8.16.2009

The Problem of the Suburbs


A nice run of posts over at the Freakonomics blog on the future of suburbia in an age of not-cheap energy. I've found myself especially mulling over the link to 20 finalists for a suburban re-do contest. It has occurred to me that in order to know which solution is best, one must decide what the problem is.

So what is the problem of the suburbs? Some not-so-organized thoughts:

Trend 1 - America will become more populous, more aged, and more diverse. We're already seeing this, and we're seeing it happen in the 'burbs as well.

Trend 2 - A lot of what the suburbs are built on is unsustainable. The geographic distribution of the subprime meltdown is just a harbinger of things to come. Water-intensive golf courses in the middle of deserts, and land uses predicated on subsidized highways and free parking, are going to become prohibitively expensive to initiate and maintain.

Trend 3 - People are still going to want to sort and to have their space. High-density living isn't for everyone, so despite the fact that it will become more economically logical over time, some will opt out, and are free to do so. On a related note, many will continue to choose their residential community to sort themselves and their school-age kids with others like them and not with others not like them.

Trend 4 - Manufacturing will go sideways more than it will go either up or down. On the one hand, we may regain some currently offshored activity, as the cost advantage of developing countries narrows on account of higher wages and pollution caps. On the other hand, who everyone loses to (and, paradoxically, as a result, gains from) is machines, as the relentless pace of innovation and automation drives down the cost of manufacturing as well as the labor component of it. I'm not sure which force will be greater, so right now I'm calling it a push.

Trend 5 - The new quintessential middle-class job sector will be in health care. See Trend 1 above. If 80 is the new 40, no matter how much medicine advances, 80-year-olds have more health care needs than 40-year-olds. The longer we live and the richer we get, the more of a proportion of our income we are willing to spend on increasing the quality and quantity of our health. So that's where the job growth will be, enough so that there will be healthy hospital growth outside of high-density urban settings. See Trend 6 below.

Trend 6 - Cities are still where all the good stuff is going to be. The knowledge economy demands agglomerations of smart people, so all the good jobs will be there. Density is also needed for important people-attracting things like universities, teaching hospitals, research centers, cultural institutions, entertainment venues, and public services.

Trend 7 - Supermarkets will be the "suburban transit villages" many New Urbanists had envisioned. Many suburbanites will still balk at living in mixed-use communities, but will clamor for human contact and for accomplishing multiple functions in one place. So you're going to see a consolidation of supermarket space, and a swallowing up of other uses under those roofs, like banking, coffee shops, and community center sorts of classes.

Trend 8 - Greenfields will be, well, greened. The suburbs may not get much denser, but neither will there be demand for new development that further sprawls them out. So the low-hanging greenfield space that used to get converted into housing will now be used to help clusters of jurisdictions to generate energy at a more localized level. Insert your renewable energy flavor of the month here; I have no idea which is going to win out, but whatever it is, you're going to see pockets of it disbursed within far-flung suburbs.

Trend 9 - Greenfields will be, well, greened (Part 2). As food becomes dearer, and transporting it even dearer, producing it locally will go mainstream, no longer just the purview of the enlightened or the crunchy, but a reasonable choice for the coldly rational shopper. Cottage industries will form around experts who know what crops work in what places and how to get them grown in the newly available greyfields abandoned by what used to be malls and strip centers.

Trend 10 - Regional rail is going to get super-sized. Remember how future travel was envisioned in Minority Report? (See photo above.) You're going to see Mini-sized cars that can drive on regular roads and whose axles are standardized so as to fit on conveyer belts that transport you from suburban nodes to urban hubs (and, perhaps, from one metro region to another). Or you can hop into an empty pod instead of bringing your own. With bike and car share waiting for you on both ends.

Hmmm . . . I started by thinking I would get at what is the problem of the suburbs, and have ended up with a mish-mash of problems, trends, and solutions. Well, think of this as a rambly conversation starter. Please join in on the fun.
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