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The Next Slums

March 25, 2008 Books, Suburban Sprawl 21 Comments

A reader sent me an excellent article that I want to share.  The basic premise is that due to a number of factors the subdivisions with single family home may well become the next slums:

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay. 

Read the full article


Currently there are "21 comments" on this Article:

  1. Nick Kasoff says:

    Fascinating article, but false premises result in incorrect conclusions.
    1. Suburban slums already exist. This article claims that suburban slums will result from a move toward urban living. But in fact, middle class suburban neighborhoods were already turning to slums, long before the urban upswing. If anyone needs an illustration of this, take 70 west to 79, in St. Peters. Head south a few blocks, past the new Dierberg’s, and turn right on Four Winds Drive. When you’ve seen enough of that nabe, go a little further south on 79, turn left on Laurelwood, and take it down until it turns into West Sunny Hill Boulevard. These homes were built in the 70s and early 80s, and are just plain garbage.
    2. Technology will help. It is impossible to serve these suburbs with any form of transit. But automobile technology will continue to provide better mileage, as it has over the past decades. And as heating costs go up, more people will buy new windows, insulation, and 90% efficient furnaces. Ultimately, since the desires which created the suburbs won’t disappear, neither will the suburbs.
    3. New uses aren’t all bad. The idea that larger suburban homes will be transformed into apartments is not just unlikely, it’s impossible. They just aren’t designed that way. But there are other uses, should the need arise. For example, a six bedroom home could be inhabited by two retired couples, who would share the expenses and maintenance – and who might even have another home in another part of the country which they also share. With a little work, the six bedroom home could have two master bedrooms, a couple of offices, and a floor plan that allows for both private areas and common uses. While even this use would require some changes in occupancy codes, it is a far cry from converting a six bedroom house to three one bedroom apartments inhabited by poor people.
    4. You can regulate and manage. Anyone who doubts this need only compare Ferguson to unincorporated areas to its east. With a few exceptions, even the most modest Ferguson nabes are safe and well maintained. The unincorporated areas are war zones. The difference? Local government. Ferguson has an excellent one, the unincorporated areas have none.
    I agree with the author’s conclusion that the future will bring “more of a balance between walkable and drivable communities.” But with a population that has grown from 180 million in 1960 to nearly 304 million today, that doesn’t mean abandoned suburbs transformed into slums. It could also mean suburbs that live out their natural lifespan (those 60s tract homes weren’t made to last forever), while both suburbs and walkable urban areas continue to grow and improve. This won’t be as satisfying to the suburb haters – and, by the way, I’m one of them – but it will be better for our country.

  2. Jim Zavist says:

    Locally, the logic in the article faces three major obstacles, perceptions, personal budgets and employment opportunities . Until the negative perceptions about SLPS and crime in St. Louis change, significantly, suburban areas with their “better” school systems will continue to draw families with school-age children out of the city, even if it means putting up with the negatives suburbia brings. The same goes for crime – having a running gun battle on I-70 doesn’t encourage anyone to move here. Similarly, driving to find affordability is an old real estate axiom – people move to the O’Fallons of the world because they get bigger yard and a bigger house than they can for the same money in Clayton or Kirkwood or Webster Groves. For many people that IS important, more important than higher-quality construction or an established neighborhood.
    The assumption that living in the suburbs equals a longer commute is also becoming less and less true. As we spread out, yes, people are driving further, but that also includes many Washington Avenue loft dwellers who commute to their jobs in the ‘burbs. The corollary to residential sprawl is how employment centers have sprawled out as well, everything from the auto plants to Mastercard to A-B’s back-office operations to Monsanto to hospitals and shopping. Neither trend is conducive to public transit, but it’s the reality we live in. Gravois Bluffs probably generates more in sales taxes than retail sales now do in downtown St. Louis or downtown Clayton (with the possible exception of restaurant sales). And until the suburbs, both their elected officials and their residents, embrace the concept that density is the solution, not the “problem”, we’re cursed to see more of the same!
    I expect the Maplewoods and the Kirkwoods of the world to remain viable and attractive. I also have serious doubts about the sustainability of the latest retail fad, suburban lifestyle centers that can command a significant premium for their residential components (Belmar, in the article). Twenty years from now, when the Ann Taylors and the Banana Republics have moved out and been replaced by more mundane tenants (or are seeing 20%-30% vacancy rates), will the premium still be there? Or will these just be more 20-year-old condos that are the first to feel the impacts of any real estate downturn? Walkability is good only as long as there’s somthing you want to walk to and you feel safe doing so – walking for the sake of walking is possible anywhere, including the world of cul-de-sacs. Places like Maplewood and Kirkwood and many neighborhoods in the city “get it” – as long as the retail district remains viable and attractive, the larger residential neighborhood will remain desirable. Lose the retail, which is happening in these suburban slums, and the domino effect follows . . .

  3. john says:

    One trend is well established, the costs of supplying energy are rising rapidly as we now have to compete for what we once controlled. Add in the unfunded costs of government promises and the political battles to come may make the Civil War look rather civil.

  4. kyle says:

    A great analysis of this article was done by David Smith on his blog…

  5. john says:

    Perhaps Leinberger may want to include BPVs in that group of tomorrow’s tenements. Or for that matter, any area that is politically divided, auto and tax rebate dependent.

