So Long, Suburbs?
April 5th, 2010

While looking unsuccessfully for an article on something else entirely, I made an important discovery the other day:  There is a Freakonomics Blog!  How did I not know this?  I immediately aborted my previous search and started poring over their archives, and drooling in quantities greater than what is socially acceptable.  It’s a complete goldmine of brain candy!  After frenetically combing through several sets of search results I resigned myself to the fact that this would become a time-consuming discovery and modified my expectations of reading it all right then

Of all the posts that caught my eye, the one that caused me to waste the most time at work was this one.  It is a quorum on suburbia, wherein the blog authors have tossed the question of suburban future to several topical experts.  As a lifelong suburb dweller (minus the six months of my semester abroad) I am fascinated by the idea that my lifestyle is an unsustainable blight on human evolution (or so say some of the respondents).  More fascinating still is the idea that within my lifetime said unsustainability of suburban life will reach its tipping point and the suburbs themselves will either radically evolve, or die off altogether.    

In reading the responses from the quorum participants I was struck by the range of perspectives.  From the apocalyptic to the reasonably foreseeable there is no shortage of ideas about how and where we will live in the future.    

  • There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. … People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future. I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead (Kunstler).
  •  Government services such as police, fire, health, and public works will increase exponentially. To pay for the expanded services, taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual paychecks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury (Antus).
  • The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated. … Lots of lesbians and gay men now view the suburban home with a white picket fence and a family with 2.5 kids as their version of gay equality (Gates).
  • Skyrocketing gas prices will lead some households to reconsider their long commutes, introducing an “anti-suburbanization” force that favors denser, more compact cities (Brueckner).

These quotes are just a taste of the positions represented in the post.  Having no idea of my own how realistic any of them is, I find myself feeling like I’ve stepped into a “Choose Your Own Adventure” book where I’m making decisions the ramifications of which I don’t fully understand.

I have a love/hate relationship with suburbia.  I love living on a quiet block where kids play in the street.  I loathe having to drive everywhere.  I love not sharing apartment walls with neighbors.  I loathe the mega-market mentality of the suburbs.  I love clean fresh air and being able to let my dogs out the back door.  I loathe the distance, both literally and metaphorically, that separates me from the cultural epicenter of urban hubs.  But in spite of all the time I’ve spent thinking about my own experience in the suburbs, I’d never stopped to consider the broader implications of the lifestyle I have (if by default?) chosen.

It seemed obvious to me once it had been pointed out, but prior to reading the referenced post I’d never really thought about the premise of cheap energy on which the suburban concept is based, nor longevity (or perhaps more accurately, lack thereof) of that concept.  Reading through the respondents predictions I was struck by fear (could that really happen?) and incredulity (that could never happen!). 

After walking away from the post for a few hours I began to postulate my own theory.  Based on an amount of information that is just North of nothing I weighed out what I believe to be some realistic scenarios.  My overriding suspicion is that enough Americans have become so supremely entrenched in their suburban lifestyles that the ‘burbs will not, as Kunstler suggests, become wholly abandoned slums.  Rather, I suspect that suburbs will still exist, but perhaps in the vein of the small town – accessible by train, including infrastructure for foot traffic, and including more small-scale shops than super-sized retail outlets.  Perhaps more suburban office workers will telecommute, which will perhaps prompt an increase in single-car families.  These smaller city centers might pop up around larger urban centers (or evolve out of today’s existing suburban landscape).  Or, perhaps with the flexibility of working remotely small and medium-sized towns will grow as the members of the suburban exodus look for something with the convenience of an urban center, but without the price tag.

These are all just my mental musings.  Mostly, I find this topic fascinating and am enjoying pondering the cultural evolution of the only lifestyle I’ve ever known.  I’ve long thought I might someday end up living in a large city.  But I never dreamed it would be because energy prices forced me out of my current locale.  Clearly, I’ve got some reading to do.

10 Responses to “So Long, Suburbs?”

  1. JBS Says:

    “Home from Nowhere” is one of the most eye-opening books a 20th/21st century person can read. I actually e mailed him once with a complaint and he fired back and sort of nailed me. He’s very thought-provoking and also explains why so many architectural practices don’t “work.” (horizontal windows/dead people, vertical windows/living people) Everyone should read him. I’ll go to the website! Thanks, Gale.

