William Lucy, Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning at the University of Virginia and co-author of “Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs,” shares his insight into the plight facing many of today’s aging suburbs.

MuniNet: What prompted your research into the decline of middle-aged suburbs?

Lucy: During the mid-1990s, Professor David Phillps* and I were working sequentially on studies for the Virginia Commission on Population Growth and Development and the Virginia Urban Partnership. For each study, we needed to look inside general city and suburban trends.

Because Virginia has large counties and few suburbs – and therefore few data for small territories – we examined census tract changes. We knew from a previous unsupported study that decline of suburbs in population and income was common in the 24 largest metropolitan areas. Lacking capacity to replicate that study for suburbs in Virginia, because there were too few, we looked at census tracts.

About this same time, we discovered separately that house sizes had changed radically – in 1950, the median new house had 1,100 square feet, in 1970 it was 1,375 and by the mid-1990s, the median size of new houses was about 1,900 square feet. It seemed intuitively obvious that with current preferences supporting developers’ decisions to build larger houses, that probably meant that middle-income households were not seeking small middle-aged houses, except in unusual circumstances.

MuniNet: What relationship did you find between income and age of housing stock?

Lucy: Our effort to discover income trends in census tracts by relating income to the decade when most housing was constructed was the next step. We found enough evidence in 1980 to 1990 trends that old housing (houses built before 1940) had become popular – due to the rising incomes of residents – and that middle-aged housing (built between 1945-1970) dominated census tracts were fading in income that we expected these trends to strengthen during the 1990s and be reflected in the 2000 census.

In turn, we expected from the 1990 to 2000 trend we subsequently discovered, that we would start to see evidence of central city revival in city-wide data after 2000, in addition to income in old neighborhoods rising while middle-aged neighborhoods in cities and suburbs declined relative to metropolitan norms.

That is what we have discovered. Our research is ongoing – and we think we have just discovered additional surprises about the strength and elements of this trend.

MuniNet: Your book,” Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs,” contains several “myths” about suburban and urban life. Can you tell us about some of those myths?

Lucy: One of the drivers of suburbanization has been the belief that suburbs are better settings in various ways for families with children. A safer setting for children, especially small children, has been one of those beliefs. The cul de sac neighborhood street network is the physical expression of that belief and goal at neighborhood scale. Both of these beliefs are myths that people live by and each is mistaken. A third myth involves the belief that suburban homes make solid investments.

1. First, safety relative to location depends on what happens inside and near dwellings and on the routes one takes to conduct routine daily and weekly life. In other words, one should consider the danger of leaving home as well as staying at or near home. Crime is one measure. Traffic danger is another measure. Crime danger is most readily measured with homicides. Traffic danger is most readily measured with traffic fatalities. But most homicides are committed by family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. Therefore, they most often occur at home, at work, at school, or at play. The clearest association between homicides and the danger of leaving home is street crime – near one’s home or near a destination – that is, homicides by strangers.

Traffic fatalities are nearly always caused by strangers – or by oneself through driver error. How are these causes of danger related? Traffic fatalities are two and one-half times more numerous than homicides. And they are as much as 13 times more numerous than homicides by strangers.

When one computes traffic fatalities and homicides by strangers for counties and cities, what is discovered? In every instance we have examined with multi-year data – 10 large metropolitan areas nationwide and all seven middle-size and small metropolitan areas in Virginia – the most dangerous counties have been outer suburban and exurban counties. That includes metropolitan areas with high homicide cities like Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Richmond. There are nine counties near Richmond that are more dangerous than Richmond – consistently, from 1978 through 1998. Most traffic fatalities occur on two-lane roads in low density suburban and exurban areas. And these roads in areas parents thought were safe become especially hazardous to inexperienced teenage drivers – who parents often are eager to give them the freedom to get around on their own while parents get some relief from chauffeuring.

2. The second myth concerns cul de sac neighborhoods. Cul de sac neighborhoods lead to more driving and less walking, hence more danger. They lead to more dangerous left turns into fast moving traffic. They lead to less vigilance in training small children – because cul de sacs are considered safe, and hence, children learn dangerous habits. And, actually, a majority of residential area killings of children under age 5 occur because they are backed over, usually in driveways, usually by family members, usually by parents, and usually in family friendly vehicles, like vans and SUVs.

There is no evidence that cul de sac neighborhoods are safer – measured by absence of fatalities and serious injuries to small children. There is considerable evidence that the hop-scotch, far-flung, sprawl development patterns that cul de sac developments encourage – why have contiguous developments if developments are designed not to connect to each other – leads to more driving, especially by inexperienced teenage drivers, and therefore more danger of leaving home.

3. A third myth, which we expect to work on and have preliminary evidence supporting further inquiry, is that outer suburban and exurban houses are good investments. The circumstantial evidence we have discovered is that this belief is mistaken. Larger, outer suburban houses pose their own set of potential problems, namely because they are not necessarily well built, they are inconveniently located (more so than middle-age small houses), and are expense to heat, cool, and renovate because of their size and mediocre construction quality.

