The Decline of the Suburbs

CNN notes today that 40% of Americans want to live in “walkable” communities, and that the suburbs as we know them may be an endangered species. The subprime mortgage crisis, which put many people in homes they could not afford, has led to record foreclosures, bankruptcies and repossessions. Some homeowners, facing falling home values, are abandoning their dream homes altogether.

Professor Arthur C. Nelson contends that by 2025, America will face a surplus of 22-million large lot (suburban) homes. Some suburban developments are noticing an increase in crime, unkempt lawns, graffitti covered sidewalks, and other signs of “suburban decay” which is the same as urban decay, only in a different neighborhood.

Shortly after World War II, as returning GIs moved their growing families to the suburbs after buying their first automobiles, urban flight seemed like an irreversible wave. Inner cities were left to wither, urban churches struggled to stay alive (and many did not), and suburban churches thrived during the Baby Boom generation.

We may actually be watching the beginnings of the reversal of urban flight, transformed into suburban flight. Positive forces like new urbanism, the arts, downtown redevelopment, and urban diversity have made cities with high density populations the place to be. Sports arenas, once built on the edge of major cities, are all constructed inside the urban perimeter now. Negative forces such as high gasoline prices which makes commuting expensive; the subprime mortgage crisis; and cash-strapped suburban areas whose governments cannot keep pace with their growth are causing portions of the population to rethink urban living.

With rising urban home prices, the poor will be pushed out to the suburbs to occupy the surplus houses soon available at fire sale prices. CNN notes that the ubiquitous McMansion will become the multi-family dwelling for lower income families — much like urban brownstones were chopped up into multi-family apartments during urban flight.

The implications for churches both urban and suburban are tremendous. Suburban churches with large debt and massive buildings may be caught in the same predicament that urban churches were in 50-years ago. Declining membership due to population shift from suburban to urban may change the church landscape in the years to come. Our church in our small town was built on a small lot because in 1890 people in town walked to church. Maybe we’re coming full circle, back to the neighborhood church, which was usually small. What do you think? And what does it mean for your church in 2025 — only 17 years from now?

4 thoughts on “The Decline of the Suburbs”

  1. I’ve read about this too, Chuck. I think it was the Atlantic that did an interesting piece on the decline of suburbs and sprawl, over the winter.

    Here’s what I would like the futurists and demographers to tell us: what will become of the small town? Or the once-rural community that became a small town and bedroom community for a city? It seems apparent that, if the trends and predictions are accurate, then the bedroom community aspect will disappear. But will that are return to rural/aggrarian culture, or remain a small town?

    Of course I ask because I find myself in the midst of just such a community– as I gather you do, as well. And I think there’s a Jim Collins-ish “Genius of the ‘And'” opportunity for the (currently) growing small towns that are forward-looking enough to see this coming: why not create the small-town version of the “walkable spaces”? After all, the idea of the quaintness of Mayberry, the community of front-porch living, and the accessibility of (today’s suburban) retail and service industries could be pretty appealing. Take the average suburb today and build in something like a main street with a few tall(er) buildings and shared living spaces, and you have would tomorrow’s “small town” could look like.

    Another factor that I think is nearly impossible to factor into the mix: how will advances in the internet and other technology make a lot of these predictions moot? Think of where we were technologically 17 years ago: if you had ever used a computer, it probably had a command-line interface and ran a word processor, maybe. You probably didn’t own one. Cordless phones were new enough to be novel. The fax machine was cutting edge technology, and the compact disc was making headway at overtaking cassette tapes to play music on. According to Moore’s Law, 17 years from now we’ll have seen 7 or 8 times as much progress as we have over the past 17. Dare we predict whether suburbs will be “gone” by then?

    Sorry about the long comment, by the way.

  2. Our church is located in one of those redeveloping areas, in a historic district where the attraction is both the proximity to downtown and the architecture of the homes. Most of the property that couldn’t be rehabed has been redeveloped to match the Victorian and early 20th century architecture, and property values are now about four times what they are for larger properties in the suburbs. It is a two edged sword, however, for our church. On the one hand, it is an open field for ministry and evangelism. On the other hand, we still have some traditional elements in the church that are part of the fabric of the old neighborhood. The new influx of people is almost completely unchurched, and in that hard to reach segment of the younger end of the baby boom and the multi-family housing is occupied by Gen-X’ers, also unchurched. A good number of people in our congregation do not understand what kind of change will be necessary to reach those people.

  3. Ed and Lee, thanks for your comments. Ed, technological changes do impact us, and it will be interesting to see what new technologies (or new uses for current tech) shapes our future.

    Lee, you’ve posed a question that makes us think — how do churches adapt to changing neighborhoods, when the change is upscale, affluent, and young.

    Thanks for your comments. The future will be interesting indeed!

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