From Sprawl to “Social Disorder”: The Collapse of the Suburbs?

February 26, 2008

America’s sprawling suburbs are starting to show signs of “physical and social disorder” analogous to those that plagued many of the country’s large cities in the 1960s and 1970s, according to a

provocative article

in the March issue of

The Atlantic

by Christopher Leinberger.

The immediate cause, Leinberger notes, is the mortgage crisis and the ensuing wave of foreclosures. A growing number of homes in once tidy suburban communities have become blighted as angry residents trash houses they are being forced to leave, and vandals subsequently strip them of copper pipes and other salable materials. Leinberger cites reports of increased gang activity in the land of the cul de sac.

The deterioration of the suburbs, Leinberger argues, goes deeper than the credit crunch. He says that large-lot, automobile-dependent developments on the fringes of metropolitan areas are falling out of favor in an era of high gasoline prices. Instead, more people are flocking to densely populated gentrified city centers in which they can walk or use public transit to get to shops, restaurants and workplaces.

That’s fine for affluent urban newcomers, but lower-income families displaced by condo development are fleeing to the declining suburbs, where, according to Leinberger, they will increasingly clash with the remaining homeowners desperately trying to preserve their version of the American Dream.

Leinberger’s article represents a caution for those smart-growth advocates who think that upscale central-city revitalization is by itself the answer to America’s problems. We also need to figure out a solution for those priced out of the expensive new urban paradises.