There’s an interesting article in the March issue of Atlantic Monthly that’s worth discussing here. I’ll excerpt the relevant bits, but it’s worth reading in entirety.
Arthur C. Nelson, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia
Tech, has looked carefully at trends in American demographics,
construction, house prices, and consumer preferences. In 2006, using
recent consumer research, housing supply data, and population growth
rates, he modeled future demand for various types of housing. The
results were bracing: Nelson forecasts a likely surplus of 22 million
large-lot homes (houses built on a sixth of an acre or more) by
2025—that’s roughly 40 percent of the large-lot homes in existence
For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs,
transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind.
But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there
are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many
low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that
are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in
the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay.
The suburban dream began, arguably, at the New York World’s Fair of
1939 and ’40. “Highways and Horizons,” better known as “Futurama,” was
overwhelmingly the fair’s most popular exhibit; perhaps 10 percent of
the American population saw it. At the heart of the exhibit was a
scale model, covering an area about the size of a football field, that
showed what American cities and towns might look like in 1960.
Visitors watched matchbox-sized cars zip down wide highways. Gone were
the crowded tenements of the time; 1960s Americans would live in
stand-alone houses with spacious yards and attached garages. The
exhibit would not impress us today, but at the time, it inspired
wonder. E. B. White wrote in Harper’s, “A ride on the Futurama …
induces approximately the same emotional response as a trip through
the Cathedral of St. John the Divine … I didn’t want to wake up.”
The suburban transformation that began in 1946, as GIs returned home,
took almost half a century to complete, as first people, then retail,
then jobs moved out of cities and into new subdivisions, malls, and
office parks. As families decamped for the suburbs, they left behind
out-of-fashion real estate, a poorer residential base, and rising
crime. Once-thriving central-city retail districts were killed off by
the combination of regional suburban malls and the 1960s riots. By the
end of the 1970s, people seeking safety and good schools generally had
little alternative but to move to the suburbs. In 1981, Escape From
New York, starring Kurt Russell, depicted a near future in which
Manhattan had been abandoned, fenced off, and turned into an
There are moments, especially reading some of the comments people post here, where the image of Escape From New York, pops up. The reality is radically different. Crime and vandalism incidents are rising all across America. Whether its the Wisconsin family that ended a four mailbox bashing spree with a high speed car chase, or closer to home, the rise of graffiti in Torrington. Urban areas have always seen the waves of crime wax and wane.
Suburban areas, despite rapid population growth, seem to be surprised at crime. The entire movement towards gated communities, neighbourhood watch groups, rent-a-cop patrols have sprouted as a result of this mentality that crime free safety can be purchased. Preventing crime is not such an easy thing to do, otherwise we still wouldn’t be talking about it hundreds of years after the first police department was created.
Understanding why criminal activity happens and what effects various policy decisions have had is a good place to start. In a 1994 CATO Institute report, William A. Niskanen examined crime, police and root causes. The executive summary then is just as relevant today:
* Crime in the United States is much higher than that reported to police but has probably not increased over the past 20 years.
* An increase in police appears to have no significant effect on the actual rate of violent crime and a roughly proportionate negative effect on the actual rate of property crime.
* An increase in corrections employees appears to have no significant effect on the violent crime rate and a small positive effect on the property crime rate.
* Crime rates are strongly affected by economic conditions. For example, an increase in per capita income appears to reduce both violent and property crime rates by a roughly proportionate amount.
* Crime rates are also affected by demographic and cultural conditions. For example, the violent crime rate increases with the share of births to single mothers.
* The demand for police and corrections employees is a negative function of the average salary of public employees, a positive function of per capita income and federal aid, and a positive function of the crime rates.
The CATO report was written in opposition to the 1994 Federal Crime Act passed by Congress. It’s worth mentioning that bit, because we now get to look back at whether the legislation achieved policy goals of reducing crime. Fortunately the Internet provides access to this type of policy research. The National Institute of Justice, submitted an policy analysis report on the 1994 bill, which is a great read on the subject. In the chapter of Crime Prevention:
Schools cannot succeed without supportive families, families cannot succeed without supportive labor markets, labor markets cannot succeed without well-policed safe streets, and police cannot succeed without community participation in the labor market. These and other examples are an extension of the “conditional deterrence” theory in criminology (Tittle and Logan, 1973; Williams and Hawkins, 1986), which claims that legal punishment and its threat can only be effective at preventing crime if reinforced by the informal social controls of other institutions. The conditional nature of legal deterrence may apply to other crime prevention strategies as well. Just as exercise can only work properly on a well-fed body, crime prevention of all kinds may only be effective when the institutional context is strong enough to support it.