The preliminary evidence we have concerns the low frequency of 1970s and 1980s census tracts increasing in family income. This trend suggests to us that these areas are dependent on house value, and generally lack place value. Hence, many of these large house, low-land-cost outer suburbs that are currently in favor with families attempting to enclose 2,500 square feet and more of space, plus have a private yard, are making fragile investments. While we have not yet written on this subject, our relative findings are contained within some of the data we have gathered.

MuniNet: Your comments regarding cul de sacs sound like they are based on new or different ways of thinking than in past? Is that true?

Lucy: Yes. Cul de sacs have been criticized for creating traffic congestion by forcing too much traffic onto too few highways, roads, and streets. There is growing awareness of high public service costs associated with cul de sacs – snowplowing, trash collection, school bus service, and obstacles for emergency vehicles. In the past, there has been virtually no attention to whether cul de sacs lead to more dangerous networks, modes of travel, and travel behavior.

MuniNet: What about the other myth you dispel – that suburban houses make good investments? is that also based on a new brand of thought?

Lucy: Once again, yes. There has been virtually no attention to the small house problem and how it can lead to declining incomes in neighborhoods and suburbs, creating obstacles to reinvestment. Instead, most attention has been paid to those relatively few instances of teardowns followed by “McMansions” being injected into 1950s small-house neighborhoods.

MuniNet: Does your book provide specific examples of strategies to help middle-aged suburbs that might be in trouble?

Lucy: We emphasize the importance of identifying and addressing the “small house problem,” which involves too many small houses in a political jurisdiction (many suburbs) or in a given neighborhood. In each instance, reinvestment becomes less likely because of general deterioration to which each structure is subject with age, combined with small houses being out of favor with middle-income buyers. The tendency, then, for middle-aged housing to trickle down to lower-income occupants is exaggerated, and becomes difficult to intercept and reverse because of the large, uniform character of many subdivisions and neighborhoods built during the 1945-1970 period.

If demand in a metropolitan area is very strong – as, for example, it is in parts of the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area – the result is reinvestment, expansion, tear downs and new residences. Examples include Alexandria, Arlington, Falls Church, and some of Fairfax. But other middle-aged parts of the metro area, especially Prince Georges County inside the I-495 Beltway, have been deteriorating drastically.

In moderate- and low- demand metropolitan areas, these middle-aged areas are steadily bypassed. In some high demand metropolitan areas, like Atlanta, decline in middle-aged suburbs is drastic to serious with few exceptions, because outward movement into exurbs has been so rapid. Atlanta is the central city where revival has been strongest and where suburban decline has been most pronounced.

Foresight and political support can help suburbs succeed – METRO (a subway heavy rail system) with transit-oriented development in Alexandria and Arlington outside Washington, D.C. But that avenue is extremely rare. Design guidance, tax abatement, and mutual support can help – as in the Kansas City suburbs, but so far with uncertain results. Few suburbs have recognized the small house problem. Even if they do, what is apparent is that they need outside assistance, precisely because they are small with few assets, and the assets they once had – small shopping centers and small industries – probably are outmoded and may be vacant. This is a problem for which demolition and rebuilding is rarely viable. It calls for surgical precision, house by house, with few incentives, considerable risk, little experience, and numerous location options deterring private investment by owners and developers. Therefore, a crisis looms.

The best hope is that rising gasoline prices will increase market demand for small houses that are relatively easy to heat and cool and that involve short drives and occasionally walks and public transit options. If gasoline prices rise high enough, the small houses in good locations will become valuable. Then the large, poorly constructed, expensive to heat and cool, inconveniently located houses of outer suburbia will become crisis locations, with plummeting real estate values.

MuniNet: In the course of your research, what did you find most striking about the characteristics affecting middle-aged suburbs – beyond their age?

Lucy: We are inferring that small size and inconvenient locations are generally associated with middle age. But obviously houses of a given age are not all the same size, or same quality, or located inconveniently. Therefore, these are subjects for additional research, both to diagnose what has happened and to suggest policies that will be helpful.

The most general policy advice that we have is that middle-aged suburbs, and new developments as well, should focus on enhancing place value, creating places where people want to be – beyond what occurs inside dwellings, within private yards, and with immediate neighbors. The more that value depends on house characteristics, the more vulnerable owners are to deterioration of house and neighborhood that accompany aging. If the surrounding area has little value, then reinvestment incentives in structures are scarce. Hence, rapid deterioration becomes more likely. This notion suggests using and strengthening nodes of activity – shopping within walking distance, schools and playgrounds nearby, and public transit options. Unfortunately, each of these characteristics is inhibited by the long distances of many suburbs, which often are made more severe by cul de sac street networks.


“Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs,” published in January 2006, is available through the American Planning Association (APA) Planners Press *Dr. Lucy co-authored “Tomorrow’s Cities?” along with Professor David Phillips, also of the University of Virginia’s Department of Urban and Environmental Planning.