On his blog earlier this week, Ryan Avent made a really insightful point about the legacy of the Baby Boomer’s attitudes towards urban/suburban design:
But the really interesting point to me is that the Boomers have also screwed themselves. The policies mentioned above — forcing developers to pay for infrastructure improvements, draconian limits on new taxes, strict constraints on new supply — have made California decidedly unfriendly to seniors. The Golden State would be a great place for one’s golden years, if only it were remotely affordable, and if one could get around without a car. But California is having a devil of a time financing new transit and rail infrastructure, and the few places that are transit accessible and walkable are the ones that have held up best amid the housing crunch; those 50% price reductions are coming in places that are useless for those unwilling to hop on a freeway.
You’re going to see this all over the country. A generation that worked very hard to build an urban geography suited to a nuclear family with young children is now getting old. What are they supposed to do with all these four bedroom homes that are a 15-minute drive from a cup of coffee and a newspaper?
Because we spend a fair amount of time commenting on racial politics, I’d be remiss if I didn’t at least mention the racial dimensions of the Boomers’ passion for big lawns, big houses, “draconian limits on new taxes” and “strict constraints on new supply.” In fact, I’m pretty sure that you can see where this is going.
There were two major periods of African-American migration in the 20th century. The first “Great Migration,” began in 1910 and saw approximately 1.6 million African-Americans migrate out of the South and to industrial centers throughout the country, ending around the time of the Great Depression. And while that resulted in some white out-migration from areas where blacks settled, it paled in comparison to the “white flight” which occurred during the second Great Migration. Between 1940 and 1970, almost 2 million African-Americans left the deep South for the cities, lured – as migrants usually are – by the promise of better jobs and opportunities for their families.
The resulting economic pressures (tight housing markets and such) along with robust federal subsidization of roads and suburban housing developments, pushed many white families to the suburbs. What’s more, is that there was a tremendous sense among white Americans that their new black neighbors would negatively impact the value of their homes and neighborhoods. And so, suburban townships and communities around the country adopted measures like exclusionary covenants (restricting landownership to a particular race) or redlining to prevent African-American migration to the suburbs. Indeed, some communities even went as far as using roads to isolate black neighborhoods (where automobile ownership was far less likely) from goods and services. The older suburban/exurban model of isolated neighborhoods connected by roads and strip malls owes its existence – in part – to a desire to keep African-Americans out of the suburbs.
Of course, as Avent notes, this has come back to bite the Boomers and their parents in the ass; the downside of designing neighborhoods in an exclusionary fashion is that it makes them virtually unlivable for someone who doesn’t own a vehicle or who because of age or infirmiry, can’t operate one.