The future of suburbs? Suburbs ARE the future


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 []. 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.

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At some point we will probably see a big wave of auto donations as people change from petrol fueled cars to electric cars. In the future people will either have an electric car or choose public transport. There is no other way around. altandörrar

The New Suburbanism

Luke Lea

Rather than retrofitting our existing suburbs, mightn't it be better to build new towns in the exurban countryside in which a new lifestyle could emerge?

I am particularly interested in the possibility of a much shorter work week. It has been 70 years since The Fair Labor Standards Act was passed establishing the 40 hour week. Since that time a staggering amount of automation and labor-saving technology have been introduced, both in the home (dishwashers and washing machines to name only two) and in every branch of industry (as we see on Modern Marvels week after week) yet there has been no commensurate reduction in the maximum hours of employment.

We forget (I was surprised to learn) that labor-saving devices lower the demand for labor and hence its price. Without a commensurate reduction in the supply of labor (ie, shorter work weeks) working people do not profit from such inventions. Capitalists do.

The problem is that it is difficult to reduce the hours of labor in an already built-up metropolitan area, which includes our existing suburbs. A family with children that tries to get by on 40 hours of weekly employment must compete with two-earner families for real estate and housing, whose most expensive component by far is the land itself. That is the main reason why housing has gotten roughly twice as expensive in recent years, even though square footage has only increased by a third.

So why don't we contemplate the possibility of building New Towns in the Country in which parents work half-time (18-t0-24 hours a week) and in their free time help build their own houses, cultivate gardens, cook and eat at home, and care for own children and old people instead of putting them in daycare and nursing homes?

Industry might be interested in the idea because people can work faster and more efficiently for short periods of time than for longer, just as in track and field the short distance runners always run faster than the long-distance runners.

But of course building new towns outside our existing metropolitan areas is no easy task. It won't happen spontaneously if for no other reason that people will not move to places where industry does not exist, and industry will not move to places where people do not live. It takes coordination, planning, organization, and investment in infrastructure.

There is a movement afoot for a new federal infrastructure project, and I think a program like this might be a part of it. After all government in the past has often done things for our people that our people cannot do themselves, or do so well, to paraphrase Lincoln. Whether it was the trans-continental railroad or the interstate highway system, the Fair Labor Standards Act, or the FHA and mortgage deduction, or the law of eminent domain: government is necessary for fundamental progress.

Think of it as the next stage of suburban development or a reversion to our small-town and rural past: from Gemeinshaft to Gesellshaft and back to Gemeinshaft again.

Garden Cities and a much shorter work-week would work well together, I think, even if they are impossible by themselves. Time and space both need our attention when it comes to questions of reform.

Please excuse the typos. I am old and half blind.