The interrelatedness of economic conditions, schools, and communities speaks to difficulty in pinpointing what Norwalk can do differently these days. But one thing that has emerged concerning our schools is that Sal Corda is still operating under the impression that his tenure as superintendent impacts only between the walls of Norwalk’s schools. In fact, the NIJ report actually suggests that:
Correlational evidence suggests that the way schools are run predicts the level of disorder they experience. Schools in which the administration and faculty communicate and work together to plan for change and solve problems have higher teacher morale and less disorder. These schools can presumably absorb change. Schools in which students notice clear school rules and reward structures and unambiguous sanctions also experience less disorder. These schools are likely to signal appropriate behavior for students (Corcoran, 1985; Gottfredson, 1987; Gottfredson & Gottfredson, 1985; Gottfredson, Gottfredson, & Hybl, 1993).
It’s not just schools that contribute to the quality of life in Norwalk. Like other urban areas, there’s been a shift in what people are looking for in picking places to live and work. For some reason, there’s still opposition voiced in Norwalk about the economic development that is poised to transform Norwalk. Norwalk is not some snow globe community, bubbled in by plexiglass and unaffected by external market conditions and societal changes. There’s a shift in cultural attitudes about lifestyle. Back to the Atlantic article:
Most Americans now live in single-family suburban
houses that are segregated from work, shopping, and entertainment; but
it is urban life, almost exclusively, that is culturally associated
with excitement, freedom, and diverse daily life. And as in the 1940s,
the real-estate market has begun to react.
Pent-up demand for urban living is evident in housing prices. Twenty
years ago, urban housing was a bargain in most central cities. Today,
it carries an enormous price premium. Per square foot, urban
residential neighborhood space goes for 40 percent to 200 percent more
than traditional suburban space in areas as diverse as New York City;
Portland, Oregon; Seattle; and Washington, D.C.
It’s crucial to note that these premiums have arisen not only in
central cities, but also in suburban towns that have walkable urban
centers offering a mix of residential and commercial development. For
instance, luxury single-family homes in suburban Westchester County,
just north of New York City, sell for $375 a square foot. A luxury
condo in downtown White Plains, the county’s biggest suburban city,
can cost you $750 a square foot. This same pattern can be seen in the
suburbs of Detroit, or outside Seattle. People are being drawn to the
convenience and culture of walkable urban neighborhoods across the
country—even when those neighborhoods are small.
The real estate premiums placed on urban living is something that Norwalk is well suited to leverage ahead of the curve. The by product is people, more people which is exactly what part of the antidote to Norwalk’s crime issue. You can’t simply demand more police without paying for those patrols, without addressing real crime prevention policies, without working with the schools, without addressing the underlying economic conditions that affect families and residents alike. And the long suffering infrastructure won’t get repaired without an increase in the tax base that Norwalk currently relies on. That means a mix of residential and commercial.
By 2025, the U.S. will contain about as many single-person households as families with children.
Because the population is growing, families with children will still
grow in absolute number—according to U.S. Census data, there will be
about 4 million more households with children in 2025 than there were
in 2000. But more than 10 million new single-family homes have already
been built since 2000, most of them in the suburbs.
If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban
living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more
Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban
communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big
advantages—better schools and safer communities—have eroded. Schooling
and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas
continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax
base—often highly dependent on house values and new
development—deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the
Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big
budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large
surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.
There’s a real discussion that we should be having about all these issues. The relentless kvetching about crime incidents doesn’t further that discussion. The constant political posturing by BOE members afraid to objectively look at criticism of financial stewardship of the schools and of the morale in the schools doesn’t further that discussion. The opposition to development of Norwalk doesn’t further that discussion. All these issues are connected, as we are all connected to how our community works. 2025 is not that far away, and I’d like to think that Norwalk won’t still be focused on the same old issues then as it seems to be now.