In “The End of the Suburbs,”* Leigh Gallagher notes that a negative feedback loop is starting to occur in many suburbs:
“The aging of the suburbs is changing the political conversation in many municipalities as well; as older voters become the most powerful base, tax revenue will increasingly get allocated away from schools and toward resources for seniors… The more taxpayer revenue gets allocated away from schools, the more the schools will suffer, and once schools and services for young families start to suffer, those young families will choose to live elsewhere.” (pg. 150)
In other contexts, I’ve called this the Schools Death Spiral or the Florida Conundrum (after a state where it’s a longtime fixture of local politics), but it turns out that it has a proper scholarly citation: James Poterba first described this intergenerational conflict over education spending like so:
“an increase in the fraction of elderly residents in a jurisdiction is associated with a significant reduction in per child educational spending. This reduction is particularly large when the elderly residents and the school-age population are from different racial groups.”
When combined with the thin, residence-heavy tax bases of many outer suburbs, rising demands for senior services, and for services for poor families, could quickly strain many towns — at the same time that urban school reform has started to pay off.
Very far from Florida, David Peterson in the STrib (via Jim Kumon at Strong Towns) notes that towns outside the Twin Cities have already seen a huge population shift: “In the suburbs, meanwhile, [research analyst Jane Tigan of St. Paul’s Wilder Research] reported, the number with seniors rose by nearly 15,000, as those with children flatlined — part of a massive demographic role reversal.”
* Gallagher made this point during this cogent discussion on KCRW’s “To the Point”. There was also a fascinating qualitative perspective about 21st century suburbia, from having Kathy Knapp (“ American Unexceptionalism“) on the panel: “recent suburban fiction overturns the values of individualism, private property ownership, and competition… [their suburban] setting no longer characterized by stasis, but by flux.”
This old New Urbanist hand was somewhat heartwarmed that Gallagher does understandably exempt streetcar suburbs from her book title’s prediction of doom, quoting Jonathan Rose on page 203: “The good news is, we have the model. We don’t need to reinvent it. We know it. The model is Shaker Heights, Ohio, and Garden City New York, and Stamford, Connecticut. The model is the streetcar.” Besides, Gallagher’s formative experience of urbanism was in the thriving streetcar suburb of Media, Pennsylvania.
Said prediction of doom, anyhow, is tempered pretty immediately (page 7): “when I talk about the ‘end of the suburbs,’ I do not mean to suggest that all suburban communities are going to vaporize… ‘The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us,’ [Robert Shiller] has said. ‘Suburban prices may not recover in our lifetime.’ “
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