The Impending Decline of Second-Ring Suburbs

There is a small war going on in America’s second-ring suburbs.

As many places cautiously emerge out of the housing recession, the uptick in new development has been at odds with concerned citizens, elected officials, developers and long-range community plans. Aging suburbia is going through an identity crisis. The only word that comes to mind: bipolar.

To best describe what is going on countrywide, I’m going to use an example in my backyard: the Minneapolis suburb of Minnetonka (not the lake). It’s a well-to-do middle-class community that has expensive, moderate, and cheap suburban living. As far as suburbs go, it has a surprising range of housing price points.

The suburb had it’s largest growth during the 1970s, when its population jumped 43 percent; and again in the 1990s with a 25 percent gain. I only bring this up so you can paint a mental picture of cul-de-sacs of split levels and starter mansions with wooded lots. Add in a regional mall and interstate extension to complete the image.

These suburbs would like to grow their tax base, but they haven’t much additional land to grow outwards. All new growth must go upwards. It is this dynamic that has longtime residents at odds with the future non-existent residents.

Here is a proposed development that will knock down a 1980s bank and replace it with a suburban retrofit mixed-use building on a parcel that sits adjacent a dying shopping mall with hundreds of acres of empty parking.

Highland Bank Minnetonka Redevelopment Site

The mall and adjacent commercial area are the defacto “downtown” of Minnetonka. It currently looks like what you’d expect it to look like.


The proposed redevelopment fits the spirit of the community’s 2035 visioning plan that calls to transform the retail center into a vibrant, mixed use community with improved pedestrian connections. Here’s a snapshot of what the developer is proposing:


The decision to approve the building came down to a close vote. Unfortunately the Council voted against it. Instead, they voted for the wishes of existing residents. Concerns ranged from added traffic, increased density, more difficulty finding parking, and not fitting the community character. One concerned citizen was quoted as saying, “I was relieved they didn’t vote for a project that doesn’t fit the core Minnetonka values.”

Many are rolling their eyes now (if you’d like to continue rolling your eyes, read this Letter to the Editor).The objections are classic NIMBY claims. However, please consider that the citizens aren’t necessarily wrong. Developments like these will change the community’s character. But, is changing the character of a stagnating suburban strip mall corridor such a bad thing?

It struck aging suburban communities in the mid 2000s that they needed some type of mixed use center. Planners, city officials, and neighborhood groups spent the following years hashing out plans. These were often long, frustrating meetings, but alas, in the end, democracy favored those who showed up.

Countless hundreds of hours were spent at countless meetings creating plans that, at the time, had little market viability. They were pie-in-the-sky ideas. Fast-forward a decade and things have changed. The market is going after pent up demand for urbanism. Now, we have the same type of people who were originally involved in the visioning process who are now opposing the very type of development they sought.

When suburbs need to put their money where their mouth is, they often get skittish. Its sad because it’s a real waste of everyone’s time when our city plans and market say yes, but the neighbors say no.

Suburbia is designed for the automobile and this development controversy is case-and-point why that is such a bad thing for growth. The nearest single-family home to the development is approximately 950 feet (about three football fields). Yet, there is literally no way to directly get to the development.


As a direct result of suburban design, 900 feet translates into a 1 mile walk along an interstate frontage road with no sidewalk (no joke). This means that traffic and parking will be an issue if this person ever wants to enjoy the added amenities (which include a restaurant and coffee shop).

The disconnecting nature of suburban design takes something that should to be a benefit and turns it into a headache. There is a big difference between a three minute walk and a one mile drive, and your relationship with that place changes as a result. In a way, I don’t fault particular neighbors for opposing it. It might be tougher to find a parking spot. And, even if traffic won’t be affected, why take the chance? You live in the suburbs and your commute is bad enough as it is.

Suburban retrofits might be the only long-term financially-viable options for aging suburbs. These places often cover a huge land mass, have lots of roadways and sewer pipes, and not a lot of population density to help pay for it. Minnetonka, for example, has a land mass half the size of its neighbor Minneapolis. Yet, its population is approximately 8 times less.

Most of Minnetonka’s infrastructure is around 30 to 50 years old, and those sewer pipes aren’t going to last forever. They’ll need people to pay for it somehow; and time has shown that drastically increasing property tax rates is politically difficult.

