I entered the field of futures research in 1981. No, not futures – contracts to deliver a certain commodity at a certain price at a date certain (God, I wish I had) – futures research, as in scenarios, trends, strategic planning and market planning. Unfortunately the place was soon lousy with what I call “futurism”: extrapolations of the unsustainable to make the improbable look inevitable.
A current example: suburbs are doomed because of high energy prices (peak oil!), the housing bubble, the obsolescence of the internal combustion engine, and yes, global warming (and what hasn’t been blamed on global warming?). Besides, the urban renaissance is underway; people want to live in the city for the culture, food, music and hipness, don’tchaknow. This is what I read in the Freakonomics quorum on the future of suburbia (New York Times, 8/12/08), and in The Atlantic magazine (“The Next Slum,” Christopher Leinberger, March 2008), The International Herald Tribune (“Life on the fringes of U.S. suburbia becomes untenable with rising gas costs,” 6/24/08), and elsewhere, ad infinitum.
Well, I could be clever and say that predictions of the demise of suburbs are premature, be in fact they are just plain apocalyptic and absurd. Suburbs are the nexus of American life, have been for decades, and will certainly remain so (because, like, where else are we going to put the next 100 million Americans). Suburbs are where the majority of Americans today, and in the future, live, work, shop, create, consume, recreate, educate and, perhaps most importantly, procreate.
Suburbs remain home to a majority of Americans and a plurality of American families. Suburban population, business and job growth each outpace those of cities, have done so for decades and will likely continue to do so. In fact, from 2001 to 2006:
- 90% of all metropolitan population growth occurred in the suburbs (American County Survey, US Census Bureau)
- Job growth in suburbia expanded at 6 times the rate of that in urban cores (Praxis Strategy Group)
A small recent surge in mass transit won’t really change this. Of the 130 million Americans who commute to work every day, 41 million – by far the largest number and share – commute within suburbs (i.e. to the same or another suburb). Only 18 million, or 14% of commuters, commute from a suburb to a central city. To put it another way, 60% of commuting is suburb-related in some way. [IAC Transportation (July, 2008)] By the way, 75% of all commuters drive alone in their cars.
Repeat after me: “multi-centered metropolitan region.” This is the model that characterizes most city/suburban regions in the US, where the urban core is just one of several nodes of development or centers of economic, residential, office, industrial, educational and recreational facilities and life. This is the model that, planned or unplanned, has evolved in the United States. It works, we like it, we’re keeping it. I know, congestion is horrible, but it’s horribly unnecessary: as explained by both Roth in Street Smart and by Stanley and Balaker in The Road More Traveled (both books published last year) [can we find a link to sites for these books] , we have the knowledge and means to reduce or even eliminate traffic congestion (more capacity, and more rational use of current capacity), but we don’t have the political will to deregulate, privatize and build.
Repeat after me again: “mixed-use.” OK? I’m not talking about New Urbanism or smart growth, which are concepts whose utility and desirability are debatable. I’m talking about the availability, in a suburban setting, to access services and amenities, or what Wally Siembab calls “smart sprawl” – retrofitting suburbs of any density so that residents can shop, obtain services and work all within a mile or two of their home.
One last point: Telecommuting, small home-based businesses and self-employment make suburban living all the more plausible and sustainable. If you add the number of part-time and full-time telecommuters plus home-based businesses, you’re talking about 36 million Americans, more than a fourth of the workforce.
Welcome to the future: suburbia.
Roger Selbert is a business futurist and trend guy. He lives in Los Angeles, edits and publishes the newsletter Growth Strategies, speaks and consults [www.rogerselbert.com]. He graduated from Bowdoin College in 1973, missed his graduation ceremony and has yet to return. But he thinks Brunswick, Maine was a great college town.