Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration

Denise Spooner's picture
Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration

If you care about the suburbs — their health and future — I invite you to listen to a remakable discussion about American suburbia by some of the nation’s leading voices on suburban isssues.  It took place at a roundtable panel called “Suburban Crisis, Suburban Regeneration” on November 7, 2015, at the the recent conference of the Society for American City and Regional Planning History (SACRPH).

I put this panel together along with Andrew Wiese, professor of history at San Diego State.  Andy and I recently wrapped up work on the 2nd edition of our edited book The Suburb Reader (Routledge, forthcoming 2016).  As we were in the home stretch of that work, we hatched the idea of bringing to life some of the ideas and perspectives from our book.  We invited in a kind of “dream team” of suburban experts to discuss and debate the past, present and future of American suburbs.

This is no small matter.  Suburbia is now home to over half of Americans.  It’s crucial that we discern a map for suburbia’s future that integrates economic and social justice, sustainability,  community health, and mindfulness about the emerging needs of new suburbanites like immigrants, the elderly and poor.  We explored questions like:  is there really a suburban crisis right now, as some  claim?  is that a racist construct?  how do we work toward making metropolitan areas more equitable, successful places, that promote decent living standards and opportunities for all?  what are the crucial policy choices at hand?  as suburban demography is changing — toward much greater diversity — how should suburbs adjust to  meet the needs of these diverse residents?   are Smart Growth and social justice compatible?   This is just a start to the issues and challenges we explored, in a free-flowing conversation, full of rich insights.

Andy and I moderated the discussion, and the participants included:

You can check out the audio of the entire conversation here:


I wanted to share just the first 15 minutes of a 90-minute conversation here.  My plan is to get the whole transcript published somewhere, but for now, check this out:

Andrew Wiese: Because this is a history conference, I thought we would start with a question about the future. Does suburbia have a future? And what does that future look like?

June Williamson: Maybe I’ll jump in here, as the architect and the author of a book called Designing Suburban Futures. I take a very optimistic stance. My research as an architect and urban designer is more case-study based, so you can find specific examples of parts of the suburban landscape – dead malls, strip centers, office parks – that have been vacated… and there have been some really creative retrofitting of these places. Turning them into mixed-use new organizations from single use, only retail, only office. So that paradigm – which comes down to single-use zoning – that has led to an obsolescence or a surplus of this land, is an opportunity. We turn the negative thing into a potential positive opportunity. There are ways in which design and creative thinking about design, and capturing the intellectual capital, and focusing on the suburbs – can help create this future. We can’t not have a suburban future, because more than half of the U.S. population lives there. It’s a fantasy to think that we’re all going to somehow migrate back to the cities. We have to imagine a broader idea of what a city is, that includes suburban places. So I advocate for design. Part of the issue here is people haven’t imagined or seen – they’re beginning to see more examples – but you’ve thought the suburban landscape, it’s built that way and it’s just going to stay that way. That’s just how it is. But we see lots of selective examples where it’s been intensified, retrofitted in a way by adding new uses, making them walkable. They are little fragments, but they do demonstrate a different potential future.  And there are things we don’t know about – what’s going to happen with cars, what’s going to happen with family structures.

Andrew Highsmith: Like you said, since over half of Americans live in suburbs, it’s really remarkable that you even have to ask that question. But you do, in light of the fact that these narratives of suburban decline, or suburban death, have become so common now. They’re really almost a genre. And that’s problematic I think. It’s troubling. It’s problematic because a majority of us live in them, and because it’s a narrative that revolves too narrowly around the experiences of white people. It’s remarkable that the kind of convergence of narratives of urban decline that took shape in the 1960s and 1970s… the narratives of “urban crisis” coalesce at a moment when people of color are first gaining majorities in major cities. And now, as people of color are gaining a foothold in suburbs, we’re also being faced with this new narrative of suburban crisis and death. So it’s problematic on that level, but on a number of others as well, in particular because it circumvents the fact that now a majority of immigrants are selecting suburbs as they choose places to live. It’s troubling to me that we even have to talk about this, but I think we do, in light of this flurry of books that have trumpeted the end of suburbia.

Andrew Wiese: would you say that narrative is fundamentally a racist narrative?