I like to ask the question: If not this, then what? 

Aging suburbia is going through an identity crisis. It’s bipolar. Existing residents would like the place to stay much the same. New residents, including those who don’t live there yet, are demanding something else. The problem is that these places can’t continue to stay the same. Yet, the change is too difficult for many to swallow. This is why the default for most suburbs is decline. Growth isn’t built into their DNA.

For those living deep in the suburban pattern, new development doesn’t make your life better. Nearly the entire housing stock of second-ring suburbs is designed in a way that the lack of development is the best option. If a home’s ideal is to be disconnected, then anything near it – whether good or bad – that isn’t nature is taking away from that aesthetic.

Herein lies one of the biggest faults of suburbia: it’s not designed to change. In mature cities, as land values increased, the intensity of development would follow. That’s why downtown Minneapolis, which once had single family homes, now has blocks of towering skyscrapers. This is change that needs to occur.

The harsh reality is that these places will have to change or face an impending decline. Many first-ring suburbs, such as St. Louis Park, have decided to grow upwards. Will the second-ring follow suit?

40 thoughts on “The Impending Decline of Second-Ring Suburbs

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I was disappointed in the Ridgedale decision, but I think it’s worth emphasizing that you can improve walkability and character without the extreme choice of a 7-story building. Some of the best stuff in SLP and Edina is 2-4 stories (Excelsior & Grand, 50th & France) and some of the most beloved areas of Minneapolis are 1-3 stories (most of Uptown, Hennepin Ave S). In fact, I believe many of the NIMBYers said they supported a 3-4 story apartment building there.

    However, without a grid to grow in, perhaps more organic growth isn’t feasible in this environment.

    As far as other municipalities go, Bloomington is probably the best second-ring suburb for denser and transit-oriented development — although, awful stroads aside, it’s really more a first-ring suburb in character.

    1. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

      The biggest hurdle might be the suburban mindset of exclusion. The desire to be far away from everything, but not too far.

      If a subdivisions primary object is to be disconnected, then anything near it that isn’t that is taking away from the ideal aesthetic (and is therefore bad). It doesn’t matter if it’s a cheap drive-thru-fast-food chain or the most beautiful and architecturally significant mixed-use building.

      1. Shawn

        It’s not a hurdle, that’s the whole point. Folks moved to these suburbs to get away from the density, of course they don’t want to import it. It’s not just something to be written off as NIMBY, density does undercut the entire motivation of moving to these places in the first place.

        1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

          I don’t know that that’s necessarily true. Some people have social circles, family obligations, or work in that area, or (for better or for worse) perceived-better schools. That somebody lives there is not necessarily a “vote” for less density. Minnetonka in particular has a huge number of jobs.

      2. Reilly

        Exclusion… that’s exactly it. That’s the elephant in the room in any NIMBY discussion. Apartment buildings? Those might attract Mexicans, or gays, or childless people, or — heaven forfend — people with blue-collar jobs.

        The suburbs will remain “suburban”, in the isolated, disconnected, car-dependent American sense of the term, until we finally recognize and confront the bigotry and closed-mindedness they dress up in the practical civic drag of zoning hearings and “community values”. This Bull-Connor-in-fuzzy-bunny-slippers crap is the whole reason so many Millennials (like myself) have been stampeding to urban downtowns as fast as we can get to them.

          1. Nathanael

            There will also be inter-suburb sorting. As soon as one suburb starts being more progressive, it will suck all the progressive people out of the neighboring suburbs, which will become more regressive…

            1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

              I don’t think most people are just bouncing, suburb to suburb, looking for the progressive option that’s not Minneapolis. I suspect if they’re in a given place, it’s for a specific reason (family, work, school, a good house) and they’re not going to jump ship on a whim.

              Hopefully the progressive people in each municipality continue to move it in the right direction.

