The Future of Suburbia
A colloquium on the Freakonomics blog asking, “What Is the Future of Suburbia?” generated insights from a wide range of experts, a few of whom have apparently been reading too much science fiction or over-indulging in recreational drugs.
James Kunstler, for example, opines that,
There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.
Thomas Antus informs us that,
Government services such as police, fire, health, and public works will increase exponentially. To pay for the expanded services, taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual paychecks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury. All individuals will have to use credit cards for all living expenses, going into massive debt and having to work until they are 90 years old, thus saving our Social Security system.
Others are somewhat more optimistic. John Archer, for example, tells us that,
Modern suburbia evolved in the early eighteenth century along with Enlightenment ideals of private selfhood and capitalist economics. As such, suburbia — not the city — became, and remains, the perfect social and geographic apparatus for bringing fundamental ideals and principles of our culture to fruition, for better or worse.
Ideals of privacy, property, and selfhood — overoptimistically embodied — in those helicopters, are splendidly realized in the single nuclear-family detached house, set in its private surrounding yard. And no matter the threats of global warming or energy shortages, the solutions that we pursue are going to adhere to those ideals.
With advanced methods of modular construction and individualized product design, suburbia, like capital, will learn to be flexible: instead of holding the same shape for 60 years, at the mercy of demographic shifts and mortgage-finance crises, houses can become resizable and reconfigurable to suit residents’ changing needs. Neighborhoods will evolve, instead of turning over, thus enhancing community and social capital.
Planning will become flexible as well, so that infrastructure of all scales can smartly adapt to changing demographics and advancing energy, water, transportation, and other technologies. Again, the flexibility of capital as an investment will be registered in the form of more flexible real-estate instruments — which, as different clusters and neighborhoods evolve in different ways over time, will afford more occasions for aesthetic and demographic diversity.
My guess is that Archer is closer to the mark than others but the real answer to this question, as with most prognostication about the distant future, is Who the hell knows? There are simply too many variables at work and too many unknowns. Fantastic technological innovations could obviate our energy and transportation problems, while other developments could solve some of the problems that make urban life unattractive or unaffordable.
Matt Yglesias points out that these choices don’t happen in a vacuum and that public policy will shape them considerably.
The past half century or so has been dominated by rules about maximum lot occupancy and minimum lot size, parking requirements, and floor area ratio caps that were designed to produce something like the suburbs as we know them. Insofar as we keep those rules, the future will resemble the present. Insofar as we change them, things will change.
Zoning rules, school zones, and all manner of other governmental constraints impact people’s choice. But, as Kevin Drum rightly notes, suburbs aren’t an invention of government. Beyond that, he notes, even a ridiculous increase in the price of gas could be absorbed by most middle class Americans:
Today, the average American spends about $2,000 per year on gasoline. So, if the price of gas goes up to $25, but consumption of gasoline goes down by two-thirds, that means the average person will be spending about $4,000 per year on gasoline. That’s a difference of $2,000 — not pocket change by any means, but certainly something that most suburbs can live through. They may be suburbs with more light rail and better bus service — as well as more apartment blocks and taller office buildings — but they’ll still fundamentally be suburbs.
One of Kevin’s commenters makes an excellent point, too: “In many places the only way to select your public school is by living in the right neighborhood. Unless the annual price of gas becomes greater than the annual tuition at a private school, middle class families aren’t going to be moving into downtown Washington.”
And here’s a sentence I don’t write every day: I fundamentally agree with Duncan Black. He proposes five broad policy ideas for dealing with some of the more obvious externalities caused by bad planning:
1) More money for mass transit, including, where appropriate, subway, light rail, better bus systems, commuter rail, and high speed medium haul trains. In development corridors, right of ways should be preserved for future rail lines, with strong commitment to build them when the population moves in.
2) Changing land use rules especially around transit stops and stations, encouraging higher density and mixed used zoning.
3) Better pedestrian integration between nearby lower density development and higher density development near transit stops.
4) Reverse trend of construction of single access road development.
5) Within existing urban areas, a reversal of the car-centric planning which damages the urban streetscape.
This, incidentally, isn’t particularly radical. Indeed, as my colleagues Dave Schuler and Dodd Harris noted in a previous discussion, their home cities of Chicago and Louisville, respectively, already have many of the best features of both suburban (single family homes with yards and good schools) and urban (neighborhood commons and walkability) living.
Photo: Ben’s Public Gallery