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
Quite correct, but it doesn’t go far enough. Suburbs are in fact an ESACPE from government, or at least they were at the outset. Which, by the way is why local town and rural governments tend toward more conservative people. Obviously, those are conclusions I’d never expect a Kevin drum to arrive at without force of arms.
But more, Suburbia is an escape from the population denisty and the problems thereof; That’s a problem nobody’s ever cured, and we have no reason to think they will.
There are other issues with the cities, as well… Concentrated people density means conentrated power of government and that means concentrated corruption, as well, of which Detroit is the most glaring example in the quiver right now. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to move there, can you?
And yet the great wet dream for the left is herding people back to the cities, which is of course where their power resides. Liberal politicians tend to do well in the higher population density areas… the cities, in short.. and outside the city, Conservatives/libertarians tend to do well. Gee, I can’t imagine why leftists would want to see Suburbanites forced intot he cities, can you?
All this is exactly why we see the left cheering the recent spike in oil prices and why we see the reluctance to drilling for oil domestically… the desire, in fact to keep the prices high, and keep suburban freedom away fromas many Americans as possible… and yes, that’s what it boils down to. They see this as the ticket to a massive return to urban America. The hope is, that such prices will take away the chocie of the suburbs or rural America for most Americans.
Given the problems of population density, what we see in today’s cities is what is in store for everyone forced back to the cities by high fuel prices. All for the political power of the left.
Sorry, but I don’t see that as a positive development.
What is missing from this discussion is the basic fact that millions of people LIKE living in the suburbs. Moreover, the price of gas is a pretty small part of the cost of living in the suburbs. Just because the price of gas double or triples is not going to move people out of the suburbs in droves. And, even if it does, the price of homes will go down bringing people back.
MichaelB, you can’t separate cost from preference. Sure, lots of people like living in the suburbs. Would they like it just as much if they had to pay the equivalent of one additional mortgage payment per year? Two? Three?
There are a couple of things that don’t seem to have been mentioned in the discussion so far. One of them is water. Here in Chicago water quality, access to water, and the cost of access to water is beginning to shape the expansion of the suburbs. In the Southwest I suspect it’s a major issue.
Tax policy has also been an enormous determinant in the creation of the suburbs. Note that the establishment of payroll withholding and the concommitant increase in itemized filing coincides almost perfectly with the rise of the suburbs.
One point about schools in my little section of Chicago on the Northwest side. There are two good elementary schools within walking distance of where I live. The public elementary school is one of the best around but most people in my neighborhood send their kids to the local parochial school—there’s a waiting list.
Similarly, most of my neighbors send their kids to one of the many Catholic high schools in the area or the various lab schools.
So if a conservative moves to the city, he’ll become a liberal? Much more likely that those reliably liberal population centers will shift conservative.
Yeah, you’re stretching for it just a bit there. There are plenty of reasons, good and bad, to keep the price of oil high, that don’t involve subjugating godly conservatives to immoral city life.
A good point. I don’t see people from the suburbs returning to the city, however I do expect a lot of the attributes of the city to expand into the suburbs. New suburban development will probably include small groceries or markets within walking distance (probably with actual walking paths), non-chain restaurants, small shops, etc.
I can imagine a cluster of 6 to 10 subdivisions ringing a central commercial strip. This would also be a great place for a mass-transit hub. In the morning you walk a short distance from your home to the “town square”, where you can buy your latte while waiting for the train that will take to to within walking distance of your office. In the evening, you take the train back, pick up something for dinner at your neighborhood market, and walk it home. This solves the “last mile” problem that plaques mass transit in suburban America.
The choice between urban and suburban living isn’t an all or nothing proposition, you can get probably 80% of the benefits you want from city living with only 20% of what the city offers.
Politics are an extension of the culture.
Are you suggesting that peple being forced into that environment won’t eventually be forced into adopting the dominant culture in their new neighborhood?
And you say I’m stretching?
Come back to the planet. We need to talk.
Dave – sure the costs and preferences are linked, but the cost of homes adjusts. There are lots of homes in the suburbs that aren’t going away without a bulldozer or a good bit of time for Mother Nature to take them back. The price may go down to reflect the higher price of gas, but that makes the suburbs more attractive.
Furthermore, over time things like more fuel efficient cars, better insulated homes, etc. are enough to dramatically reduce the increased cost of energy.
The evidence suggests to me that we’re going to get more of the same, not anything dramatically different, in the future. In part because the price of gas is only a minor part of the cost-benefit analysis of living in the suburbs versus the, uh, urbs I guess. That’s not to say it isn’t important, of course it is at the margins… but change at the margins is just that – not a fundamental rethink of where and how people live.
If it were just the price of gas, all the suburbs would’ve folded in the 1970s.
Here, we agree. Of course the price is only one factor in the laundry list thereof.
Clearly that cost threshold to causing that stampede has not been seen, yet. Yes, around $4/gal for gas is the threshold where citizens start screaming, certainly. But the problem for those wishing to create a stampede back to the cities is that Suburbanites have correctly identified the high cost of fuel as an artifical thing, caused directly by government policy. Policy, not suprisingly, pursued by those wishing to create movement back to the cities.