    2. Cameron ConwayCameron Conway

      As far as long term planning for that ‘downtown’ area goes, there’s no reason that a 7 story building is inappropriate. It’s only extreme in that it spiritually conflicts with the idea of Minnetonka as more rural than urban. I don’t necessarily have a problem with easing in the redevelopment of suburban downtowns starting with 3-4 story buildings, but I don’t think the city government does itself any favors by limiting density in the areas that can best accommodate it. While it doesn’t feel like it now, it’s important to keep in mind that suburban parking lot square footage is finite and those resources need to be spent wisely. It might not feel like it now, but a Minnetonka with a fully built out commercial core has significantly less flexibility towards politically feasible redevelopment than it does now. I want the era where ‘redevelopment’ means ‘razing single family neighborhoods’ to be as far from the present as possible.

      As far as tackling the bigger problems of pedestrian accessibility in the ‘downtowns’ of cities like Minnetonka, a pretty essential element is helping create as many households that could realistically benefit from walkable infrastructure updates as possible. Hard for leaders to advocate for walkable transportation infrastructure when most of the existing city won’t immediately benefit from it.

      I think the best route is to work on 3-4 story buildings on the periphery of downtown, then work towards a denser core when there’s actually an existing population to immediately benefit from it.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        I think that in these very auto-oriented environments, you risk creating a tower in the garden: we have all the density we need, over there, so let’s leave these 10 acres as surface parking, or green space, or whatever.

        Is this density? Or is this density?

        Obviously, the Normandale Lake stuff contains a lot more units in a lot less space. But it is as good for the community? (I don’t think so.) Does it build a sense of place? (No.) Does it lend itself to building more blocks like it? (No, because it’s already drowning its huge stroads in the thousands of workers who pour out of its parking ramps between 4-5:30p.)

        1. Nathaniel

          Density needs to be done right. Anyone would take Grand Ave over Normandale Lake. Density without urbanism is not something to strive for. The tricky part is for communities like Minnetonka (or Bloomington, or Roseville, etc). Density needs to start somewhere.

          One of the reason we tend to get density without much urbanism in the suburbs (like this Minnetonka example) is because we don’t allow our neighborhoods to mature. You’ll likely never get that Rambler to convert to a duplex, then a small apartment building. The zoning codes and political forces won’t let that happen.

          I think you’re 100% right though. Density (as in number of units per site) doesn’t always produce great results.

      2. Nathaniel

        Thanks for commenting Cameron. I am curious if you’d be able to elaborate on this: “I want the era where ‘redevelopment’ means ‘razing single family neighborhoods’ to be as far from the present as possible.”

        I wouldn’t go so far as saying “razing”, but you have a lot of large homes in the suburbs that could be easily converted to duplexes or triplexes. And, there is the potential for some razing and the construction of small apartment buildings. Razing entire neighborhoods is clearly not good, but certainly the incremental approach of small-scale redevelopment on maybe a few parcels at a time would be beneficial for a lot of these places.

        1. Skyler Yost

          Don’t forget the in-between of replacing, say, two single family homes with 3 or 4 3-4 story townhouses, maybe with a main housing unit and a couple ancillary units each. More than a general fear of renters, the mere idea of neighboring buildings without owner-occupiers scares the crap out of many suburbanites. Absentee landlords are what allow transient renters to become problems (or so the logic seems to go). “Small apartment buildings” can easily be seen as an existential threat to the happy culture of home-ownership in a comfortably affluent suburb.

          1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

            I wonder where the economics for this work out. If the area is desirable enough to warrant the addition of those people, it’s also likely that zoning regs have repressed supply for long enough that prices are high enough that teardown & replacement with townhomes with a garden apartment is not likely to pencil out (or, if it does, the price range of the resulting townhomes would mean a rental un the basement would be taboo enough to forego). Not saying it can’t happen, but my view of the desirable, affluent neighborhoods in 2nd ring/beyond suburbs says this might be a tough sell.

            Also, I really wonder how often absentee landlords is truly a problem. My block has several duplexes, some are owner-occupied, others are not. The ones that aren’t are filled with younger renters, to be sure, but from a block/neighborhood perspective the yards seem identically maintained & neither are a nuisance. Just wonder if this is more of an irrational fear than anything else (& if so, how to combat the perception)

            1. Rosa

              It seems like the high-value large-lot places with older owners are prime ADU options, which would over time result in a lot of duplexes and triplexes. Long term owners who want to age in place would have the equity to get a loan for constructing a granny flat or above-garage apartment to allow for live-in kids or grandkids or a fulltime live-in caretaker. Divorced or widowed owners might appreciate rental income (I know for a lot of my parents friends, renting out a bedroom in an empty-nest house has worked out really well.) If the zoning allowed for it, I wonder how many people would go for it?

