The Indianapolis Star ran a major article on Sunday that provides a view of the new suburban reality facing many place in America. Called “Amenities reflect Indianapolis suburbs’ new goals” it describes the efforts of various suburbs around Indy to move away from purely a schools/rooftops/retail model of the suburb to one that offers other amenities such as first class parks, New Urbanist town centers, arts venues, etc. Incidentally, the five or so featured are all completely run by Republicans, showing again that local level Republicans today are increasingly more open to quality of life investments than their national or state brethren.
The article highlights the thinking behind some of these, such as moving from an economic model based on smokestack chasing to one based on talent attraction and smaller, entrepreneurial firms. But unfortunately the article focused on whether the attractions would support a traditional ROI equation, instead of the actual underlying strategic rationale: long term survival.
Paul Graham famously suggested that pretty much all startups are destined to fail, saying:
Death is the default for startups, and most towns don’t save them. Instead of thinking of most places as being sprayed with startupicide, it’s more accurate to think of startups as all being poisoned, and a few places being sprayed with the antidote. Startups in other places are just doing what startups naturally do: fail.
Similarly, all suburbs more or less start out as if they were sprayed with “suburbicide.” Most of them follow a fairly predictable cycle of growth, maturity, and decline. Decay is their natural destination. This is a straightforward lifecycle effect, as I’ve explained before. (It can be different in places with significant supply constraints, like California, but these come with their own set of problems such as severe unaffordability).
All the town council members at one of today’s many Indy boomburgs need to do is take a drive around Marion County see where this leads, say down West 38th St. or South Madison Ave. I think we’ve all seen these types of formerly booming suburban districts now fallen on hard times. For those who haven’t, Eric McAfee posted a chilling, if extreme, example of the genre in Kansas City. Pretty much all of Marion County’s township areas are struggling except for a narrow band of very upscale areas on the far North Side, and some remaining greenfield development areas in places like Franklin Township.
The people who built those first generation of auto-oriented suburbs can perhaps be forgiven for not realizing that what they were building would not stand the test of time. Today’s leaders in emerging suburbs have no such excuse. They should know that from the minute their town takes off the growth curve, it’s already infected with suburbicide, and they’ve only got about three decades to administer a cure. And if they fail, they know the fate that awaits them.
I believe that ultimately these attempts at creating more amenity-rich suburbs are as much an attempt to create places that will still have a draw when they are full and hit middle age as they are attractors in the here and now. That’s the real question that should have been asked. What is the best cure for suburbicide? As Westfield Mayor Andy Cook put it, “do nothing” is the easy option in the now, but ultimately a foolish one.
It may be that these projects are not all the right ones. The sports complex in Westfield and the water park in Greenwood both seem on the dubious side to me, for example. On the other hand, central parks, trails, and more urban style town centers make more sense. There’s never a sure bet out there and there definitely needs to be a debate.
But too often that debate taxes place without being embedded in any larger context. It was particularly interesting, for example, to see Columbus resident Thomas Heller quoted as an opponent of amenity style investment. In a state whose communities have largely not weathered the storms of the last few decades very well, Columbus stands out as a strong economic and demographic performer – and one that took a contrarian amenity-rich path to boot. Why might that be, I wonder?
Again, it’s easy to cede the argument to opponents, who only have to say “it costs too much” as their perennial refrain. Rare is the item I’m purchased that I didn’t wish were cheaper. The real debate needs to be this: our town is infected with a fatal disease. Given that no-treatment produces death in about 80% of cases, what’s the best proposed cure?
Being that you are a former resident of Indianapolis — we get to see benefits from having you do stories on Indy as well as getting to have our flaws laid out for everyone to read about. I appreciate your interesting views on things and pretty much agree that there are lots of issues in many of the suburban areas around the central Indiana region. That said, as a proud resident of Indianapolis – I just cannot leave this comment unchallenged:
“Pretty much all of Marion County’s township areas are struggling except for a narrow band of very upscale areas on the far North Side, and some remaining greenfield development areas in places like Franklin Township.”
It is just way too over the top. There are many, many parts of Marion County outside of those that you defined that are doing well or at least “fine” and are not what I would consider to be “struggling”. Maybe it just depends on what you define as struggling. No — there aren’t too many other areas that are doing as well as the folks that are living in that “narrow band of upscale housing on the far northside” that you described — but basically, that narrow band is largely filled with millionaires. Yes — the rest of Marion County is not filled with millionaires, I’ll agree — but that doesn’t really mean that the rest of Marion County (outside of parts of Franklin Township – as you clarified) are all “struggling”. There are definitely areas within the county that are having significant problems — but it is not 85% of the county. Most areas are doing fine — basic average, every day, medium income folks doing fine. And there are other areas where people are doing better than “fine” as well – but I won’t point out all of those other areas. I’m just saying – if you’re going to be making such extreme statements — don’t expect them to go unchallenged. Yes – there are definitely plenty of areas of the County where people are struggling — but it is not everybody else who lives outside of the narrow geographic area that you defined in your story. Thanks.
Aaron M. Renn says
Thanks for the comments, Tom. Maybe a bit of hyperbole, I’ll admit. But certainly there is more than just pocket blight in Marion County township areas, and the graduation rates of most schools other than North Central now show a material gap vs. the suburban districts.
I might also say that just because these areas have struggles doesn’t mean they are dead yet. But they are going to be under increasing pressure over time.
Aaron M. Renn says
By the way, I don’t think anyone in Marion County/Indy per se did anything wrong. When building those first generation auto-type suburbs, we just didn’t know how things were going to turn out over time.
Rod Stevens says
The central question should be “what can we do to improve the quality of life for everyone that lives here?” All too often there is a narrow focus on young families with kids, or Yuppies, or perhaps even some other target group that does not even live there but is seen as desirable. If communities built for everyone already in their midst, young and old alike, then they wouldn’t have to worry about these improvements going out of date.
Nicholas Hufford says
Its true too many communities are focusing on the creative class and want all the vibrancy that generally is associated with that demographic. However, convenience outside of auto-centric accessibility is a benefit to all demographics.
As Tom pointed out, just because an area isn’t booming with millionaires and business (*cough* Carmel) doesnt mean that its doing poorly. But two factors hold true for most communities.
1)The population is aging. Sensitivity to their needs include accessibility to health services and stores without the necessity of depending on the auto and or others for most of it.
2) Whether we like it or not, education is a proven key for success on the local, state, national, and even global level. Where there are educated people there is improvement. Communities still need to invest in the future of the young.
As for the established workforce not close enough to be thinking about retirement?
You get the responsibility of creating this structure of accessibility and setting the precedent for when you wish to retire.
The downward spiral starts with 2d life cycle blues. They have to keep the ponzi scheme going to keep paying for costs of current development. They need revenue streams. I would think to do that their territorial limits are major restraint. To deal within its restrictions they need to build up;have maybe more productive mixed development. All the more important since pockets are getting more shallow these days.
About education America is not trying hard enough. Recent OECD report doesn’t put US in a nice light. On AC 360 Amanda Ripley mentioned how Japan (that was tops) turned itself around and US is not doing what is needed.
James Kennedy says
I think you’re right on the mark about local red-leaning areas being open to urbanism. I just wrote an article after hanging around in Rachel’s hometown that toys with that trend. Not as data oriented, more anecdotal, but same idea.