Suburban transformation: The Fifth Wave
A huge migration, equivalent in many respects to the building of the suburbs in the latter half of the 20th Century, is underway that will transform cities and suburbs alike, Arthur C. Nelson writes in the recently released issue of Planning Theory & Practice. The US will add a hundred million people in coming decades, and that growth will focus on more walkable, mixed-use, environments, Nelson says. He calls this new era The Fifth Wave, or The Fifth Migration. (The Fourth Migration, predicted by Lewis Mumford in the 1920s, comprised the 100 million Americans who resettled in the suburbs in the decades after World War II. The first three migrations settled the continent and West, moved people from farms to towns, and created the great industrial cities).
During the Fifth Wave, some will move to cities, but many or most will relocate in suburbs, transforming them and making them more urban, Nelson predicts. “Preference surveys indicate that half or more Americans now want something other than what conventional suburbia offers, but for the most part they do not crave large, dense cities. I call this a desire for a ‘suburban urbanity,’ or, less charitably, ‘urbanity light.’ ” To stay prosperous, he says, suburbs will have to change their character. “American suburbs may need to achieve a certain level of urbanity to be successful,” he writes.
Nelson discusses the demographic reasons behind this migration — as he has done so in greater detail in his book, Reshaping Metropolitan America (2013). We have reported on that book (here, here, here, here, and here). Nelson lists many reasons behind this migration, including shifting community and housing preferences, tighter home financing, shifting wealth, falling incomes, and rising energy costs. The aging of the Baby Boomers (and its implications for child-free households) and the rising of the Millennial generation play big roles.
The changes will strongly impact the suburbs, but many barriers still stand in the way of suburban transformation. “One challenge is to change the attitude of suburbanites,” he writes, as mixed-use, mixed-residential communities are still controversial. Retrofitting the low-density, built-out suburbs will present challenges physically. “Higher density infill and redevelopment can be accomplished by redeveloping parking lots and low rise, low intensity nonresidential development along commercial corridors,” he writes. Finally, he says suburbs will have to make changes in their finance and planning systems. “American suburbs need to move away from using average cost pricing to finance public facilities and services. Currently, less costly, more efficient development subsidizes more costly, less efficient development: the resulting development patterns rob state and local governments of resources.”
Volume 14:3 of Planning Theory & Practice also includes four articles and a commentary in response to Nelson’s piece. Link here.
Robert Steuteville is editor of Better! Cities & Towns.
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