Greg Stimac, Mowing the Lawn (Chandler, AZ), 2005/2006; inkjet print 41 x 30 in. Courtesy the artist
Christopher Leinberger explores the deterioration of America’s suburbs in the March issue of The Atlantic Monthly — a timely read in the context of the Walker’s Worlds Away: New Suburban Landscapes, which just opened and runs through August. Looking beyond the current subprime mortgage crisis, Leinberger writes “a structural change is under way in the housing market–a major shift in the way many Americans want to live and work. It has shaped the current downturn, steering some of the worst problems away from the cities and toward the suburban fringes.”
He cites a 2006 study by Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, who modeled future demand for various types of housing. Nelson’s most startling finding: A likely surplus of 22 million large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by 2025–that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence today.
As conventional suburban lifestyles fall out of fashion and walkable urban alternatives proliferate, what will happen to obsolete large-lot houses? One might imagine culs-de-sac being converted to faux Main Streets, or McMansion developments being bulldozed and reforested or turned into parks. But these sorts of transformations are likely to be rare. Suburbia’s many small parcels of land, held by different owners with different motivations, make the purchase of whole neighborhoods almost unheard-of. Condemnation of single-family housing for “ higher and better use” is politically difficult, and in most states it has become almost legally impossible in recent years. In any case, the infrastructure supporting large-lot suburban residential areas–roads, sewer and water lines–cannot support the dense development that urbanization would require, and is not easy to upgrade. Once large-lot, suburban residential landscapes are built, they are hard to unbuild.