Is America's love affair with the "exburbs" over?

GAINESVILLE, Virginia (Reuters) - Jean Bell didn’t plan to take care of her neighbor’s lawn when she moved to this cluster of brick townhouses hard by the freeway.

But the house next door has sat vacant for the past year and a half, and the bank that owned it wasn’t keeping it up. So the retiree and her family have mowed and watered the grass to deter the burglars who have hit nearby developments.

“We all have to watch each other’s homes because we don’t want the property values to go down any more,” Bell says. “It’s scary, and I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Thirty-five miles from downtown Washington, it’s easy to find signs that America’s relentless suburban expansion may have petered out.

Raw earth and blank concrete pads mark house lots that have sat unsold for three years.

Streets remain incompletely paved and poorly lit, the legacy of a builder that declared bankruptcy.

And transient renters have replaced homeowners who were forced out by the foreclosure crisis.

Is America’s love affair with suburbia over?

Though the recession has left few areas of the United States unscathed, the sprawling neighborhoods out on the far edges of the United States’ metropolitan areas have been especially hard-hit. Property values are falling, crime is rising, and the roads remain as congested as ever.

Some planners say the hard times are spurring a long-term shift away from the car-centric sprawl that has defined increasing swaths of the landscape since World War Two.

Rising prices for transportation and home heating, the declining number of two-parent households with children and a growing disillusionment with long commutes will prompt more Americans to choose smaller housing within walking distance of shops and mass transit, they say.

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In this scenario, some of today’s developments intended for aspiring middle-class families could become tomorrow’s slums, warehousing those who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

“What we’re already seeing is these new, very cheaply made suburbs showing how little resilience they have to economic fluctuations. I see them becoming not only more desperate, I see them becoming potentially nonviable,” says Jeff Speck, an urban planner and co-author of “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.”

In the Washington region, real-estate agents say many of those who can afford it are choosing smaller houses closer to their jobs.


Nationwide, fewer people are moving to the outer suburbs. The growth rate in outer-suburban counties plunged to 1.6 percent in the year ended July 2008, down from 2.3 percent two years earlier, according to an analysis of Census Bureau data by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey.

A recent survey by the National Association of Realtors found twice as much support for building mass transit as for building roads. More than half of those surveyed said growth should be limited in outlying areas and encouraged in already developed areas.

“There is an increased interest in people living closer to their work, living in more complete neighborhoods, and living near transit,” says Joe Molinaro, who manages the trade group’s smart-growth program.

One of the key advantages of the suburbs -- their affordability -- is eroding as well. A recent Brookings study of the Washington region found that transportation costs eclipse any housing savings for those who live more than 15 miles from work.

Governments are also reassessing policies that encourage sprawl. Developers in Virginia now must build roads through their subdivisions, in a blow to the traditional cul-de-sac architecture that has been a staple of the suburban style.

Many older suburbs are converting their office parks and shopping malls into more pedestrian-friendly development.

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The enclosed shopping mall may become a relic of the past. While an average of 19 new malls per year were built in the United States during the 1990s, not a single new mall has been built in the last two years, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, the director of Georgia Tech’s architecture department.

Existing malls, meanwhile, are being converted to schools, medical clinics, artists’ studios and open-air “town centers” that resemble traditional shopping districts.

“I don’t think there’s as much will to build in distant suburbs as there was a generation ago,” said Robert Lang, a director at Virginia Tech’s Metropolitan Institute. “I think it’s not as fashionable.”

Lang cautions that suburban development has been declared dead many times in the past, only to expand further with advances in transportation. Future developments like electric cars could lead to a new wave of sprawl, he says.

The fading appeal of the suburbs is reflected in the Washington region’s housing market, where home values increased 8 percent during 2008 in the city even as they fell 8 percent in the surrounding counties in Maryland and Virginia.

Suburban Prince William county, home to Bell’s ailing subdivision, saw a 23 percent decline, steepest in the region.


With tax revenues down, the county government plans to cut police and fire services and suspend road construction. School class sizes will increase.

Property crimes edged up in 2008 after years of steady decline as burglars stripped valuables from vacant houses.

And to top it off, Forbes magazine said residents of the county’s Linton Hall neighborhood had an average commute of 46 minutes, the nation’s longest.

In an unfinished subdivision off Linton Hall Road, the county’s top elected official says the region must attract more jobs and move toward denser, more pedestrian-friendly development.

But that doesn’t spell the end of McMansions, cul-de-sacs and other suburban staples, Corey Stewart says. “What you see in Prince William County is not a model that is going away. People really do still prefer the large home with the large lot.”

Stewart points out that home sales have doubled in the county over the past year thanks to the rock-bottom prices.

But the county is bracing for more foreclosures as a second wave of adjustable-rate mortgages is scheduled to reset starting in 2010. More trouble is on the horizon.

Editing by Alan Elsner