    3. Steve

      As I recall, Bloomington has Central City status since the 1990 census. This means more people work there than live there. Bloomington is a city with suburbs. This will always be the Twin Cities though the census data now says otherwise.

      1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

        Depends on whom you ask. The census bureau considers Bloomington a central city. According to the Met Council, Bloomington is part of the “urban” ring around the urban center. (Urban center includes Robbinsdale, SLP, Hopkins, Richfield, Columbia Heights, and of course Mpls and St Paul.)

        I’d be hard-pressed to come up with suburbs of Bloomington, though.

  2. Nathaniel M Hood Post author

    Thanks for commenting Sean.

    I agree. Smaller buildings can have just as big of an impact on walkability as larger buildings. In many cases, I’m happy to support height limits. I believe that 6 stories for this Ridgedale development would have fit just fine.

    I also agree that without a grid that provides good conditions, it makes incremental growth more difficult. Lack of connectivity forces people into their automobile, which then motivates people to build/require parking, and so on.

    Bloomington is a big place (with a housing stock much more diverse than Minnetonka). It has transit, too. It’ll be interesting to see if it has the ability (political and otherwise) to grow upwards.

  3. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini

    Great post.

    This is one of the reasons I argued for the positive effects of our current regional rail planning. Yes, there’s so much to challenge and gripe on, but at a base level the station areas become places that can actually support good urbanism, more people, walking as transportation for many daily trips, etc etc. Day one area improvements to sidewalk and bike connections enhance safety and reach out even into single family home areas, providing that key ability to add an ADU/duplex/etc in areas where it never would have been possible before. Even if station areas at 1mile radii still only comprise 5% of a given suburb’s land area, it’s a huge start.

  4. Shawn


    The undercurrent of all your posts comes down to this statement:
    “You’ll likely never get that Rambler to convert to a duplex, then a small apartment building.” You see this as a natural progression of things, but I find a very inconsiderate point of view. It’s easy to say, “Yes, your home and neighborhood should increase density” when it’s not your neighborhood. It’s not a simple NIMBY.

    The article and other commentators have a done a good job articulating the concerns of the community and how development must be conducted carefully to preserve the existing residents desires but converts areas that are, say, underutilized parking lots into more functional “places”.

    As for green space? Never take away green space. It never comes back. Work around the green space. 🙂

    1. Nathaniel

      It is easier when it’s not in your backyard. I agree. However, it’s still easy when it’s in your backyard.

      The same developer (from the project in the article) is building an even larger project on my street (Sibley Plaza redevelopment). It has fewer apartments, but more retail.

      It’s a little over 1,500 feet from my single family home. It’s not perfect, but pending some changes, I couldn’t be happier. Those changes that I’d like to see: more density, more retail, less parking, etc.

      My view of the river bluffs may change, but I’m happy to see the strip mall go, and I can’t wait for a new grocery store. When you live in a city (even a neighborhood that is mostly suburban – Highland Park, St. Paul) density can be very beneficial. So, yes, I do support projects in my suburban-ish backyard.

    2. Nathaniel

      Shawn – For the record, I think we agree on most things and after re-reading my last comment, I didn’t intend it to be sarcastic or attacking. I’m sorry if it came off that way.

      I only wanted to use this development as an example, but the broader point I wanted to make with many places like Minnetonka is that they need to grow their tax base whether they like it or not. They can’t stay the same because they financially can’t afford to. They have a lot of infrastructure to maintain and someone has to pay for it. They can’t grow out, so it’s about time they grew up.

      1. Ben Franske

        My own observation is that suburban city employees/planners realize this but residents are plugging their ears and refuse to understand the reality. Then those same residents complain bitterly about property tax increases and special assessments for rebuilding all the aging streets and infrastructure…

  5. Matt

    Telling that the linked letter to the editor referred to the redevelopment thus:

    “The building will replace the three-story Highland Bank building, situated on an island west of Ridgedale…”

    An island…

    We might as well have put suburban developments up on stilts, like The Jetsons.

