Soapbox Monday: Are suburbs sustainable?

Are the suburbs on the way out?

Environmental advocates have long held that the single family home on a wide swath of lawn, far from public transportation, is unsustainable. But still, the builders kept building, and people kept buying.

In Friday’s paper, architecture critic Inga Saffron took up the question — not so much from the environmental perspective as from the marketplace/economic perspective.

She writes: “The demise of the Great American Exurb was heralded this fall in a New York Times op-ed by University of Michigan planning professor Christopher B. Leinberger. He argues that ‘a profound structural shift’ has begun to reverse the residential patterns set in the 1950s. Cities are rising, while suburbs are going into decline.”

And she looks at a price analysis showing that “single-family houses in outer-ring suburbs … are hemorrhaging value. Many now sell for less than their replacement cost. In contrast, urban housing has generally held its value during the bust. The priciest housing on the market can be found in cities and commuter suburbs.”

I’ve long thought with a kind of evil glee about what might happen one day to all those horrid McMansions dotting the suburbs. I visited one for a story a few years back that was three stories. It had five bedrooms — each with its own bath. These places have kitchen, breakfast room, dining room, living room, den, office and solarium.

In other words: Perfect for being split up into multi-family housing.

Block off portions of the first floor into a duplex or triplex, add another kitchen (or not, the communal route would be fine for many) and you start to have a house that’s a bit more sustainable.

I can just see how this could come to be:

The homes in a pricey subdivision begin to lose their value. Maybe a bank takes over.

Meanwhile, people with money are moving to fancy new condos that would be built along transportation corridors in, say, North Philadelphia.

The urban poor wouldn’t be able to afford the inner ring suburbs. But what about those McMansions? Get two or three families together, and suddenly they can afford one at its deflated price.

Sure, there are occupancy requirements and neighborhood covenants. But I can’t imagine those surviving a persistent financial decline.

For starters, it might be easy to overlook parents moving in with their married children, say. And then, gradually, you have even more homes occupied by less-closely related people.

Maybe the neighborhood covenant doesn’t allow vegetable gardens - how silly is that? But soon, the hydrangeas out back are being replaced by squash plants. The evergreens by the front door soon are yanked out, to be replaced by flanking “decorative” tomato plants growing up posts.

The light post out front sports a teepee of string bean plants.

Enough suburban decline, and who’s to care -- or perhaps even notice -- about the chicken coop in the back yard?

How long before the entire front yard is a cornfield?

Somehow, thinking about this makes me happy.

But I’d love to hear what you think. Are the suburbs sustainable? What do you think might happen ten, 20 or 30 years from now? I hope you’ll comment below.