Monday, June 23, 2014

Philadelphia's Growth and the Fate of Our Suburbs

Brookings Institution's William Frey recently collated census data to compare the growth of the country's 51 largest metropolitan areas, and Philadelphia is one of the 19 areas in which the city is growing faster than the suburbs.

So what, right?

Well for decades Philadelphia's population was declining. What was at one time the second largest city in the British Empire, a city that rose to more than two million residents in 1960, lost almost half a million residents in the second half of the twentieth century. That's roughly the population of Atlanta, and we've only recently begun to recover.

But what's even more astonishing than this recovery is that our urban growth is exceeding suburban growth. Cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. are experiencing the same phenomenon, but it's expected in metropolitan areas that span so far. Philadelphia is dense, even in our suburbs. 

While many in newer cities may be discovering the cities to escape a three hour commute, it seems that those in our region are returning to Philadelphia simply because they want to be here.

And why wouldn't they?
If the trend continues it might call into question the long term fate of suburbia nationwide. Most suburban areas continue to grow, some more modestly than others. But the suburban ideal is not a sustainable one. The fact that cities across the country have begun to rebound proves that even aging urban landscapes were built to last.

Densely packed neighborhoods trade publicly maintained freeways, roads, and unused green space for an infrastructure largely maintained by tenants. Walkability eases the strain on public resources. 

New Jersey, a state that has completely neglected its true urban cores, is learning this the hard way. Suburban areas benefit from an urban hub, but most efficiently when they share state taxes. Cities on the other hand are relying less and less on the suburbs. If high fuel costs drive a new flight back to the cities and the suburbs begin to struggle, poorly constructed McManions will begin to deteriorate leaving even broader gaps between residents than already exist. 

That's not pretty. Ask Phoenix.

Dead before it was finished
The lifespan of the suburban dream may have been built to fail. The first Levittowns were erected as a reactionary approach to urban ills that are vanishing, not as proactive planning. Cities have existed since the dawn of civilization and our need for dense community is a baser instinct. Compared to a trend that isn't even one century old, suburbs could easily become irrelevant.

We might not see it in this decade or even the next, but considering the effects of urban flight on our cities in the 60s and 70s, it's easy to imagine the flip side of scenarios found in dystopic thrillers like Soylent Green, Escape from New York, and Bladerunner. One where the cities aren't fortressed havens for crime, but where cities are fortressed from the crime that has retreated outside our city walls.

No comments:

Post a Comment