  6. Jason says:

    The reason that the Kirkwoods, Maplewoods, Richond Heights, Ladues, and Claytons have done so well in this region is the very fact that they are close to the city without being in the city. They can take advantage of all the city has to offer, but still go home to their place in the county every night and not worry about the bad school system or the perceived crime. The slums the article is talking about would be people in O Fallon, St. Charles, and further that don’t have the luxury of having a large business center and cultural hub nearby. Even then however, I feel it will be interesting to see how telecommuting and small entrepreneurs help these areas since a centralized business hub is not as necessary today as it used to be back in the 50’s. Many large companies are also placing their headquarters closer to these areas which helps diversify the concentration of large businesses. Ultimately people will work closer to home, or move their home closer to work, no matter where “work” is and no article can predict that.


  7. LisaS says:

    I remember living in Europe, how stunned I was that the suburbs were the slums. Growing up here, I always assumed that people with money naturally moved as far away from everyone else as possible.
    I’ve been reading articles like this since the early ’90’s, but have yet to see any semblance of it materialize. Perhaps energy concerns will eventually force some consolidation, but I often wonder if we’ve decentralized so far now that we can’t go back.

  8. Nick Kasoff says:

    On the contrary, Jason, proximity to the city has absolutely no bearing on the success of “the Kirkwoods” et al. Downtown Kirkwood is nearly eleven miles from 40 at Kingshighway, while Country Club Hills is less than six miles away – and just across the street from a country club, to boot.
    In fact, the reasons for success in some communities and failure in others are much more complicated than being able to “take advantage of all the city has to offer.” You can’t even say that “dense, walkable communities” fare better over time – Country Club Hills is a dense, walkable community with excellent transit service, while Ladue residents are as dependent on their cars as anybody in O’Fallon.
    My observation is that is is, primarily, a matter of the quality of housing. You can even see this within fairly homogeneous communities. In Jennings, many of the streets around Hord have high quality homes that have stood up very well over time. But the southeastern corner of the city has very small homes that were built to much lower standards – according to one authority on the city, many were even built with used lumber. These homes have substantially deteriorated, and that area has become the “slum of Jennings” while other neighborhoods have fared much better. The same is also true here in Ferguson: southwestern Ferguson looks like Wellston, while most of the rest of town looks like Kirkwood.

  9. studs lonigan says:

    What about the Hill? Many of the very modest shotgun homes there were built with scrap lumber from the 1904 Fair, yet you would hard pressed to find a more historically stable, cohesive, truly functional urban neighborhood in St. Louis. Maybe it’s an exception, like the handful of neighborhoods known as “Dogtown”. Now, of course, those areas have been “discovered” and are heading down a new path of expensive in-fill housing and gentrification. Such “discovery” has been the death of little Italy districts and special neighborhoods elsewhere. I hope that doesn’t happen here.

    Overall, I strongly agree that the materials and quality of the buildings are ultimately the most substantial saving graces. The structures need not be mansions or otherwise grandiose, but materials and craftsmanship can aid survival. Poet Gregory Corso said, “The makers and lovers of beauty save it”, though he wasn’t talking about neighborhoods or buildings.

  10. john w. says:


  11. Dennis says:

    Nick, I have to disagree with you on the matter or housing quality. I know of a couple different neighborhoods in the city that were built during the post-wwar II housing boom and were considered pretty cheap quality at the time. Plywood interior walls. I believe they were called Gunnison homes? I’m not sure. Many of them were built in the south city area located south of Fyler between Brannon and Macklind. Another area with some of the same type houses is north of Loughborough and west of Morganford. They are all frame houses, rather small, just two bedrooms, but most all of them are still in excellent shape today. “Pride of ownership shows here!” is the type of thing you read in a real estate ad. I think its more a matter of what kind of people live in a neighborhood that make it or break it. Not the quality of construction.

  12. Chris says:

    Getting into this discussion a little late….Having lived in DC, I have seen this phenomenon already happen; it seems like neighborhoods have moments of truth every 40-50 years. Do the people who grew up there stay, or do they move on? We are seeing that in the inner ring of suburbs in St. Louis; places like Maplewood, Brentwood and Rock Hill are reviving (albeit not in the way that many of us would like them to from an urbanist standpoint) while other suburbs such as Wellston, Kinloch and Ferguson are seeing the social ills of the urban core come to their communities.

  13. jd says:

    Stlouis and surrounding area,s are slums this place is dirty.
    st louis is a town trying to be a city its rediculous with 70% african american its not very diverse there isnt one thing i could say good about this place from st charles to the joke of a state illinois even worse

  14. john w. says:

    jd must watch a lot of Fox News Channel.

  15. Mike says:

    Just a note on Dogtown- for every high priced infill teardown, there are 8 to 10 attractive, affordable, and well maintained homes that will most likely never be torn down. Rest assured, Dogtown will maintain its friendly, blue collar feel.

    Mike G.

  16. thoughts from south grand says:

    jd what do we know that you don’t

  17. thoughts from south grand says:

    or don,t to you

  18. Jim Zavist says:

    A couple more Denver observations: http://www.rockymountainnews.com/news/2008/apr/29/zoning-changes-sharpen-citys-development-goals/ and http://slideshow.westword.com/index.php?gallery=61173&type=1&page=0 Bottom line, it takes both commitment and time to change the way any city embraces change. When the economy is booming, the challenges are different than those we face here, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t push for better design and better quality. It’s way too easy fall for the argument that anything is better than nothing . . .

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