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From the Ground Up

Disposable communities can’t be an option

In the Academy Award-winning foreign movie, “Cinema Paridiso,” a successful Italian filmmaker returns to his hometown after a 30-year absence. His mother has remained in the same house, using the money he sent her over the years to modernize and fix-up the residence.

The scene where he enters the old house is an important one to me because it is a reminder that we live in a society in which moving up and out, instead of fixing up and staying, is the norm. The results are evident in our changing communities.

When it comes to housing, we live in a move-up society. There is nothing inherently wrong with that and I don’t plan to offer a lecture on the subject. Nevertheless, it sometimes seems that in our zeal to acquire bigger houses, bigger cars, bigger everything, we forget what we leave behind.

How far can you go?

Our housing has become disposable housing in some cases because we know that we are not going to be living there in the future. Unfortunately, our disposable houses can become disposable communities. When we use up the community, we move farther out to a newer one. How far out we can keep moving is anyone’s guess.

Urban sprawl has moved from becoming a buzzword to becoming a discipline. So-called “new communities” and “new towns” are popping up in suburbia. People seem to be in search of that old-time community environment.

Janet Rothenberg Pack, professor of business and public policy and real estate at the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania, reviewed growth rates in Unites States metropolitan areas focusing in on growth rate differentials between cities and suburbs. The primary units of analysis were population and income. She found that the ratio of suburban-to- city population increased substantially during the period 1960-1990, but not at the same rates in the various regions of the country. Cities in the western U.S. grew at the fastest rate, while metropolitan areas in the South grew faster than the same areas in the North. It was discovered that in the South and West, city growth rates had little or no role in suburban growth.

In other words, the suburbs grew regardless of what happened to the central city. In the Northeast and Midwest just the opposite occurred. City growth rates had a positive effect on suburban growth rates. I suspect that in the older cities of the Northeast people were moving back into the cities. In other words, gentrification may have been going on.

Regarding income data, it was learned that in the South and West, suburban incomes exceeded city incomes by only 2% and 5%, respectively, in 1990, while in the Northeast and Midwest, suburban incomes exceeded city incomes by 33% and 16%, respectively. Does this mean that in the North and Northeast, the wealthier are moving to the suburbs? Does it mean that in the South and West, everybody is moving to the suburbs?

Region by region

This data formed the basis for Pack’s comments that regional growth implications were not the same in every region of the country. Federal policy should therefore not be the same for every region. The costs of the growth period to areas have been distributional, and the gains that favored the suburbs may have been so at the expense of the overall quality of life. Some federal policies may even be ripe for reversal.

If all of this seems like much ado about nothing and a lot of statistical mumbo-jumbo, I would ask you to simply consider these questions: What would happen if you had to live in the house you live in for the rest of your life? What effect would that have on your community?

Phil Hardwick’s column on Mississippi Business appears regularly in the Mississippi Business Journal. His e-mail address is phil@philhardwick.com.

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