, can one of those buildings be turned into a school?” It’s expensive, obviously, but it just seems like the best way to knit these communities back together instead of allowing them to fall apart.

Urban farming is an idea that’s gaining a lot of ground lately, especially in Northern California. Do you see a role for suburban farming as well?
I certainly think it’s feasible, more in some places than others. Merced, for example, was and is agricultural, so they could bring some of it back. You hear all those stories about the crisis of American farmers and farmland, so I think that that stuff should absolutely be put back. It seems to me to be sort of a great solution to employment issues as well. A lot of people would be ready for that kind of work.

But that goes to the larger idea of self-sufficiency and sustainability. If you are suburban or exurban, what are ways you can transform your neighborhood into something more walkable and self-maintaining? What services can you make more localized? I think schools and health clinics could be more localized—franchised clinics, almost like storefronts. You could just go there to pick up little things you need. Local and regional governments should be finding ways to incentivize all that kind of stuff. It’s not that there aren’t obstacles in terms of zoning, but let’s try a transitional solution—it’s not a lifetime commitment, we don’t have to do an environmental feasibility study. Let’s just try it. A colleague plays a sort of parlor game: What could we do if all impediments were lifted for six months? We’ve got to do some thinking under that paradigm and see what’s possible.

One of the great ironies seems that in order to really rehab vacant suburbs, you would need at least some people to commit to moving there, perhaps urban dwellers who are already used to making creative use of limited space. You’ve noted on your blog that there’s still a strong urban/suburban divide in this country. Do you think city dwellers would do it? Or is it a chicken-egg situation, where the urban dwellers would go to the suburbs if they were more like cities, but the only way they’re going to become more like cities is if urban dwellers migrate and transform them?

I’d hate to think it would require people from cities to move into the suburbs to do these things. I have no doubt there are suburban dwellers with innovative, transformative ideas; we don’t need to export urbanites to do it for them. I grew up in Marin County, which is a really nice suburb; I could walk to school, walk to a café. So I have little to quibble with about the design of a place like that. What I do have an issue with is something like in Phoenix where you have four man-made lakes and 30,000 houses and you have to drive an hour to get to anything. People heading for the suburbs move there thinking they’re getting certain things, and they may or may not be aware of what they’re missing.

We have to be able to illustrate the benefits of things like walkable communities, things people thought of as being important to urban neighborhoods, but left out of suburban developments. I don’t think people who live in suburbs are against those things necessarily. There’s just an extreme disconnect between perceived wants and desires and actual ones. There’s no reason to design anything that isn’t self-sustaining, walkable. I think if the developers would build them that people would start using them.

Is there a model for a rehabbed suburb?

That’s a complex question—I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. It would depend so much on, say, the proximity of that place to places of employment or a university or something. What would be the economic driver to get people to that part of town? Or is that particular community one that should be bulldozed over and made into agriculture? So much is dependent on transit systems—if you can’t get anywhere, it shouldn’t be allowed to be built. But that just hasn’t been happening in development out here. I would hope there could be little test-case communities, and that once you show something works, that could help influence further development.

It’s all tied into this notion about the American dream and what that means. Can we design multi-family homes and denser communities and still have that be an acceptable goal for American mobility? Even the most liberal people I know in San Francisco go on and on about how much they hate density. Yet there’s nothing inherently problematic about density if done right. There are ingrained cultural things about what the suburbs symbolize and what the American dream really is. How do you begin to unwind all that stuff?

Do you see any change underway?
I see sprinklings of it, but no full-scale change. Most people don’t have five minutes to think about this. When gas prices started climbing up, people started buying out of exurban communities, trying to move in closer. They realized it was too much of a tradeoff to live so far away, so they were willing to buy a condo in the city or move to something closer, something smaller. Boomers are also buying out, selling their large single-family homes and moving into smaller places for cost reasons, or quality of life, or because they’re not able to retire when they thought. Will that move end up translating into smaller homes or denser communities? It may because of economic necessity, and I hope so. But I think that it needs to be driven continuously by the economic push, much like you see with environmental issues across the board. I have no illusions that people are all of a sudden going to be more virtuous. But that’s okay because what I have seen a lot are examples of individuals really making unique and often old-fashioned efforts at community-building within old neighborhoods—babysitter-sharing, food-sharing. I think more and more of those sorts of things are happening, and that’s the kind of thing where a deeply hard-hit community that’s not totally empty but has people left—those people could start to find their way to those solutions.

I’m wondering if you could talk a little more about the economics of trying to change land use. It’s hard to see how big corporations would be motivated to rehab houses/lots into denser or multi-use spaces.

Agreed. I can’t say I have the answer, but we can’t continue on this track. We seem poised for a second housing crash right now. How to stop it? Can we convert these homes to rentals? To housing for workers so they can live close to their employers? University housing? Senior facilities? Can we initiate temporary tax incentives toward restoring this land to parkland or to agricultural use? There is no one simple answer. Of course any transformation is expensive. But equally, if not more expensive, is keeping a lot of empty, unmaintained homes and simply doing nothing.

Will leadership on this issue come from the top or the bottom? Does government have a role?
I think it’s far more likely that change will come from individuals and small groups. No solution is going to work nationwide. Smaller, context-specific interventions seem to have the best chance right now. No one has the money to do a sort of New Deal type transformation of everything; the states are just all too strapped. So I don’t see a lot of top-down initiatives like that happening. Not that there aren’t any, but ones that are succeeding start at the other end. Those ground-up efforts are going to be the most successful and will, I believe, lead, rather than follow, national, federal, or local ones. Community initiatives are great, but it takes money to tear down developments, convert McMansions into multifamily units, create a transit network, etc. Without capital to change them, are the suburbs due to rot? Those things do require tons of money and tons of concentrated thought and planning. But I think you can also create a kind of micro-economy. I would love to think that remaining neighbors in hard-hit communities could be resourceful and say, “Right now we’re all driving to Wal-Mart in separate cars. Instead, let’s start a food-buying program, let’s have a clothing swap. Let’s start with small things and start saving people money that way.” I keep discovering new sites, initiatives, programs that aim to create and foster community: things like,, the Star Community Index (, that head things in the right direction. Obviously, the impact, if things revert to the old ways, is devastating. More waste, more environmental disintegration, and honestly, a real lack of hope for any real change.

Are you an optimist or a pessimist?
Depends on the day. I sincerely hope people won’t go back to the way things were. Unfortunately, history suggests they will. Remember the ‘80s and all that excess? Clearly no lessons were learned there.

I go to housing conferences sometimes, and I’m like, “Oh my God! People aren’t paying attention!” I went to a shopping mall conference, and I just couldn’t believe it. Everybody there really thought that everything would come back to exactly how it was, and they just kind of needed to wait it out. No one was really rethinking their 400,000 square feet of retail palace. It doesn’t all have to change completely, but I don’t think that’s a viable model. It is unnerving when people insist on doing things the way they’ve been doing them despite clear evidence that change is necessary. I think that happens a lot with the housing industry also. They think, “We’re good at what we do, we can continue to do it, this is just a cycle.” So that’s when I feel quite negative.

Then again, I think if you can turn an old Wal-Mart into a church, not all is lost.

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