Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Suburbs Grow Poorer around US Cities: Hard Times Are Another Argument against Urban Sprawl

Suburbs are different in Europe and North America. In the former, for the last century and a half they have been where the poor lived, chased from the center of cities by development since the days of Haussmann's reconstruction of Paris. In the latter, they became the promised land of the rising middle class. Bigger houses, better schools, greener landscapes all beckoned on the edge of cities, particularly since the advent of the automobile.

But the promised land is growing shabby in many places. This is no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention (for more, see my book The Walkable City: From Haussmann's Boulevards to Jane Jacobs' Street and Beyond.) This morning The New York Times recounts how the current Great Recession has hit formerly comfortable suburbs. More than half the poor in the US's metropolitan areas now live in suburbs. As a result, the story says, suburban municipalities "are confronting a new set of issues, namely how to help poor residents without the array of social programs that cities have, and how to get those residents to services without public transportation. Many suburbs are facing these challenges with the tightest budgets in years."

Canadian cities have not suffered as much from economic bads times, nor did the center cities become the home of the poor, but talking with young people around here, it's clear that the suburban option has many attractions. Housing prices are about half what they are in the center of Montreal for example, and if you're a man with good DIY skills you may think you'll be getting more for your money buying an older place in St. Bruno or Terrebonne or St. Eustache than if you take on a six room flat in Mile End or Villeray.

But the cost of transportation is often not considered in the equation, nor is the social isolation of living in a neighborhood where distances are too great to walk. Nor is the future cost of the infrastructure needed for growing suburbs--roads, sewers, water, schools.

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