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August 21, 2007 > Boomburbs (Part III)

Boomburbs (Part III)

We live in an area that has changed dramatically over the last 50 years. Across the country, cities that in many cases began as sleepy suburbs have swelled to become influential and critical communities with far-reaching regional political and economic impacts. The Brookings Institution Press recently released a fascinating study of these cities, "Boomburbs, The Rise of America's Accidental Cities," written by Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFugry.

Mr. Lang is director of the Metropolitan Institute and associate professor in the Urban Affairs and Planning graduate program at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. His previous books include Edgeless Cities: Exploring the Elusive Metropolis. Ms. LeFurgy is a writer and consultant in Alexandria, Virginia and formerly, deputy director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech. Due to the length of this interview it has been covered in three issues of TCV. Part I was published August 7, 2007 and Part II appeared August 14, 2007. This is the last installment of the interview.

"Boomburbs are defined as places with populations exceeding 100,000 residents by the 2000 census. They have grown quickly in the last three decades, exceeding double digit growth rates for each decade. But many of them, in fact, have grown since either 1950 or even 1940 if they were involved in war production. Some of them have gone from a population of 7,000 or 8,000 to 200,000 residents from the post war years until now and in, some cases, from 1970 until now."

TCV: Are boomburbs with land limitations such as Fremont turning to high density and transit-oriented developments?

Lang: Some have enough land, time and the possibility to build in the traditional suburban pattern, but Fremont is not alone especially where there are growth constraints such as South Florida and parts of the Phoenix region where there are Native American holdings and large, federal parcels of land. In California, coastal plains, mountains and environmental sensitive places restrain growth. Bay Area cities will have an urban pattern. Places like Merced will start to be everybody's back door. People in the Central Valley can continue in the old style suburban development but a large portion of the Bay Area will live in small lots, high rises and mixed use projects.

TCV: With the influx of immigrants and flight of many long term residents, the character of Fremont has changed. Although the city was created from five separate towns, each with their own business "downtown," the city council wants to create a more traditional city with one central downtown. Do you see this pattern in other places?

Lang: It's not everywhere but in enough other places where I think it is a common pattern.

TCV: Does it work?

Lange: The jury is out on that one. It is so new. The fact that these places are cosmopolitan is kind of a shock and not fully realized. I think that the potential is there for a very vibrant future. There are affluent places such as Fremont and Naperville, Illinois that are diverse and wealthy while another family includes cities such as Santa Ana which are poor and diverse. They are on different tracks.

The nature of a place like Fremont and its peers around the country are immediately promising and yet the other places are fine in a larger sense because the history of the U.S. has been toward people moving into the middle class and assimilating. In California, it looks like poverty is high, but it's not. It's like an escalator. Most people get in at the bottom and go up.

If you look at foreign born, even those with low skills, and you watch them and their children over the decades, you see a great convergence in terms of education and income with the rest of the native US population. That has been a success story that is hard to tell because so many people see that opportunity and flood in at the bottom of the escalator, pooling down there. All the poverty experts keep concentrating on it and say that it's getting worse.

You cannot look at poverty that way; you have to look at by cohort, by people, by decade, on an intergenerational basis - and it's been largely a success story. In fact, the diversity of California is spreading to the intermountain West because those moving to the intermountain West aren't necessarily from another country, but are several decades within the United States and feel comfortable enough to move to Salt Lake. "Oh, look at Salt Lake. I can move in and get a bigger house." It's not just White Flight, it's also Asian flight. The amount of diversity in Phoenix, Salt Lake and Las Vegas is barely understood. California is always in the leading position as the port of entry for so much change. It is such a dynamic place.

TCV: Housing has split into poor and wealthy sectors. There have been battles over the construction of mansions in some parts of the city while other sections consist of flat top post WWII bungalows. What will the housing of the future look like?

Lang: You will see is a greater emphasis on attached products than in the past; an emphasis on intensive use of lots, even when they're single family dwellings. They will tear them down and build a multi-story "McMansion" on the lot. Neighbors will complain, saying that this has impacted house values (probably positive). And people are tearing down houses in some neighborhoods and replacing it with mansions because the land is so valuable.

Let's look at the opposite trend. What if people were abandoning houses? It's not like I would love to have somebody put a McMansion right next to my modest 1950 dwelling, but I would rather have that than have them abandon the home and watch my house value drift southward, You're going to see a lot of issues over that.

TCV: Many of these large homes have a zero lot line where residents will be looking through a window at a neighbor's wall.

Lang: Houses will be higher. You had a horizontal landscape in the Bay Area for many years, but now homes are more vertical. Giant foyers are three stories high with columns like some super 20th century super suburb of New York. It's a matter for the towns to work out and determine what neighbors are allowed to do without facing the consequences of impacting others.

People seem to be less concerned with the amount of land they receive, as long as the house is detached, and are much more worried about closet space, master bedroom suites, super duper bathrooms and kitchens with islands and family rooms spilling into giant kitchens. These are interior space demands. Lots are shrinking all around the country but have to be big enough to provide a sense of detachment and privacy and an enclave for a family. But that may be well short of what they really require. People focus in on the interior. They don't want to live inside their grandparent's fifties ranch, that had bathrooms the size of closets and a kitchen that you couldn't eat in, They want to walk into a big, whopping interior.

TCV: Some multi-family units have gone in the opposite direction. Since space is at such a premium, hasn't interior space decreased?

Lang: Well, that is a different market. What you're looking at in that market are starters and people who buy the neighborhood and close by amenities. Convenience, utility and a shorter commute are what they want, not pretension. They need function. But even if you look at the size of a condo unit from the 70s and 80s, and compare it with today, they are bigger. They have more fancy stuff in them than they did twenty years ago.

TCV: The book referred cities that have little or no unoccupied space remaining as "built out." Some cities were listed as "build out holdouts." What does that mean?

Lang: Some places like Tempe, Arizona and Lakewood, Colorado try to get ahead of build out and embrace the change. They seek to develop remaining space and redevelop existing space in a way that would create much greater land use intensity. Fremont, at the time we conducted our survey (Fall 2004) was still in a basic growth mode, not especially progressive. However, many places I spoke with were not even aware of build out as an issue. On subsequent visits and conversations, some had an entire change of vie w. Fremont may have changed in the intervening years as well. Staff turnover, elections and different developers can create a much different attitude.

TCV: Currently a new general plan is being developed which may have a significant impact on attitudes toward future development. Also, there is a good possibility that a major league baseball team will move to Fremont in the future.

Lang: Change of attitude is happening in many places. Just to give you an example, Davie, Florida in western Broward County insisted that they were rural although any rational definition would define them as suburban South Florida. Now I have been told that they are going to throw out the entire wagon wheel imagery and develop the east part of town that is closer to Fort Lauderdale, as mixed-use, high density. So they went from a state of absolute denial, denying that they were suburban, let alone a city planning that sections of the city will be quasi-urban in three years.

Glendale in the Phoenix area, by the way, built a new stadium for the Arizona Cardinals. That's its signature, its role in the region. They now see themselves as a grown-up city that can play in the big leagues. And it's cost a lot them a lot of money - tax revenue.

Boomburbs: The Rise of America's Accidental Cities
Robert E. Lang and Jennifer B. LeFurgy
Brookings Institution Press
July 2007
212 pages
ISBN 978-0-8157-5114-4

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