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?