Allison Arieff has sparked considerable discussion and debate with her two latest blog posts—What Will Save the Suburbs? and a part-two follow up piece in response to the comments generated.
At issue is what to do with swaths of suburban/exurban land cleared for development during the housing boom, now sitting empty or only partially built. Proposed solutions range from bulldozing the sites and allowing nature to take over, to repurposing structures for alternate uses (schools or low-income housing, for example), to doing nothing at all and simply letting the market return (eventually) on its own.
Wherever you fall on the spectrum, two things strike me as particularly noteworthy.
1. The issue is generating a lot of discussion—Allison tells me these posts elicited three times the usual volume of response.
2. The tone of the discussion is frequently—and distressingly, although not altogether surprisingly—acrimonious. There is more than a geographical divide between urban and suburban dwellers, and the snarkiness flows in both directions. (Full disclosure: some of the sniping comes from within my own organization, where one colleague dismissed Allison’s posts as examples of elitist condescension.)
If you tune out the rancor, however, moderate voices offer some genuinely helpful (and hopeful) solutions. Many of the comments, for example, focused on zoning changes that would allow for a mix of uses—making it possible to establish home-based businesses in a residential area.
One reader writes: “Allowing suburban homeowners to add certain business uses to their property would change the suburbs profoundly. Suddenly, your subdivision might have a coffee shop or a day care in what was formerly a McMansion, which the subdivision residents could walk to.”
On a larger scale, others advocate the need for long-term, integrated solutions that will help connect urban cores with “edge” development, making the edges less of a bedroom community and more of an organic extension by incorporating public transportation and mixed-use planning and design.
Granted, these are complex and thorny issues, and it will take a lot more than blog chatter to solve them.
But as we grapple with the housing meltdown and attempt to engineer a wiser, saner model, the discussion is being held.
And that’s a very good thing.
Photo by Schafphoto