  6. Ben Franske

    I live in one of those first-ring suburbs mentioned, Edina, and conveniently two blocks from a high frequency bus route. It’s not all so rosy here either though. As I looked at the profiles of our city council candidates this year and the issues which are being discussed locally I’m starting to see this divide (really for the first time that I can remember — at least it’s becoming less coded and more blatent) about density and growth. As I pondered this over the last few weeks I did certainly come to the conclusion that this is a generational difference (and perhaps to a lesser extent a wealth one) where younger Edinans, at least those not in the 1%, are excited by the idea of more density and transit options (indeed, it’s a reason I think living here is so much better than further out) while those one generation older see it as destroying the fabric of their city.

    Interestingly, I think that when you move up one generation older still to those recently retired who are looking for a smaller place with walk-ability and transit connections (think 50th & France) and obviously older still to higher density senior housing. So far the higher density has been allowed to play out in very specific areas, the Southdale district for example and 50th & France to a lesser extent, but we’re seeing more pushback even in those areas and the arguments of too much traffic, etc.

    I think it’s going to be interesting to see how this all plays out. I do wish they would remove the restriction on studying the Dan Patch corridor…

    1. Matt Brillhart


      That sounds like the beginning of a compelling post.

      Are you interested in fleshing out your comment and submitting something?

      1. Ben Franske

        I would certainly do that, if only I had the time! Even just getting this much out of my head and onto “the paper” was a time struggle. Such is the problem of a person with too many ideas and too little time. On the other hand if someone is willing to fund an amazing administrative assistant I could do a lot 😉 For now I’ll just have to toss out some kernels of ideas and let others run with them!


    2. Tenderfoot

      As a fellow Edinan I agree. I was also disheartened by the recent city council elections, which seemed to favor caution over change.

      It’s interesting to me that in all the recent debates over development in and around Edina, nobody talks about the old United Healthcare HQ, which has been sitting empty for well over a year, which is freaking huge, and which would be within (longish) walking distance of a SWLR stop. Throw in all the old rinky-dink office parks around there and you could drop in an Excelsior and Grand-size development.

    3. Nathanael

      “I do wish they would remove the restriction on studying the Dan Patch corridor…”

      OH YE GODS YES….

      It’s the most viable commuter rail route in Minnesota, as the studies showed. Northfield has *two colleges* full of kids with no cars; it’s a better terminus than any other commuter rail route could ever have.

  7. Wanderer

    I don’t know Minnetonka, so I won’t try to speak about it specifically. But I think there is awidespread denial in these middle aged suburban towns. Those towns were the desirable destination in the 1960’s or 70’s (or 80’s), so their residents think that will always be the case. They don’t see these towns as decaying–someone will always want to move in. This denial goes on despite widespread decline in inner ring suburbs and outer edge suburbs. So if everything is always going to be fine, why deal with the hassles of mixed use and density?

    I’d argue that latter 20th Century families moved to the suburbs most importantly for the ability to own a home and for having greenery (e.g. lawns) around them. That required a car-dependent lifestyle; alternatives to that lifestyle seem unimiginable.

  8. Walker AngellWalker Angell

    At some point with the status quo either the infrastructure will decline to a point that people no longer want to live in Minnetonka or more likely taxes will be so high to pay for maintaining the infrastructure that people may not be able to afford to buy houses there. Either one will have a major impact on house and property values.

    The question is when will this happen? What do Minnetonka’s finances look like over the next 10 or 20 years? What other options do they have to raise revenue for pay for infrastructure?

  9. rl1856

    Increasing density is viewed by many as a counter to limited available land, and a steady increase in existing home values that prices out younger buyers. If you can’t build more single family homes in a given area, the price of the existing stock rises, assuming the area is desirable. Existing residents like this. While some would view new urban density mixed use developments positively, consider that existing home owners see a cap on their home values because of the new supply comming into the local market. Having lived in 2 cities that underwent this transformation, I can attest to the following problems that new urbanism proponents try to sweep under the table. The new amenities may be nice, but try to get to them during rush hours and on weekends. Traffic becomes horrendous in the corridors connecting the new development to the existing area neighborhoods. Area schools become overcrowded. Taxes. Developers underestimate the increased demand for infrastructure, and city planners are so dazzeled by the shiny new trendy development that they go along with the developers promises of limited service impact. Unfortunately the city finds out too late in the game to renegotiate the zoning and permitting agreements. New Property taxes have to be levied on the existing homeowners (who were skeptical to outright hostile towards the development) to pay for the unexpected improvements to roads, sidewalks, parking and water sewer systems. Opposition to new urban density developments isn’t about NIMBY, it is about SAVING ones back yard.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      It seems that the value of existing, single-family, large-lot suburban homes is being undercut far more by the continued march of sprawl to building more single-family, large-lot suburban homes than by apartment buildings.

