Is today’s McMansion tomorrow’s tenement home? Wrtiting in The Atlantic Monthly, Christopher B. Leinberger argues that modern suburban neighborhoods may be in decline, and not just because of the subprime mortgage crisis. Rising gasoline prices, for example, may prompt Americans to return to the city. And when they do, what will become of the subdivisions where they used to live?

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.

Leinberger writes that after World War II, American life shifted from being farm- and city-centric to emphasizing suburban living: malls, housing subdivisions, and business parks. Wide-spread use of technology such as electrification, telephone, refrigeration, automobiles, radio, and television helped to foster these communities.

This vision of the future came to prominence during the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and 1940. In a General Motors exhibit called “Highways and Horizons” (a.k.a. “The Futurama”), designers created a large-scale model (as big as a football field!) that imagined the world of 1960, “twenty years in the future”. Here’s a ten-minute video highlighting this vision:


“And now we have arrived into this wonder-world of 1960!”
Here’s part two. Also, a slightly different version.

American life progressed toward this “wonder-world” for fifty years. As families moved into larger homes on larger lots, inner cities deteriorated. Suburban life became the norm. But now attitudes seem to be shifting.

“People are being drawn to the convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the country,” Leinberger writes. Though one-third of Americans still prefer suburban lifestyles, another third “want to live in mixed-use walkable urban areas”. The problem? Only 5-10% of available housing meets these requirements. Low supply and high demand makes these places expensive to live.

Last summer, I left suburbia behind for three weeks to take a trip to London and New York. This was the first time I’d ever seen a megalopolis up close. I was amazed. Everything a person could want within easy walking distance! A diverse and vibrant human landscape! Visiting these cities blew my mind. Now I, too, can see the value of urban living. It’s not a lifestyle that I can afford, but I do dream about it.

[The Atlantic Monthly: The next slum?, via Mike and Jason]