Will high gas prices doom the suburbs? The short answer is no. America’s investment in suburbia is too broad and deep and these will drive all kinds of technological and other adaptations. But the continued outward growth of new suburban housing tracts and power centers is unsustainable.
It is, of course, risky to predict anything, particularly the future. No one can predict with certainty the direction of gas prices, let alone how they will reshape our landscape. While the long-term trend for oil and gas is almost certainly rising prices, volatility will continue to make short-run bets risky either way.
But whether gas prices plateau, spike or even decline in the next five years, larger forces will reinforce the shift to greater reinvestment in older urban areas – and towards reinvention of existing suburban areas, particularly those with strong economies.
There will still be some “greenfield” peripheral development, but unplanned “sprawl” will wither. New development will be look more like New Urbanist new towns. There will be a revival of the integrated planned community, like Reston in Virginia, the Woodlands near Houston or Valencia and Santa Margarita in Southern California.
The forces converging to curb sprawl go beyond gas prices. There will be regulatory and market pressure to cut carbon emissions to address global warming, but the most serious threat to outward sprawl will be the private and public shortage of financing for new infrastructure, which is likely to be chronic. Given the deepening crisis in the housing and lending industries, in the long interval building resumes, new development will be very different from what we’ve seen in the past fifty years of most conventional suburbia.
Of course, even if we adopted a universal program of “smart growth” across America tomorrow, it would be decades before we had repaired and reshaped our landscape and economy to a more sustainable model. In the meantime, there will be tremendous pressure to exploit existing and new energy sources to maintain the suburban model we live in. But we can’t ignore the pragmatic economist Herb Stein who first observed, “Things which can’t go on forever, don’t (known as Stein’s Law).”
In part, because of legislation such as AB 32, the “Global Climate Solutions Act,” California may be one of the first test cases of this transition. Whether you think this is the greatest threat to our planet in human history or you think this is environmental hysteria, global warming legislation is now a political reality.
We can’t meet reduce greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 – the fundamental goal of the legislation – without reducing vehicle miles traveled. With transportation producing 40 percent of the problem, improved fuel efficiency will help – and so will switching to alternative fuels and increased telecommuting. But those gains will be essentially wiped out by the offsetting increases in population and mileage that people are traveling.
While the costs of retooling new growth to be more sustainable will be significant, so are the opportunities. This year alone, according to the Economist, the oil importing nations will transfer two trillion dollars to the oil exporting nations. That’s money that will not be go to improve our infrastructure, protect our environment or educate our youth. It goes out our tailpipes.
Here in California, the $20 billion transportation bond that voters approved in 2006 comes nowhere near to closing the $100 billion dollar gap in transportation infrastructure needed to address auto congestion and goods movement by truck. There is no way California’s government or economy can afford to continue to pay that cost. But it has taken gas at nearly $5 a gallon for people to wake up and smell the fumes.
But halting sprawl is not the same as reversing it. Gas prices, AB 32 mandates, highway spending deficits and environmental concerns all conspire against more red-tiled roof subdivisions in Palmdale and Victorville. Yet growth pressures will fuel new demand down the road, so older suburbs and cities have to find ways to develop family-friendly housing and attract jobs that have been flowing to the suburban edge.
These are two different, but related challenges. Older suburbs have to find a way to gracefully urbanize by strengthening or creating walkable centers and adding more population along commercial/transit corridors. They need to transition from auto-dependence to a wider range of real transportation alternatives. Above all, they face the challenge of persuading residents that reinvention of the suburbs can improve their quality of life and standard of living.
Planners make a mistake if they try to tell suburban residents to give up what they like about suburbia in terms of space, privacy and safety. Acceptance of higher densities in existing suburban communities will only come if design of more urban housing improves and new development offers residents tangible improvements in amenities such as pedestrian-friendly districts, parks, bikeways and opportunities to work close to home.
Older cities, on the other hand, already have much of the physical framework in place, but need to improve their parks, schools, libraries and neighborhoods. They must make themselves attractive to retain working and middle-class households, especially families with children. The key challenge will be to overcome the entrenched special interests that dominate urban politics to focus on the efforts that make a city hospitable to residents and businesses and be less dominated by the interests of developers and public employee unions.
All across the state there are promising examples that suggest suburban and urban communities are getting the point. in the short run, the weak economy and awful financial market, both for public and private sectors, will slow change. But California has shown incredible resilience over the past 150 years. Our growing population and changing demographics will open up a huge market for reinvesting in our older communities.
Now is the time to prepare for that time. Remember during the last deep real estate downturn, former Governor Pete Wilson abandoned his promise to tackle statewide growth management. His excuse was, “I wish I had some growth to manage.” The tragedy of that missed opportunity was that it wasn’t long before growth again overwhelmed our capacity.
What if we’d not only put in place a coherent growth management strategy like Oregon, New Jersey or Maryland – but we’d established the collaborative regional structures in place like in metro Denver, Salt Lake City or Portland? Today, we’d be finishing the Subway to the Sea, the Gold Line extension to Ontario Airport and we’d have regular commuter rail between Ventura and Santa Barbara. Maybe then, $5 gas would be a little less painful.
For too long, we’ve viewed cities and suburbia as natural antagonists. But the future may lie with greater convergence. Cities can become greener and more attractive to population growth. Suburbs can begin to urbanize in graceful and sustainable ways. Both are due for reinvention and reinvestment. The challenges we face will give us the opportunity – and the necessity – for doing just that.
Rick Cole is the City Manager in Ventura, California, where he has championed smart growth strategies and revitalization of the historic downtown. He previously spent six years as the City Manager of Azusa, where he was credited by the San Gabriel Valley Tribune with helping make it “the most improved city in the San Gabriel Valley.” He earlier served as mayor of Pasadena and has been called “one of Southern California’s most visionary planning thinkers by the LA Times.” He was honored by Governing Magazine as one of their “2006 Public Officials of the Year.”