Shifting perspectives about the exurbs

In April 2008 the Star Tribune wrote a story about failing developments in Otsego, highlighting worried council members staying up late to try to solve the problem of 138 open houses in a population of 11,000.

At the time this sounded like a disaster. Now it sounds almost ordinary, with smaller communities, such as Zimmerman facing 138 foreclosures last year and already accumulating 101 from Jan. through July of 2010.

There is a difference between 138 vacancies in tightly planned suburban developments, versus the same amount spread as foreclosures across the expanse of a community. First, it’s infinitely easier to spot a failing community whose empty residences are standing side-by-side. I think this is one of the main reasons the Otsego issue was being showcased at the start of the bust: it was an outward sign of what was secretly going on across communities around the state.

But it’s the difference in reaction to the vacancies that stands out as a signpost of how our views of outer-ring suburbs like Otsego and exurbs like Zimmerman are changing.

Instead of being shocked that fewer people are flocking to them or can afford to continue living in them, the vacancies are beginning to seem like an inevitability.

Looking at the overall sustainability of the exurbs — number of jobs that can be sustained in the area, tax-base for needed services such as roads, businesses it is possible to support locally, and commuting options that are both economically and environmentally feasible — the question of whether the exurbs need to shrink rises to the surface.

Has Baldwin grown too big to be resilient? Will its future see fewer residents, fewer houses, fewer roads?

Or is the growth that emerged from the boom here to stay even after the bust?

It’s possible that changing trends will find the suburbs shrinking as exurbs and cities absorb new suburban expatriates.

In the recent curbside chat, Charles Marohn opined that the future of development meant urban areas would become more urban and rural areas would become more rural. This is possible for inner-ring suburbs and outer-ring exurbs, which can just assimilate to their urban and rural neighboring communities.

But if this is really the trend that communities follow, then suburbs are in trouble. Stuck in the middle, either change won’t be easy. It’s likely suburbs will shrink, seeing residents flee back to the city or onward to the exurbs.

If this happens, Baldwin will likely see growth again. Or, at the very least, residents to fill its vacancies.

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