By Dom Nozzi, AICP
For most of my adult life, I have lived in or near “downtowns,” or what I like to call “town centers.” Over and over again, I’ve had friends and family members express astonishment that I would somehow enjoy living in such a location. They’d say things like “I would hate to live where you live. Downtowns are full of pollution and crime and minorities and drugs and noise and filth!” Or “It is too dangerous, crowded, congested and unpleasant to live downtown!” Or “I much prefer to live in the safe, quiet, green suburbs!”
None of my expressed reasons for enjoying life in a town center were persuasive. I was just considered odd or kooky or recklessly risky.
Then in the late 90s and more recently, something curious started happening.
Suddenly, living in a town center was becoming hip and attractive for a rather broad and growing range of people – even families.
There are many reasons for this. Increasing concerns about sustainability, and the supply and price of oil, is making a car-dependent suburban lifestyle less sustainable, and therefore less attractive. Demographics are changing so that there are now a much smaller number of “conventional” households of parents and children. Instead, there is a significant growth in what Richard Florida calls “the Creative Class” – those who are younger, more highly educated, and seeking to live closer to a vibrant nightlife and a place of convivial sociability (and seeking to use a car less often, increasingly preferring to walk, bicycle or use transit).
There is also a noticeable growth in senior citizens, many of whom are finding it increasingly difficult to drive a car and are, more and more, hoping to be able to walk or use transit to get around.
In general, all age groups today are seeking a more CONVENIENT lifestyle. The irony is that the suburbs have long been touted as a place to find convenience, yet it is now strikingly obvious that town centers provide much more convenience than suburbs. The convenience of a short walk to get a cup of coffee or a box of nails. The time saved in biking a block or two to get to work. Or the ease of taking transit to the theatre.
One aspect of the changing fortunes of suburbs and town centers is that the crime, drugs, pollution and traffic congestion is migrating to the suburbs. And a growing number of wealthy individuals are migrating to live in town centers.
Another consequence of the above trends is that there is a reversal in the financial value of town center land and housing compared to suburban land and housing. Town center housing is now becoming extremely expensive due to the explosive growth in demand for such housing. Conversely, suburban housing is in a downward spiral of declining values. We saw this most recently and spectacularly when the housing bubble burst in the first decade of the 21st Century. Suburban homes plummeted significantly in value, while town center housing either held their value or increased in value.
There is now a complete reversal in what I hear from friends and family today.
“Dom, you are being elitist when you mention suburban problems or praise town center living.” Or “Dom, don’t you feel ashamed to be living in the ‘lily white’ town center instead of the diverse suburbs I live in?”
I found myself being criticized in the past for living in a town center. Now I am finding myself being criticized for NOT living in the suburbs.
Not only that. I also find that my suburban friends and family were, in the past, more than happy to criticize town centers and sing the praises of suburbs. Now, due to the reversal in fortunes, many of these same suburban friends and family find it entirely unacceptable for me point of the problems of suburbs in the same way that they previously pointed out the problems of town centers.
Strange days indeed.
My latest book, The Car is the Enemy of the City (WalkableStreets, 2010), can be purchased here.
Visit my urban design website read more about what I have to say on those topics. You can also schedule me to give a speech in your community about transportation and congestion, land use development and sprawl, and improving quality of life.