The Brookings Institution's Christopher Leinberger has an awesome article in the March Atlantic Monthly (The Next Slum?) about what the future may hold for the outer suburbs and their McMansions. He posits that they may become tomorrow's slums.
Mr. Leinberger finds that the recent decline of some of these places is usually attributed to the subprime-mortgage crisis and its wave of foreclosures. And while true, he believes that in the future, that a structural change in the housing market, in the way that more Americans want to live and work, is what will really work against these places. Says Leinberger:
"Twenty years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today, it carries an enormous price premium. It is urban life, almost exclusively, that is culturally associated with excitement, freedom, and diverse daily life. It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development. People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country—even when those neighborhoods are small. "
He says builders and developers have noticed and are responding to accommodate the demand by providing an alternative to conventional car-based lifestyles. They do so by developing infill in the cities and inner suburbs and even finding a way to bring the city to the newer suburbs. He calls these new places "lifestyle centers." Think Reston. He says demographic changes and increases in gasoline and heating costs will only hasten this change in development patterns that favor new and traditional downtowns aligned with transit. He also echos much recent data that says the turn towards more walkable living means better health. So as America moves toward these changes he paints a sad picture that awaits many of today's sprawling outer burbs:
"... much of the future decline is likely to occur on the fringes, in towns far away from the central city, not served by rail transit, and lacking any real core. In other words, some of the worst problems are likely to be seen in some of the country’s more recently developed areas—and not only those inhabited by subprime-mortgage borrowers. Many of these areas will become magnets for poverty, crime, and social dysfunction."
If you live there now, escape while you still have time.