  2. Gale Says:

    JBS – I read “Geography of Nowhere” (which I think came first?) years ago, but only snippets of it have stayed with me. It was interesting reading Kunstler’s perspective among the others. He’s a bit extreme, but I found his position refreshing amongst some of the more measured responses.

  3. Anne Says:

    I struggle with this, because I feel more comfortable when I have space. I could do a city as long as I lived in a VERY residential area. I get really antsy when I look up and see buildings instead of sky. with that said, I do hate having to drive everywhere. I think the biggest tragedy is the death of the small rural town and “main street america”. I’m waiting for THAT to come back.

  4. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    Who knew Freakonomics had a blog? Huh. I, too, have a love/hate relationship with suburbia. I love our big yard and great parks, but there’s a bit of a drive involved if you want to eat at a decent restaurant that isn’t a chain.

  5. Eva Says:

    I LOVE Freakonomics! (And I say this after just today I’ve posted that “just because something can be counted, doesn’t mean it counts.” I admit, I do love numbers.) My favorite Freakonomics study is how shopping mall Santas are like prostitutes. I know, fascinating and ridiculous at the same time.

    It is intriguing (and frightening) to think about how our world and our daily lives might change over the course of a lifetime. And how the decisions we make might be viewed as short-sighted by our children in their adulthood. I do hope both cities and suburbs still survive, in some improved form. I love my city-dwelling life!

  6. joely Says:

    Funny thing, I am going on a trip tomorrow and Freakonomics is the book I packed today in my purse. Eva evolving sent me over to your site. I had written a tribute the cities of America recently and she thought I would enjoy your blog. I did. I was raised a suburbanite but have done a turn around. I like the country, I like the city, but it is the suburbs that leave me empty. For me , it is the people. I think the city fosters change and individuality. I love this topic, as my mother would love to move to suburbia and send my kids to a blue ribbon school district. I dont think it will ever happen, but I have people in my life pushing me that direction.

  7. Jana@Attitude Adjustment Says:

    My husband is actually obsessed with this very subject. He talks all the time about how we need to plant our own garden and raise chickens (as though that’s allowed in our township). He points out that trucks are required to stock the shelves at our local supermarket, and that if this wasn’t possible (fuel, trucks, highways), we’d all perish. Add to this my interest in feminist dystopia (which was the subject of my master’s thesis) and apocalyptic fiction in general, and we have a pretty pessimistic suburban house. This is one of those issues that would cause me serious midnight anxiety if I chose to think about it, though, so I ignore it. That and the issue of fossil fuels, water supply, etc. My fragile brain just can’t handle it, even though I try to be environmentally conscious. (I do have to say, though, that while our house is in “suburbia,” it is more like a close-knit Irish ghetto from the 1920′s. I can walk to almost any kind of store I need, and we are only a few miles from the outskirts of the city. So that makes me feel better.)

  8. Aidan Donnelley Rowley @ Ivy League Insecurities Says:

    Such an interesting topic in general and for me at the moment because a good number of my city friends are fleeing for the burbs. And we are going to visit them in their big homes with their big yards and I am genuinely torn about the nuances of this city/burb divide. What is good for us? For the kiddos? It is a really big and rich question. I must ponder your post a bit more, I think. And check out that blog in the meantime! Merci :)

  9. Bridget Says:

    On a personal note your post has made me feel better about the fact that I’m having a hard time selling my city house. I desire a suburban one.

    The irony is living in the city has not made for a shorter commute for me as my office is in the suburbs. I drive 17 miles outside of the city limits for work and 17 miles back to the city to live. I wonder what these authors have to say about the many companies that have made their headquarters in these outlying areas. Maybe we can all just shift around jobs so that we work closer to home? If energy prices increase as exponentially as they predict these things will happen naturally on their own.

    Until it is hurting our pocketbooks the issue of suburban sprawl will continue to spread. Like you hypothesized, I also think small changes to the way we commute and conduct business will evolve when we face increasing energy costs.

  10. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » When Less Is More Says:

    [...] of people who are knowledgeable about such things have been saying for a long time that the current American model of suburban sprawl is unsustainable.  It is inefficient and heavily reliant on fossil fuels.  It is predicated on the existance [...]