Monday, August 11, 2008

Moving Back to the City?

By Chauncey Robbs, Graduate Research Associate at the Kirwan Institute

Over the past year, skyrocketing energy prices have curbed the spending habits of American families more than ever in suburban communities. Many suburban homeowners that escaped the high taxes, crime, poverty and decay associated with cities for suburban McMansions are beginning to question their suburban lifestyles. Living outside the periphery of an urban center does have its advantages, such as open space, scenic views and a feeling of enhanced security. However, a growing number of families are on the verge of a financial meltdown striving to maintain these large subdivisions and paying higher commuting costs to reach their place of employment. According to the article “Fuel Prices Shift Math for Life in Far Suburbs” by Peter Goodman, in 2003 the average suburban household spent $1,422 dollars a year on gasoline. By April of this year, when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon, households were spending $3,196 dollars a year, a 124 percent increase in average fuel costs in five years. As prices increase, reducing household consumption appears to be the most rational choice, since on average households spend 20-30% of their monthly budgets on these needs.

Economists and urban planners alike are speculating a return of suburbanites to dense urban communities based upon simple economics of dollars and cents. If this speculation holds true, a large influx of Americans will potentially return to cities to live and work. The surge in urban populations is sure to create staggering obstacles for middle to low income residents in search of quality affordable housing as private developers and land speculators are purchasing underutilized property for future redevelopment, driving up local housing prices. Long overdue improvements to public infrastructure particularly to out-of-date water and sewer systems, will be essential to accommodate the increasing demand for these services. More importantly, our nation’s deteriorating public transportation systems are in dire need of vital improvements prior to any shift in population. According to the American Society of Engineers, to accommodate a potential surge in urban population would require $1.6 trillion dollars and 5 years to bring transportation resources to a fully operating level.

It is hard to say if urban environments will regain the luster of their pastime as residents, businesses and shopping relocate back cities little by little. Yet, failure to properly plan for the needed infrastructure upgrades and affordable housing will surely make city life an unpleasant environment characterized by jammed traffic, expensive housing and social ills.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting piece! I would be curious to know what your perspective would be on housing prices in surburban areas if this shift in population did occur. I would think that they would eventually decrease to combat this influx, creating somewhat of a cyclical demand between suburban and urban areas.