Suburbs are not the future for Michigan

Suburbs are unsustainable and not the focus of future housing demand. The next generation is looking for walkable places.

Suburbs may be good for raising families with children because they are safe and have good schools. But suburbs provide little choice in housing or transportation – two areas that are critical for attracting and retaining talented, new economy workers. They also don’t provide life-cycle housing, forcing children and the elderly to seek housing elsewhere.

Cities were once built in ways that were much more livable and sustainable than most suburbs are. It’s important to understand the need to provide alternatives to suburban design or a community may be destined to suffer greater economic decline. Attracting talented workers is an important economic development strategy. Research on housing markets and demographics has demonstrated that the demand for quality of life and places is what attracts talented workers. Those workers are very mobile, and can and do choose to live anywhere. Only those communities that measure up to what these talented workers want will be successful in the new economy. Providing only suburban-type development does not provide the variety needed to meet current market demands for community.

Over the last 60 years conventional development patterns in Michigan have not included concepts of place. The result has been incomplete single use housing developments placed in the middle of nowhere with no connections to other neighborhoods and incomplete urban structure. There will continue to be some demand for this type of development, but right now there is far more of this type of development then there are customers who want it. That is why it is important to also have different development patterns for which there is pent-up demand. This type of suburban development pattern results in energy consumptive behaviors and is fiscally unsustainable.

The suburban development pattern occurred frequently and there is so much of it which now exceeds market demand because developers followed the zoning codes that required that pattern. Now is the time to change the rules in order to create suburbs that are attractive to talented workers. To achieve this, a variety of housing types, densities and prices should be available.

Many people love suburbia and a large part of Michigan’s population lives there and isn’t moving soon. But that is not where the market growth is expected to be. The growth will be in walkable areas. If we do not refocus on higher density in urban places then we are just passing one more major set of costs on to our children. Higher density in urban places also includes development along key suburban corridors with nodes of activity, such as nodes for transit stations.

Recent studies have looked at market demand for housing and have revealed significant shifts in housing preferences. In March 2011, the National Association of Realtors sponsored the National Community Preference Survey to look at market demand of those entering the housing market. One key finding was that 65 percent prefer some type of mixed use environment, represented by city, mixed used suburb or small town. Generation Y, comprised of 18-29 year olds, has an even stronger preference for these areas. Generation Y currently represents 27 percent of the national population and represents a majority of those that will be entering the housing market in the near future. Household formation over the next 10 years will see a tremendous shift away from the suburban model. Research from the Metropolitan Research Center at the University of Utah projects that nationally 90 percent of household growth will be comprised of households without children and over a third of those will be single person households. Childless households are more likely to want a more urban, walkable, social environment rather than the conventional suburban development.

If Michigan is to be successful in attracting talent to live and work in its communities, it needs to significantly increase the variety of development patterns to be attractive to those entering the housing market. Their preferences are clear – they want mixed use in a walkable environ.

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