Stephen Dubner (co-author of Freakonomics) invited seven leading thinkers on cities to weigh in on what the future holds for suburbia. Here is an overview of the important points, followed by some of my own thoughts on the subject. To read the full NY Times article, click here.
James Kunstler, with his typical gloomy apocalyptic vision, describes a future in which both energy consuming suburbs and high-rise urban areas (described elsewhere as buildings over seven stories that necessitate elevators) will suffer greatly:
One popular current fantasy I hear often is that apartment towers are the “greenest” mode of human habitation. On the contrary, we will discover that the skyscraper is an obsolete building type, and that cities overburdened with them will suffer a huge liability — Manhattan and Chicago being the primary examples. Cities composed mostly of suburban-type fabric — Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, et al — will also depreciate sharply. The process of urban contraction is likely to be complicated by ethnic tensions and social disorder.
In Kunstler’s mind the cheap energy era is over and technology is not likely to save the day:
The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not. Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital…
…Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.
Jan Bruekner, professor of economics at the University of California, offers a more balanced take examining how the incentives that created the suburbs are shifting.
Urban economics tells us that cheap gas, lots of investment in highways, and rising incomes created the suburbs that we now see in American cities.
The first two forces made it affordable and convenient to commute from far out, and greater affluence made people covet big houses, which can be built for less on inexpensive suburban land. Lately, these suburbanization forces are being reversed by “gentrification,” with well-off, empty-nester households lured back to city centers by improving urban amenities (restaurants, museums, etc.) and the renewal of crumbling downtown housing stocks.
Over the next 40 years, these forces will continue to operate, with some new twists thrown in. Skyrocketing gas prices will lead some households to reconsider their long commutes, introducing an “anti-suburbanization” force that favors denser, more compact cities. Boosts in auto fuel economy will soften this blow, but the push for suburbanization will nevertheless slow. Urban densification will also mean a different look for some of our neighborhoods: single-story ranch houses, the hallmarks of past suburbanization, will increasingly give way to denser, two-story suburbs, as is already happening in many cities where land prices are high.
John Archer, chair of the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota, believes the suburbs will be resilient and able to survive by becoming more flexible, smarter, and hybrid.
Ideals of privacy, property, and selfhood…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.
Seemingly, at least in Archer’s opinion, the “new urbanist” are the first to attempt to cater to these ideals with a hybrid form.
As many “new urbanist” and “new suburbanist” projects demonstrate, suburbia is becoming a hybrid place that melds desirable traits of city living (activity, diversity) while still maintaining allegiance to primary suburban ideals of selfhood and domesticity (and, one might add, consumption).
Alan Berube, research director and fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, offers a compelling analysis that views the continued impact of transportation on the form of cities.
New physical forms. Just as America’s first suburbs sprouted up along the streetcar lines built in the early 20th century, the first half of the 21st century will see the growth of “light rail suburbs” (even in areas that don’t have the rail yet).
High oil prices and the imperative to address global climate change will help spur denser residential development along transit corridors outside of cities. We’d see more of it today, if supply kept up with demand. Chris Leinberger estimates that walkable suburban communities served by transit today command anywhere from a 40 percent to 200 percent price premium over conventional drivable suburban development.
Lawrence C. Levy, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, offers similar findings, but admits it is largely dependent on political leadership and cost of energy
The energy price crisis, which is battering suburbia harder than other areas because of its dependence on the car, has hastened a trend toward building higher rise housing in village downtowns near commuter rail lines — aka “transit oriented development.”
The units are more affordable because builders can acquire land in depressed village downtowns more cheaply than in other areas and because they are usually allowed to build more units per acre. The affordable apartments in hipper, walkable urban-style neighborhoods become a magnet for young, well educated workers that many suburbs have been losing. Independent elderly couples, who no longer need or want a big single family house, also are drawn to these cheaper, more interesting neighborhoods.
DEFINING THE OBJECTIVE
I should note, that in addition to the repeated forecast for denser, walkable, and transit-oriented development, many of the respondents spent time discussing the shifting demographic trends which are sure to reshape the suburbs we know today. This is certainly something we will see happen and I generally agree with the insights offered on this point.
What I am more intrigued by however, is the view echoed by almost all of the respondents that the cost of energy will be a major determinant suburbia’s future. This may seem like an obvious point for them to make, but I have always been one to believe that as soon as the cost of gasoline rose to a point that invited competition, the market would respond with innovations that softened the effect of energy cost. What has actually always concerned me more is the debilitating urban form that has arisen as a result of the personal automobile – a form that necessitates tons of parking, hinders community, and makes active living difficult. Ultimately, I find that we can embrace both the personal automobile with the exceptional freedom of mobility that it offers, along with an urban form that provides a high quality of life for everyone, including those that do not own a car. But quality of life must be the priority!
WHERE IT WENT WRONG
Cars are certainly a contributing factor to many peoples overall quality of life, but too often I find that American cities have failed to view the use of automobiles as a means to achieving a greater quality of life and have instead viewed the use of automobiles as the the objective itself. Once we lost sight of the true objective, it is not wonder it all went so wrong. In my opinion, suburbia’s golden era took place when early, wealthy suburbanites were able to benefit from all that suburbia offered in the form of “privacy, property, and selfhood” and yet remained a quick car ride away from a vital urban center that offered the best of a city in the form of community, shopping, culture, and people watching. This ideal combination that truly offered “the best of both worlds” was eventually sought out by everyone – and for good reason – but when all of the people left for the suburbs so did the amenities that were provided by now depleted urban center. The suburbs were no longer “the best of both worlds” and for many were no better than what a city by itself had offered in the first place.
Perhaps this is the idea that we are returning to with transit-oriented development. This was repeated in different ways by a number of the respondents and I believe their assessment is on target. Transit-oriented developments (or TODs) offer a hybrid of suburban and city living; and in a infrastructural form that contributes to the sustained vitality of a major urban center. What many cities currently have is a transportation system that is exclusively automobile oriented, which is detrimental to the sustained vitality of a city’s downtown and will diminish the aggregate quality of life for all residents. A diversity of transportation options with a diversity of related forms should be appealing to everyone. I certainly don’t want people that hate living downtown to be forced to live there; I want everyone to have the freedom to choose where they live and be held responsible for paying the full cost of that decision. Cities that can provide the overall best quality of life to a diverse population with varying taste will win out in the long run. This can only be done if we allow different parts of the city to serve different functions, but all in a way that contribute to the vitality of the city as a whole.
One way OKC could make downtown more functional for people both with and without cars is to improve parking accessibility and transit downtown – for more on this proposal, check out Bricktown Parking: Killing Two Birds with One Streetcar!