As the current round of public planning sessions for Durham’s compact neighborhoods is underway, I am grateful to live in a town that focuses on livable urban neighborhoods.
The attention paid to pedestrian and bike accessibility in these areas is encouraging – a clear sign that the car-focused patterns of the past are not so prominent in inner-city planning as they once were. Durham is investing in dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods, and that is a beautiful thing.
But a recent series of pedestrian and bicycle accidents in suburban areas, coupled with a sense of how poorly jobs and homes tend to collocate, prompts me to consider our suburban neighbors. It is worth examining how we can make Durham's suburbs more livable too.
Suburban nodes – like the hub at Guess and Horton Roads, the crossroads of 751 and 54, or the intersection of North Duke Street and Roxboro Road – are part of the community we have already built and are home to so many Durhamites. The comparatively suburban neighborhood around Oxford Commons, for example, has a population twice that of Old West Durham. (http://bit.ly/1Hm4bOo)
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And a growing body of research documents a second phenomenon running parallel with the national trend toward inner city revitalization: the rise in suburban poverty. In several briefs and a book entitled “Confronting Suburban Poverty in America,” Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube of the Brookings Institution point to suburban poverty rates rising twice as fast as inner-city rates from 2000 to 2012.
Inner city and suburban populations have always been linked, with white flight to the suburbs prominent among the American stories of the 20th century. Following that flight, concentrations of poverty developed in inner-city areas. The transaction occurring in American metros today is the inverse, with more affluent people of all ages craving the access and livability of dense urban places. However, the very attractiveness of our smart, mixed-use urban neighborhoods is one of the chief reasons cited by Brookings for the emerging rise in suburban poverty.
Put most simply, urban real estate is getting expensive again.
With that in mind, revitalizing compact inner-city neighborhoods – essential as this is – can push lower-income families, renters, and people living on fixed incomes in general to seek more affordable places to live. And while Kneebone and Berube point to Winston-Salem, Greensboro and Charlotte as prominent Carolina examples of rising suburban poverty, we should be aware of it in Durham. Changes in local poverty rates from 2000 to 2012 do reveal increases in comparatively suburban northern and eastern Census tracts of Durham. (Durham Census tract poverty rates can be found here: http://bit.ly/1wLDpGx.) Continually increasing home values and rents across urban neighborhoods could influence this trend.
So we must devise a strategy to retain affordable housing in compact urban areas. But knowing people will move between city and suburbs, suburban places should be just as livable. On the national scene, publications like “Build a Better Burb” have begun documenting what works best so far when revitalizing suburban spaces. Chief among their recommendations are diversifying land uses, connecting suburban nodes to regional job centers via public transit, and designing new construction for flexible repurposing. How might these strategies be deployed in Durham?
Whether in city or suburbs, it can often be quite clear that you get what you pay for in housing. Condition, closeness to basic needs for quality of life, and community safety all fluctuate with home prices and rents. So long as that is true, the design and resources of neighborhoods surrounding our homes should help solve the broader challenges we face.
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