This spring, as the sun reappears, we might want to reflect upon the 60th anniversary of an event that profoundly changed the face of America. That event changed how we travel, how we spend our leisure time, and how we spend our money. I might be talking here about the beginning of commercial jet travel, which did start in the spring of 1952. (Actually, commercial jet service in the U.S. did not begin until a few years later.) But nope. I’m talking about something even more dramatic in its long-lasting impact.
Almost exactly six decades ago the enclosed suburban shopping mall was invented. It was a wholly new form of development, never seen previously anytime in history. A B-list architect by the name of Victor Gruen, previously known mainly for designing retail shops and department stores, wrote a treatise on this building type. When his manifesto was published in Progressive Architecture magazine it fired up the imaginations of both developers and city officials. Since then, many hundreds of malls have been built on thousands of acres in virtually every part of the country. All of them followed Gruen’s simple but compelling model: two or three department stores anchoring the ends of parallel rows of smaller stores that face towards an interior, covered passageway.
As far back as the late 1800s, shopping galleries were built in London, Paris, Milan, and other cities. Several big cities in the U.S., such as Cleveland, even had them. But Gruen’s singularly stunning contribution was surrounding the buildings with a vast sea of surface parking. That is the template has been followed right up until today. But now we have reached the saturation point if not exceeded it.
Several of the initial large centers were built before the freeway system was complete. But along with a national network of highways, there was a perfect storm of subsidies that encouraged people to live ever further out. Vast subdivisions were fueled by cheap VA loans and the federal government allowed deduction of interest on home mortgages from income taxes. Malls were always the hallmark of the outer edge of urban areas. They were the big, beefy, armored attack vehicles driven into farmlands, forest lands, and wetlands.
Despite the factors that have long fueled this outward expansion, recent census data indicates a sharp slowdown in the growth of outer suburbs. According to AP writer Hope Yen, for the first time in decades growth in urban areas has exceeded that of exurbs. A major factor is demographic changes. Families with children are a fraction of the numbers they once were. Younger people are delaying marriage and childbirth, while older people are now choosing to live in locations that are walkable and close in to urban centers. This shift is likely to last for several decades.
Yen’s article quotes Robert Shiller, widely known for the Case-Shiller index, which carefully tracks home values and real estate trends throughout the country. “The heyday of the exurbs may well be behind us,” Schiller says. “Suburban housing prices may not recover in our lifetime.”
Yen also quotes William H. Frey, a demographer with the Brookings Institute, who analyzes census data for sweeping social changes. Frey notes that recent explosive increase in foreclosures, short sales, and personal bankruptcies “may very well put the damper on the long-held view among young families and new immigrants that building a home in the outer suburbs is a quick way to achieve the American dream.” My own research in the Seattle region has suggested a similar effect here: "Sick suburbs and expiring exurbs." The effects observed by Shiller and Frey may have been even more severely felt here, had we not had the state’s Growth Management Act, a law that has put the brakes on outward movement.
Throughout the country, edge development has slowed dramatically. In some places the slowdown preceded the recession, but the great recession has certainly hastened the slowdown. By some counts, we have a sufficient supply of single family housing stock already built to last us at least a decade.
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