Can Hard-Hit States Reinvent Themselves?

Sunshine states such as Florida, California, Nevada, and Arizona have been hard hit by foreclosures and an economic downturn that has soured their once booming real estate markets. But urban planners say these states can take lessons from other hard-hit housing areas, such as Detroit, in using the downturn as a way to rebuild their communities in a smarter way that controls growth.

During the housing boom, these sunshine states boasted sprawling housing tracts and gated communities that isolated homes from shops and services.

But now with more vacant homes, urban planners say it’s time for these communities look for smarter ways to control their growth.

“There’s an extraordinary potential for ‘sunburnt’ cities to embrace the idea of smart decline” — doing more with less, whether it’s fewer people, fewer home buyers, or fewer jobs, says Justin Hollander, urban planning professor at Tufts University. Hollander wrote Sunburnt Cities, which was published March 1.

For example, these states can take a lesson from cities like Detroit and Buffalo, N.Y., which have been tearing down abandoned homes and replacing them with parks.

Hollander suggests “sunburnt” cities make efforts to limit growth by allowing dense development, encouraging walkability, and adding public transportation and more green space.

With rising energy prices and tightening government budgets, more planners say it’s particularly the right time for more cities to revisit their design. Many urban planners envision more cities that resemble the past with more high-rise apartments, condos, and townhouses near transit stops, shops and businesses on street levels.

Cities will need to respond to a social and demographic changes in housing preferences too, urban planners say. For example, young adults have shown a preference for not wanting to live in gated subdivisions far from entertainment, shopping, and jobs, according to research by CEOs for Cities, a non-profit alliance of urban leaders.

“We need to provide diversity in housing, provide choices for young people who say they are not ready to take care of a yard and want to be in the downtown area,” says Debra Stark, planning director for the city of Phoenix.

Source: “‘Sunburnt’ Cities Have a Shot to Control Growth,” USA Today (March 8, 2011)