'Smart Decline': A Lifeline For Zombie Subdivisions? | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio
Filed Under:

'Smart Decline': A Lifeline For Zombie Subdivisions?

Play associated audio

On the western edge of Phoenix, it's easy to find vast tracts of empty land once prepped for two-by-fours and work crews. Utility stanchions emerge like errant whiskers from the desert floor.

This is the land of zombie subdivisions. Some experts believe up to 1 million dirt lots in central Arizona were in some stage of approval for new homes when the market crashed.

"It's tragic," says Realtor Greg Swann. "It's heartbreaking."

Urban planners are floating a radical solution for areas like this. It's known as "smart decline."

Justin Hollander, an assistant professor at Tufts University, wrote a book called Sunburnt Cities, about smart decline in the Southwest. After the bust, he says, more than a third of ZIP codes in major Sun Belt cities saw population losses.

"People are leaving," Hollander says. "So that means all the houses, all the roads and infrastructure that supports those houses, it doesn't just disappear."

In some cases, Hollander calls for tearing down that infrastructure. He points to some Rust Belt cities that took generations to realize the depth of their problems.

"If you don't do a good job, it further destabilizes the neighborhood," he says. "It further creates a cycle of disinvestment."

Hope For The Zombies

Jim Holway works for the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute, a group that promotes sustainable development in the West. And he has hope for some of the zombie subdivisions.

"I tend to assume that we will grow again," he says. "Is it possible the forces that drove the growth in the West really have come to an end? I think it's unlikely. Certainly this is a time for creative thinking."

He agrees that letting land go back to nature — farming or desert — is one solution for the most unattractive zombie areas. But says the land closest to the urban core still has a chance.

And that raises another option: Start over.

Creative Redevelopment

That's the approach the city of Maricopa, south of Phoenix, is taking.

During the boom, Maricopa planners issued 600 housing permits a month. After the bust, a single piece of land with room for 182 houses was rezoned for mixed use. The Roman Catholic Church bought it, and now there are plans for a private school, shops at ground level and loft-style housing above.

Brent Billingsley, the city of Maricopa's development services director, says this type of creative redevelopment didn't happen before.

"Everyone has taken this opportunity to catch our breath and take a look at how we want to grow in the future," he says. "And we've been at a balance now for the last couple years and able to catch up and to be smarter."

Still, it will take Maricopa years to swallow the 16,000 lots set aside for residential development. Public swimming pools, baseball fields and schools will replace some of those zombie subdivisions.

Meanwhile, on the west side of town, Swann just chuckles at the idea of "smart decline."

"At some point, sometime fairly soon, this land will be profitable again, and it will turn into houses," he says. "And you'll drive by this five years from now, and you won't remember that you were here because it will be completely different. That's the way Phoenix works. Phoenix changes like dreams."

Copyright 2011 KJZZ-FM. To see more, visit http://kjzz.org/.

NPR

'F' Is For Fraudster In A Family Novel For Our Modern Times

Daniel Kehlmann's F, about three brothers abandoned by their father, examines the detail of lives lived without integrity. It is brilliantly translated from the German by Carol Brown Janeway.
NPR

No. 1 Most Expensive Coffee Comes From Elephant's No. 2

A coffee entrepreneur claims his brew is different — and better — than the trendy civet poop coffee. And it starts with the idea that elephants, unlike humans or civets, are herbivores.
WAMU 88.5

Maureen McDonnell Didn't Give Special Treatment To Star Scientific, Witness Testifies

A defense witness in the corruption trail against former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, says the former first lady often traveled the state promoting state businesses, countering the notion she gave special treatment to the company at the heart of the corruption trial.
NPR

The Momentum Of The Ice Bucket Challenge — And What It Means For ALS

A recent fundraising challenge has gone viral on social media, calling attention to research into Lou Gehrig's disease. Forbes contributor Dan Diamond discusses the state of that research.

Leave a Comment

Help keep the conversation civil. Please refer to our Terms of Use and Code of Conduct before posting your comments.