Why the suburbs will eventually lose

An article posted yesterday in Urban Milwaukee offers a clear and convincing explanation of why the suburbs will almost certainly lose to denser cities:

Moving to the suburbs for lower taxes? Think again, says Gallagher, who predicts property taxes in suburbs are about to skyrocket. Originally suburban taxes were lower because developers put in all the roads, sewer and water lines. But as suburban infrastructure needs replacing, each street may have only a half dozen homeowners to bear the costs. A city block may have two or three times the number of homeowners to spread the costs.

A Utah suburb

A Utah suburb

Gallagher is the president of the Congress for New Urbanism, and this argument is nothing new to city-watchers. The article also makes an increasingly popular, increasingly compelling point: that suburbs can only be sustained if developers keep adding houses and it is therefore a ponzi scheme.

That makes perfect sense and I agree with it, of course, but I do think it ignores one thing: infill. In Utah, at least, our suburbs aren’t going away so I’d like to see them become more “urban” — denser, more walkable, more diverse, etc. Infill also has the potential make these low density places suddenly more economically sustainable.

There’s plenty of room for infill in our suburban neighborhoods along the Wasatch Front — we should be building homes in yards, parking lots, etc. rather than in green spaces — but it’ll be interesting to see if any of Utah’s suburbs really grasp that point in the near future.

City Creek mall

City Creek mall

The article also makes one more point that is particularly relevant to Salt Lake City:

Downtown suburban style malls all fail.” But malls aren’t doing much better even in the suburbs, he notes. The age of enclosed shopping malls with huge parking lots is dead, he contends. Norquist points to Bay Shore, which turned its back on the traditional indoor shopping mall and is thriving by recreating a main street shopping environment.

“Big department stores aren’t making a lot of money. What would be better is if downtown Milwaukee got a Target. You could probably get Wal-Mart to put a store in downtown Milwaukee.”

That the age of the mall is over seems pretty obvious, right? And yet for some reason Salt Lake City is filled with “downtown suburban style malls,” several of which are struggling. Like the suburbs themselves these places aren’t immediately going away, but in the long run they may end up being more of a burden than a blessing to the city.

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One comment

  1. Pingback: Those small Parisian streets are also cheaper | About Town

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