      If I really want to live in a big home in the western suburbs — and I’m already in my car on the freeway — do I really value getting off the freeway at Ridgedale, versus driving a few minutes farther to a brand new subdivision in Plymouth or Maple Grove?

      Location alone won’t redeem older suburbs, when cars are the main way of getting from A to B and the freeways stretch way out into the greenfield sites. Why pay more for less land and an older home? I wouldn’t, unless the area I’m buying in has created value and become desirable in its own right. Developments like the rejected Ridgedale one might have helped make that happen.

    2. Ryan

      Have you looked at what’s happening in Texas cities, most notably Austin and Dallas? Both cities are undergoing huge transformations in their urban cores and building almost nothing but tall condo buildings and apartments. And single family home prices have skyrocketed. The demand is still always going to be for SFO and yards, no matter how many condos you build. You can’t buy even a shitty tear-down anywhere in central Austin anymore for less than $300,000. Austin is also full of NIMBY’s, but they’re mostly complaining about “old Austin” disappearing, and that is represented most viscerally by all those shiny towers. They’re probably not complaining about their home prices doubling in value several times over the last 20 years though. It’s also true that property taxes are outrageous in both cities, but that’s more because Texas doesn’t have an income tax so it likes to disingenuously say it has low taxes, which it doesn’t actually.

      1. Matt SteeleMatt Steele

        Sounds like the market in action. Of course people want SFHs with yards, close-in within the city. Everybody wants that. So prices for close-in SFHs skyrocket. And then the market adapts based on price. People can’t/won’t spend $500k+ on a SFH, so the market meets demand for lower price point dwellings.. condos, apartments, townhomes, etc.

        As Austin Powers once said, “I want a toilet made out of gold, but it’s just not in the cards baby”

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  11. Sam NewbergSam Newberg

    From Chapter 2 of Benjamin Ross’s book Dead End: “A contradiction lay at the heart of the planners’ agenda. One plans for the future because it may be different from the present. But the aim of zoning, which they administered and justified, was to embalm the present.”

    This quote follows a discussion of the beginnings of zoning in the 1920s and prior. It is a fascinating read, but the idea of “embalming” the present makes its way in to this discussion of opposing new denser mixed-use development in today’s suburbs, and even in the city.

    But it’s exactly what Ross points out that is occurring in Minnetonka – the future plan calls for density and mixed use, but current residents want to embalm the present. I’d be curious to know what current zoning is for the site.

    The embalming really speaks to land uses in the surrounding subdivisions and in impossibility of walking to the Ridgedale area.


    1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

      Yet another book added to my Kindle. I need to go hide away in a cabin (or a flat within walking and bicycling distance of great cafes with wonderful cappucinos in an inspiring urban environment filled with segregated bicycle paths) for a few months and do nothing but read to catch up.

      Embalming is a great analogy. Most people don’t necessarily like change, especially if they don’t understand it and fear the consequences. I wonder how much of the embalming attitude we see is due to lack of a cohesive and workable vision and poor communication. Can the people who currently live in Minnetonka grasp a vision of what their city can become? Or do they just see a big building being plopped down with acres of parking lots around it with no real connection to the surrounding community? Do they understand the consequences of the status quo?

  12. Theresa

    Problem here is the failure by the author to recognize that many types of suburbia exist and the desire to preserve open spaces, trees, backyards, single family homes, is not a dysfunction of being backwards, elitist, or the inability to change, but rather a life-style preference that can be maintained with improved energy efficiencies, management of infrastructure, schools, and the delicate balance of retrofitted commercial developments. Skyscrapers are not the silver bullet.

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