Andrew Highsmith: I don’t think it’s fundamentally a racist narrative, but I think it’s been deployed that way in many instances. Some of it is also aspirational, trying to speak to a lot of the different crises that are the result of mass suburbanization — things like infrastructure, live-ability, environmental concerns. I don’t think it necessarily has to be deployed in that way, but I think the way the discourse evolves popularly lends itself to that kind of reading.

Manuel Pastor: I would say the suburbs have a future, but the future ain’t what it used to be. So we really need to re-conceptualize it. I want to say two things about that. You know the suburbs were where the American dream was born and realized. This idea of single-family homes, the working-class being able to secure a toehold in the middle-class, which is what My Blue Heavenreally is about. The idea of having some control over your destiny, good schools for your children, etc. It’s also the place where the American dream is now being shattered — through the foreclosure crisis, through degradation of the quality of life because of too much driving, because of the environmental toxics that have been left behind because so many suburbs (frankly in Los Angeles) were located proximate to industry and were built as industrial suburbs. So if we’re thinking about regaining the American dream in some sense – we can complicate that later because it was racist in its foundations as well, these suburbs – we do need to do it, not the least of which why because the suburbs are the swing districts in terms of national elections. That’s the place that’s purple. That’s the place where, if you can create a different identity, a different sense of destiny, you can actually move state politics, national politics, planning, and so much else. So they are really critical to the national future.

On the other hand, there’s really a challenge in the suburbs. Shortly after the events in Ferguson, the shooting of Michael Brown, I went to a meeting in New York about Ferguson, and I began my conversation by saying, “Well, imagine a small suburb with about 25,000 people right next to a big city, formed as part of a great industrial landscape, mostly white in its origins, having gone through dramatic demographic transformation, which now has a set of city agencies that essentially prey on their own people.” And then I stopped and said, “Of course, I’m talking about Maywood, California.” In Maywood, the city fathers/authorities began preying on the undocumented, through a series of fines, towing, etc. I think what it speaks to – and this is what is scary about this future – is that the suburbs are places where the civic infrastructure is really weak. People moved there to escape the politics of the city, and in some sense to escape civic life, at least in my view. They are places where the social services infrastructure is not ready for new immigrants, for the fact more of the nation’s poor live in the suburbs than they do in the cities now. The suburbs aren’t ready for that.

The suburbs are also a place where the community organizing infrastructure is really weak, which is how low-income communities try to find a voice and a toehold, in terms of civic life and gains in social services. That organizing infrastructure is also weak. So I think if that future of the suburbs is to be secure, some part of it is planning, physical landscape, etc., but a lot of it is going to be about community organizing, about building a social services infrastructure and building a civic infrastructure that could make them good places to live again.

Willow Lung Amam: …The suburban American dream, as Manuel was saying, was born out of the industrial city and escapism from city life. And I don’t think that kind of American dream around suburbs is still the reality of why most people are choosing suburbia, or at least the new suburbanites, why they are choosing suburbia. We need to have a more diverse conversation about what the American dream really represents, and how suburbia fits into this narrative. For many immigrants who are choosing suburbs as their first destination, that American dream looks a lot different than it did for the generation of working-class and white Americans who chose suburbs in the postwar era for very different reasons. I think there is some great research that needs to be done to really understand the complexities of the reasons why people are choosing suburbs.

I would also say that the story about Millennials not choosing suburbs is a bit overblown. Millennials are not “not choosing” suburbs. I teach undergraduate classes about cities. Most of my students who grew up in suburbs, when they tell their stories about where they want to live, they still want to live in suburbs. I don’t think that Millennials are not choosing suburbs, they are choosing different kinds of lifestyles, and suburbs are increasingly coming to adapt to the kind of preferences that we are seeing, for more walkable urban-like places that June referred to. So I don’t think the Millennial “return-to-the-city” narrative is complete in the ways in which we’re understanding a new set of values that this generation represents.

… Suburbs not only have a future here, but suburban development and suburban values are also translating overseas, so we have a transnational suburbanism that is really important to take into account in the ways in which the suburbs are growing not only internally in the US, but also abroad.

Stay tuned for more details about this excellent conversation!

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