Thursday, June 19, 2014

Suburban stall

Today's Star-Ledger Extra, a little freebie paper that comes with our weekly sales fliers, features an article entitled, "In Jersey, the tide turns toward towns." The article doesn't seem to be available on the Star-Ledger's website, but the gist of it is that, here in New Jersey, younger folks tend to prefer living in older towns. Rather than embracing the once-iconic American dream of a big house with a big yard in some suburban Paradise, the so-called millennials prefer "a shorter commute and broader neighborhood amenities," including "walkable downtowns and easy access to mass transit."

Traditional suburbs, by contrast, are in decline. The article doesn't exactly say that they're losing population, but it says their populations are "graying far more quickly than anywhere else in the state." A chart accompanying the article lists several towns that have seen their median age jump by around 5 years in the past decade.

All this is both good news and bad news. The good news is that more population is being diverted to towns, which I've always considered the most ecofrugal places to live. More walkable communities are more sustainable in almost every way than sprawling suburbs. They're less car-dependent, which in turn means less traffic, less fossil fuel use, and less pollution. Walkability also means more exercise, which in turn means better health. A thriving town center helps foster a closer-knit community, which is good for people's emotional health as well. And finally, steering more population to towns means fewer new housing developments gobbling up our state's remaining open space.

Moreover, on a more personal level, it's gratifying to see that I'm once again ahead of the curve. When Brian and I started house-hunting eight years ago, we refused to look at houses out in the burbs, even though we could have bought a lot more house for less money that way. We wanted a real town, with a decent library, a proper grocery store, a pharmacy, a post office, a train station, and plenty of places to eat within walking distance—plus a short commute for Brian. So naturally I'm pleased to see that younger and hipper folks than us are now doing the same.

The bad news is that the suburbs are now home to an aging population—one they're really not designed to support. The article quotes Tim Evans, a research director at the smart-growth organization New Jersey Future, saying that "[a] lot of the development over the last 30 years has been car-dependent, which doesn't work if you're not driving anymore." This isn't widely seen as a problem yet, but Evans predicts that it will be as suburban seniors continue to age. At that point, we'll have a lot of older folks stuck out in the suburbs, living in houses that younger people don't want to buy, and largely cut off from family, friends, and community.

I'm not really sure what the best way is to mitigate this problem. For the past couple of decades, New Jersey Future has focused a lot on "redevelopment": steering new growth to existing cities and towns, and building them up to create more vibrant, walkable neighborhoods, rather than building new developments on open land. Based on this article, it looks like they've had some measure of success. Perhaps now they should start considering ways to redevelop existing suburbs as well, finding ways to help them add the shopping and transit options they need to make them more sustainable and comfortable places to grow old.
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