Back to the future

In the Philadelphia area (link via Planetizen), city officials representing older neighbourhoods and inner ring, older suburbs are now working together to promote these communities as great alternatives to far flung, distant suburbs:

They are places that have been long suffering as homebuyers the past few decades have opted for more spacious homes on large lots in new subdivisions on the suburban fringe….

All the Classic Towns – the boroughs of Ambler, Bristol, Collingswood, Doylestown, Haddon Heights, Lansdowne, Media, Riverton and West Chester, along with Philadelphia’s Manayunk and Overbrook Farms neighborhoods – have made significant comeback strides with a variety of revitalization efforts….

Organizers already have worked up a sales pitch that plays off the budget-busting gas situation: If you live in these walkable mixed-use communities with convenient access to public transit, you probably can get rid of at least one car in your driveway.

While planners have been advocating for years a return to older communities as a way to curb suburban sprawl, Seymour said, “I think now with gas prices, the market is finally catching up to those policy objectives.”

And this is happening not just in Philadelphia. Communities around North America with rich and sometimes forgotten histories are now seeking to restore and revitalize boarded up or otherwise dilapidated former-downtowns or industrial areas. Many are creating higher density housing in the process, such as loft apartments in restored older brick warehouses.

Many older neighborhoods in the core cities and suburbs of North America were built around transit 100 years ago. In Vancouver Gordon Price famously calls them the “street car neighbourhoods.” Where the street cars stopped, family-owned retail thrived. Many North American cities have similar histories. As the automobile took over, and suburbanization thrived, street cars disappeared and street car communities often fell on hard times, even becoming rough “inner city” spaces.

But the old spaces are often still there and offer an authenticity as well as an opportunity to return to higher density and walkable living. Apartments can be built above retail if they are not already there from 100 years ago. Neighboring single family housing is often on much smaller lots than in a more recently laid out suburb. This allows people craving even a small backyard along with walkability and transit accessibility the possibility of finding that (see the recent blogosphere discussion on this between Avent, Atrios, and McArdle.)

As in Metro Philadelphia, it may be important for certain civic leaders to promote what these communities offer to families and individuals struggling to deal with the challenges facing the automobile-based sprawl model as gasoline becomes less affordable.


  1. lichanos says:


    This is a great development. I will be interested to see how it plays out if gas prices stay high. I wonder how high they must stay for how long to effect a significant and permanent change.

    The other wildcard is, I think, schools. Many of these core urban areas have schools sytems that are pretty dismal. Without changes there, I don’t see how they can be sustainable except as enclaves for the very well off who send their kids to private school or, as in Hoboken, NJ, islands of yuppiedom.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    You’re absolutely right on education.

    The entire US education system is a threat to the US economy and productivity in so many ways.

    The fact that a decent publicly funded education is not available everywhere makes families less mobile to move to more dynamic places or better jobs; it generates far more driving than if most kids went to neighborhood schools; it puts US citizens and employers at a disadvantage in the global economy; and I could go on.

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