A Grownup Look at the Suburbs

Returning to the old neighborhood south of Dayton, Ohio, Tim Collins loses his bearings and gains perspective on residential development.

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I grew up in Ohio’s suburbs during the 1950s and 1960s.

Eastmoor, a traditional neighborhood, was developed about four miles from downtown  Columbus after World War II. As I grew up, this special place held close friends. It was safe for biking, walking, and playing. The church and school were a five-minute walk; the electric trolley bus and shopping, including the soda fountain, were about 15 or 20 minutes on foot.

The area’s wooded character was changed forever when Dutch elm blight swept through in the late 1950s. Over time, other aspects of Eastmoor have changed, too, but it maintains the lovely qualities that made it neighborly.

When I was 10, we moved to Town and Country Estates, a subdivision in Washington Township about nine miles south of downtown Dayton. This area was rapidly shifting from agricultural to residential.

It was a good place to grow up, too, but different from Columbus — with woods and fields nearby. (My parents chose the house partly because of the developer’s commitment to leave as many trees as possible.) Some of us went in ahead of the bulldozers and rescued wildflowers that we planted in our backyards. We could bicycle into open country, with forests, fields, and working farms. We also were more auto-dependent. Some shopping was nearby, but most stores were 15 or 20 minutes away by car. I rode a school bus.

Dayton’s subdivisions as of 1950, most of them pre-World War II with some post-war suburbanization.

Growing up in the suburbs was a pretty good experience. But when I return to the south Dayton area where I grew up, and which I left more than 30 years ago, I recognize that that suburban life was unsustainable then and is even less sustainable now, despite excellent efforts at planning and creating green space.

I return fairly often and still undergo a sense of place-confusion. I know the area, but everything has changed. Familiar landmarks seem out of place. What has happened clearly proves, at least to me, the utter devastation wrought on once-rural areas by auto-dependent overdevelopment. Call it sprawl, if you will. Farms and fields are gone, replaced by housing, shopping and other businesses.

Dayton’s suburban growth from 1970 to 2008 in yellow, into Greene and Warren counties.

Is my reaction nostalgia? Perhaps. But it’s also understanding what I see: urban growth and decline side by side with the loss of prime farmland, woodlands, and wildlife habitat. South Dayton has wonderful amenities. It is a managed suburban landscape that, while pretty in places, is overloaded with traffic, buildings, and people. I credit the leadership with trying, but the cost has been high and the process somewhat irrational.

According to Census Bureau figures, Dayton’s population peaked around 1960, just as my family moved to the southern suburbs, which grew rapidly after World War II. Dayton’s 2010 population was smaller than it had been in 1920. Meanwhile, the populations of Montgomery County and south suburban Kettering also peaked around 1970, just as my age cohort was heading off for college. Kettering, incorporated in 1955, has annexed some areas, but now has only slightly more population than in 1960. Centerville, another south suburban city, has grown in area and population since 1960. Its growth has slowed; land for development is becoming limited. For both suburbs, More annexation seems to be the only path to growth.

The four-county Dayton Metropolitan Area also reached a population peak in 1970; it neared that peak again in 2000 but has fluctuated and tended toward slow decline over four decades. Growth in the other area counties – Preble, Miami, and Greene – has not countered population decline in the core county and city.

Greater Dayton is, to my mind, something of a Midwestern poster child: it exemplifies the struggles of a region adapting to globalization, deindustrialization, and the slow-motion chaos that seem to have accompanied tumultuous social, economic, and political changes since the 1960s and 1970s. This area, once dominated by relatively high-wage manufacturing, has adapted and diversified. Some communities and their developers are winners. Others have lost out, to the detriment of not only the individual communities, but the whole region.

USDA
The number of acres in farmland in the four-county Dayton Metro Area has tended to decline since 1900. Increases in the most recent census may be related to a new definition of what constitutes a farm.

Suburban overdevelopment, with its wholesale abandonment of older areas, can be measured with its negative impacts on surrounding rural land. Greenfields development has gobbled up farmland in all four counties for decades. (Gains in farmland acreage between 2002 and 2007 may be related to changing definitions of a farm in the Census of Agriculture.) Since the turn of the twentieth century, the area has lost at least 30% of its rich farmland.

This same phenomenon has occurred across the Midwest. Despite efforts by Dayton’s leaders to keep the city more or less intact, regional power, led by developers, shifted to the suburbs, where land was cheaper and seemingly removed from the city’s social and economic problems. New housing and businesses sprouted on fertile farmland. Old roads were widened. New roads were built. Growth concentrated in newer areas, even as the older areas, and eventually, the whole region, faced declining or stagnant population. Like many rural areas across the country, Greater Dayton has suffered from out migration, whether because of economic transformations, retirements, or the outflow of young people seeking better opportunities.

City and countryside are inextricably linked. When policymakers advocate regionalism, we need to pay attention to these interdependencies. Our long history of crazy-quilt sprawl, with the abandonment of older areas and new development on rural Greenfields has benefitted some, but this practice has carried huge costs for the larger society and the environment.

Development isn’t only about higher real estate values and tax revenues for some communities. It isn’t only about jobs creation, mainly in lower-paying service industries. We need to ask hard questions about the types of growth we want, where the growth needs to be, the types of jobs we want to create, and impacts on the environment.

If we are to think regionally, we need regional cooperation to spread growth more evenly, to redevelop areas in decline and to protect the rural countryside. Maybe then we will actually move toward sustainability.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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