Without Planning, a Risk of Suburban Decline

(This article originally appeared in the Westchester and Fairfield Business Journals.)

By Wendy Pollack

For decades, residential communities surrounding New York have lured residents and businesses with the promise of better housing values, safe streets and a high quality of life.

In the second half of the 20th century, suburban towns in southwest Connecticut, Westchester, northern New Jersey and Long Island grew quickly as many people abandoned New York City.

But in the last 20 years, this trend has reversed. People and jobs are moving back to cities, whether it is to the urban core of Manhattan or to nearby cities like Stamford, Jersey City and White Plains. And while the poverty rate remains higher in New York and the region’s other cities, it is growing much more quickly in the suburbs.

Job gains in New York have been robust since the financial crisis and the recession, yet the suburban recovery has been anemic, especially in New Jersey and Connecticut. The recent decision by General Electric to relocate its headquarters to urban Boston from its longtime home in Fairfield was only the latest symbol of the flight of successful companies from suburban office parks and corporate campuses.

Of course, many suburban communities in the tristate area are thriving, but the overall trend of suburban decline will continue unless we plan for the future.

At Regional Plan Association, an independent research, planning and advocacy organization, we are working on a long-range, comprehensive plan for the tristate area, the fourth such plan since our organization was founded nearly nine decades ago.

One focus of this plan will be to address the striking reversal of fortune between New York City and the suburbs.

Our work is rooted in the belief that since our environment, travel patterns and commercial activity span city and state boundaries, we must address these issues from a regional perspective. We also believe that our biggest challenges — the high cost of housing, deteriorating infrastructure and threats to our environment — affect all our communities and that the best way to ensure our future prosperity is to work on solutions together.

The metropolitan region on the whole has made tremendous advances over the last 20 years. Yet there are threats to our progress. It takes us far too long to build new infrastructure, and we lag behind our global peers in implementing new technology. Our public institutions suffer from high levels of debt and cumbersome structures. High prices and high taxes pose heavy burdens for many residents. Businesses want more access to talent and to markets while keeping their costs down. Our coastal communities — including crucial facilities like hospitals, power plants and transit hubs — are vulnerable to flooding. Finally, too many people have been left out of the region’s success entirely, unable to access good schools, affordable housing or jobs.

A question we often are asked is why these pressing problems need to be addressed by crafting a single vision. Surely in a dynamic, digital economy, issues arise too quickly for a plan years in the making to remain relevant? Yet what hasn’t changed since RPA developed the concept of regional planning in the 1920s is that the things many view as developing organically — a successful economy, healthy communities, opportunity for residents and newcomers, and a balance between urban density and open space — emerge partly as a result of careful planning.

A comprehensive planning process offers another advantage: Individual residents, businesses, community groups and others who often find they have little say in how our built and natural environment develops can have a chance to participate in the planning process. Over the past two years, RPA has worked with residents around the metropolitan area through partnerships, public forums and meetings with local leaders and grassroots organizations to understand the needs of our diverse population. No single planning process could reach all the region’s nearly 23 million residents. Yet this sustained dialogue has shaped the objectives of the Fourth Plan.

RPA’s three previous regional plans, produced in 1929, in the 1960s and 1996, came at a critical time in the region’s evolution and led to major changes in transportation, community development, environmental protection and social welfare.

RPA has focused on Westchester and Fairfield counties since the organization’s inception. In 1929, the first regional plan proposed what became the Merritt Parkway as a way to alleviate terrible congestion on the old U.S. Route 1.

In the 1960s, the expansion of the suburbs and the growing reliance on automobile travel posed a growing threat to the environment and to older urban centers around the region. In the second plan, RPA sounded the alarm on excessive sprawl, and urged investment in places like Stamford and White Plains. RPA also campaigned for reinvestment in the region’s transit network, recognizing that our quality of life over the long term hinged on having a reliable rail and bus system.

In recent decades, RPA has advised cities like Stamford, New Rochelle and Bridgeport on economic development and issues such as coastal protection from more frequent storms.

In a region as vast and diverse as the tristate area, it sometimes can be hard to see how disparate communities are connected. Yet our job and housing markets, our roads and rail networks, and our environmental vulnerability transcend jurisdictional boundaries, and the best ideas for addressing these challenges will recognize both what is unique to individual communities and how our interdependence reinforces our success.