How that’s going to affect the upcming election remains to be seen.
So…. Democrats oppose off-shore drilling so that oil prices rise… and conservative suburbanites are economically forced into cities where the prevaling culture will cause them to become more liberal? Hmm.
I suppose Republicans support off-shore drilling so that more working class inner city laborers move to off-shore oil rigs, away from the inner city, and develop more conservative attitudes……
Or maybe not.
Yeah, that’s pretty much what I’m suggesting. Are you going to try and refute it?
Sorry, forgot my <sarcasm/> tags.
Right… When you said “Come back to the planet”, which one were you referring to exactly?
Well, first, I see no evidence that oil rig workers tend to be urban types. In fact the last I saw…(and being at work I don’t have it to hand, sorry) the opposite is true. I’ll bet offhandly that’s data Bruce McQuian could lay his hands on quickly enough.
That being said, however, there is undeniably something about having a higher paying job that leans one toward economic conservatism.
Because, I guess, mordern urban centers are the utopia Mr. Kunstler wants to herd us all into. Without getting into the policy specifics, this all seems to be more about telling people what to do than anything else. I know it’s hard to accept for some policy wonks, but some of us actually like suburbia. Personally, I vastly prefer it to city living or rural living.
Dave, are the costs of gasoline going up at a greater rate in the Chicago area than the cost of property and sales taxes in Chicago? My guess is that these types of cost issues are a wash and for the foreseeable future it will be preferences driving things.
And there it is. Since so much of Suburbia revolves around individual transporation, it seems appropriate at this point to inject a comment in a post I did over the weekend, in response to an article from Terry Box, who writes for the Dallas Morning news, in which he said:
To which I responded:
And I should add, in context, that it certainly empowers you to put the brakes on Suburbia given suburbia as we know it is impossible without it.
In context, I add that Gore lives in a suburban setting. So to, the eminantly unlikeable John Edwards. Yet both of these are part of the push back to the cities.
Apparently they like exclusivity. [/snark]
Wow. About the only thing you are missing now is the tinfoil cap.
Hmmm. Guess that explains why my area, where tech workers average 144k a year, is such a hotbed of conservatism. We are all real excited about Rush coming here to speak next week.
Hey bit, the thing where you are putting up posts quoting yourself is kind of interesting.
Too many people see the problems of suburbia and say let the planners give us a solution. The problem as I see it is the planners have a horrible track record. Planning professionals have been inconsistent in what they advocate. Serving on local planning committees I have seen this up close. What is smart planning one day is no good the next as new ideas come out of planning schools and planners write books contradicting earlier ideas.
History has shown us planning is overrated. It is subject to political pressures and corruption. Planning has become a tool of rent seekers eager to gain advantage over competition. Planning is nothing more than an educated guess often without the information necessary. Planning and planners often are reduced to reacting to growth rather than planning properly. Planners also become regulators dealing with minute details of development that have little impact in the long term.
Cities with little planning such as Houston, TX seem to be doing as well or better than cities like Portland, OR with one of the more heavy handed approaches to growth management. A laissez fair approach creates few problems as the developers and buyers know what works.
In the case of urban development and suburbs I don’t see government intervention as being an answer to anything. People will adjust as conditions change.
So, there is a way to take a man’s freedom that is more efficient than incarceration….just continually narrow his options!
James Kunstler comes across as a communist.
Millions of individuals disagree with his premise,proven by the fact that they consider suburbia to be the BEST allocation of their private resources.
Cities need to compete for these resources by offering a MORE attractive alternative.They presently FAIL to do so.Choice is good!
It saves the trouble of retyping it to make the same point.
Thanks for the confirmation that I’m on the right track, Anjin. A derisve sneer from you is as solid an indication as I could ever ask for.
Damn. I have inadvertently given a clue to our grand design…
Seriously though, Bit, you are a drifting away from reality and into conspiracy land on this topic. I think we’d all appreciate it if you would lay off the wild accusations.
Mike has it occurred to you that all this I’m talking about comes under the guise of ‘saving the planet’?
And what was it Nancy Pelosi said she was trying to do the other day?
What, of what I’ve said doesn’t mesh with well known and often stated objectives of the left, and their recent actions?
Point by point, please.
No, it doesn’t. Not by any feat of logic that I’m aware of anyway.
All of it.
If I must:
1.) the great wet dream for the left is herding people back to the cities – Wrong
2.) All this is exactly why we see the left cheering the recent spike in oil prices and why we see the reluctance to drilling for oil domestically…the desire, in fact to keep the prices high, and keep suburban freedom away fromas many Americans as possible… – Wrong on both assumption and conclusion.
3.) Suburbanites have correctly identified the high cost of fuel as an artifical thing, caused directly by government policy. – That’s not been my experience, perhaps you have a study that will back you up?
4.) Which, of course, is precisely why the left is trying so desperately to control them. Let’s be honest here; this has never been about the environment. It’s about control. And cars and trucks are the perfect target for such people because so central are they to our society, that if you control them you control our society. It’s really that simple – Wrong in pretty much every way possible.
