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Boomburb to boombust

The US mortgage crisis is having all sorts of spin-off effects on cities and regions, including differential growth patterns, a federal initiative to create low- to middle-income rental housing, and surging public transit rates. Currently, the long-standing tradition of booming suburbs has been turned on its head: almost half of the most rapidly-growing suburbs in the US are now losing population. Typically, this occurs in regions where the population is aging and where real estate has been the main economic generator.

Robert Lang, professor of sociology at the University of Nevada (Las Vegas) coined the term “boomburb” to describe these bedroom communities that grew rapidly as their adjacent major cities grew. But he says that the latest post-mortgage crisis trends may indicate that bedroom communities may have to become more village-like, with higher densities and clustered development, if they want to keep growing. In other words, they need to go beyond single-use residential zoning, and offer some of the mixed-use development and services that cities offer.

While the mortgage crisis is definitely the main cause of this shift, latent demand for more mixed-use, transit-oriented development, increasing concerns about climate change, and generational change are also influencing housing location and types. People’s housing preferences seem to be changing, and the mortgage crisis has increased the trend towards smaller homes, more central locations, and shorter commutes. Smaller cities (between 20,000 and 50,000) have trouble retaining college graduates during poor economic times as people move to cities for better access to job opportunities.

There is some evidence of this shift in the Vancouver region: although the outer municipalities like Port Coquitlam and Abbotsford still show growth rates higher than Vancouver, inner municipalities such as Richmond and Burnaby have seen a stabilization in rates. Richmond’s Housing Strategy notes that it has seen residents’ demands shift from larger to smaller homes, while Vancouver has approved laneway housing and secondary suites, both inherently smaller housing types, in the last few years.

Nate Berg reported on Planetizen that in the US, the largest increases in public transit commuting from 2006-2008 have been in the metropolitan statistical areas of Charlotte, NC; Detroit; Riverside, CA; Phoenix, Minneapolis, Sacramento, St. Louis, Denver, San Antonio, and Seattle. High oil prices and targeted public transit improvements are credited for the major increases in these areas. In particular, Charlotte and Minneapolis recently opened brand new commuter rail lines. In many cases, more middle-income people began commuting by transit, likely as they got rid of the second car or stopped driving it as much. It remains to be seen whether higher transit commuting levels in these areas will persist over 2009, as many American transportation authorities have had to slash budgets to cope with the recession. Still, as Berg writes, the increases “suggest the possibility of a more transit-tolerant future.”

There is a lot of variation among regions and municipalities but there seems to be a general trend towards smaller, more centrally located homes and transit access, trends that also appeared during the oil crisis of 1973-74. The late 1970s was the beginning of urban gentrification of inner city and inner-suburban neighbourhoods in many Canadian cities, as households decreased their car dependence and opted for smaller homes and properties. Suburban living ain’t cheap, especially during tough economic times. If the American trends persist, they could lead to a regrowth in small to mid-sized towns near major cities, much as one finds in England. These towns, while they have a variety of shops and services, housing types and clustered development along a main street, still retain a small-town feeling which we really haven’t managed to do well in North America. Small towns tend to stagnate as they avoid anything that might seem too urban, while cities have grown rapidly, struggling with soaring housing and service provision costs. There is a real need for this kind of in-between small to mid-sized town with a bit more of an urban feeling and zoning flexibility to achieve a more compact urban form and some economic stability.


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