5.) In context, I add that Gore lives in a suburban setting. So to, the eminantly unlikeable John Edwards. – Surely they’re witches, their denial is proof of it.
Once again, you present a single example as proof of a rule. All it proves is that you engage in sloppy thinking and cherry pick facts to try and support your arguments. I could just as easily argue that Austin Tx. proves that Texans are deeply concerned about global warming and America’s aggressive military actions in the middle east.
1.) the great wet dream for the left is herding people back to the cities – Wrong
Well, gee, there’s a convincing argument.
When the UN started pushing the idea of concentrating population in the cities, it was to minimize man’s footprint on the planet for environmental reasons. Of the parties, which thinks more of the UN?
Wrong on both assumption and conclusion.
Assertion is all I see here. No backing fact whatever. Ironic, given your responses here:
That’s not been my experience, perhaps you have a study that will back you up?
Don’t need to. The polling data does that for me, where 75% of Americans polled now support drilling. WHich is why the Democrats are making a show of changing their minds on the issue.
Again, you offer assertion, and naught more.
Same here. You’re batting .1000 so far.
Laughable, Anjin. My purpose in offering that little tidbit was to poke a hole in that balloon of yours. Given your response I’d say it hit home.
Oh, and Anjin… pay attention to the wording. I did not suggest that the relationship was one to one. I said the tendency was there. It’s you who offers the oddball fact to make your case…. and the politics of SouCal is about as oddball a case as you could offer.
Hey, it had as much support as yours did. If you want to do this right, I’m all for it, just don’t expect detailed rebuttals to vague accusations.
Non Sequitur, just because one party claims to dislike the UN, doesn’t mean the other party agrees with every position the UN may take.
Again, that’s all I got to start with. If you want to start over with specifics, that’s fine with me.
Another non sequitur, the fact that the majority of Americans now support drilling isn’t evidence that they think the price of oil is artificially high because of the government. If anything, it is evidence that they think the high price is mostly a symptom of low supply, as there is no reason to think that oil from off shore drilling won’t be taxed as much as our current sources are.
Give me something more to work with, and I will give you more.
Well, Michael has tonight’s edition of “rebut the rube” well in hand, so I am going to concentrate on my egg rolls.
I do note that bit continues to run from the fact that the Bush family blocked drilling for almost 2 decades and in the 27 years McCain has been in DC, most of which in the GOP dominated the political landscape, he did not accomplish spit on drilling.
Again, Mike, hardly vauge.
It was obviously specific enough for you to take offense, but not enough to build a cogent argument against it? Sorry, no sale. I’d expect that from anjin… but I must say I expected better from you.
As for Anjin;
Ummm… no.. I have said on several occasions… at least one of them here, that was go-along to get along. He was placating liberals, particularly those from SouCal. I’ve also stated that kind of thing has always been Bush’s problem…(Either of them fits this statement) neither one is a conservative. they are at best, centrists.
Do you really think, Anjin, that absent pressure from the left, 41 would have imposed that ban? If you really think so, then he’s not the Hitleresque guy the left would love to cast him as.
What’s needed here is some thinking effort on your part, apparently. Example:
Really? Support of drilling because f high prices and supply issues, in this case, means telling the government to remove the ban on it. Who are they blaming for supporting that ban? Bush? Or the Democrats running Congress? You don’t really think this stuff through, do you?
Please stop referencing me when you insult people. If I wanted my name attached to an insult, I’d supply it myself.
You keep bring that up like it means something, but it doesn’t.
How is “Liberals want to force people to live in cities so they all become liberal” a non-vague accusation?
Don’t get too cocky, it takes a lot more than that to offend me.
I think he would, Bush Sr. was far more liberal, by today’s definition, than his son. And people usually cast him as indecisive and incompetent, not Hitleresque. I don’t think he’s much been described as an evil master-mind.
You certainly have become enamored of the sound of your own voice. I can say the moon is made of green cheese, does not make it so. It took GW almost 8 years to revoke the executive order. One thing Bush has been really, really consistent about is that he does not give a flying f__k about what the left thinks or placating them.
Reality is, if the Saudis don’t own the Bush family, they are certainly leasing them. Not to hard to figure who’s interests they were serving here.
I say this not as a put down. You really need to take a look at your paranoia. The left thinks 41 is “Hitleresque”?? 41 is a fairly decent guy who is pretty much completely removed from the reality of Americans who are not wealthy blue bloods. I voted for him in ’88. He was a mediocre president, but hardly a train wreck. What on earth are you talking about?
Sorry for the delay. Been doing my one-armed paper hanger number the last few days.
Put it that way, of course it’s vauge. But there were a few other details you kinda glossed over there, wasn’t there?
I dunno about FAR more, but I do agree that he was more liberal than 43, yes. Apparently Anjin agrees with you, too, given…
But that he would do it without leftist pressure I don’t accept, particularly in light of the shadow of Reagan, bold as it was at the time. Sorry, I just don’t.
How many “Bush is Hitler” references would you like? I mean, come on, here.
Yeah, he waited until even the rank and file Dmeocrats were screaming for domestic drilling. Hasn’t that connection sunk in, yet?
This coming from someone who can hardly mention Obama’s name without working in a Hitler reference…