The Atlantic declares “The Beginning of the End for Suburban America”

While this is not the only recent claim that the suburban era in America is coming to an end, this piece still has a bold headline and claim:

In the years following World War II, the United States experienced an unprecedented consumption boom. Anything you could measure was growing. A Rhode Island-sized chunk of land was bulldozed to make new suburbs every single year for decades. America rounded into its present-day shape.

Along the way, there were three inexorable trends at the base of the societal pyramid. First, we plowed more energy into our homes each and every year. We cooled and heated our houses more (sometimes wastefully, sometimes not), brought in more and more appliances, added televisions and computers and phones. Per capita electricity shot up from about 4,000 kilowatt-hours per US resident to over 13,000 kilowatt-hours by the 2000s. Second, we needed more electricity because our houses got huge. The median home size shot up from about 1,500 square feet in the early 1970s to more than 2,200 square feet in the mid-200s. Third, we drove more and more miles every year to get around and between our sprawled-out cities. Back in 1960, Americans drove 0.72 trillion miles. By 2000, that number had reached 2.75 trillion miles. In 2007, vehicle miles traveled hit 3.02 trillion…

Taken together, the end of growth in residential electricity consumption and vehicle miles traveled form a momentous signal. The United States we all grew up with is changing, or rather, it’s changed and the numbers are beginning to reflect that. The growth in housing size, electricity demand and miles traveled were the hallmarks of the suburban/exurban era. They were the statistics of sprawl — but also of economic growth. Now that their relentless upward march has stopped, what happens? We need a new model for American prosperity that doesn’t require ever greater injections of fossil energy. That’s a generational challenge that hasn’t been captured by the pro- or anti-green jobs rhetoric here in Washington.

Two quick thoughts come to mind:

1. I wonder if these are symptoms regarding sprawl and don’t really tell the full story of what is happening. None of these factors alone makes sprawl happen. Many would argue that certain government policies, stretching back to the New Deal and decisions made to spend government money on interstates and roads and make mortgages more affordable. Such policies are still in place: more money is spent on roads than mass transit, there is much talk about how to boost home sales and write off mortgage debt, and how to lower the price of gasoline. Could these figures cited in this article simply be reactions to certain market factors and not reflect deeper cultural and political shifts?

2. We’ve heard this story about the end of sprawl before. I was reminded of this when my American Suburbanization class recently finished Kenneth Jackson’s 1987 classic Crabgrass Frontier. In the final chapter, Jackson also suggests that American suburban growth will eventually slow, probably due to energy problems. This article in The Atlantic and Jackson are not the only people predicting this: many more have said that the suburbs are unsustainable and eventually Americans will have to pursue other development forms. But harkening back to my first point, whatever crisis may arise still has to be big enough to overcome an established cultural and political ideology that supports suburbs. In terms of miles driven, what if electric cars make driving cheaper (or, “Is a Car Battery Subsidy Just a Sprawl Subsidy?”)? What if new technology can ensure that McMansions are energy efficient? Who wants to be the first politician to tell voters that the suburban dream of a single-family home on at least a little yard in a good neighborhood is no longer attainable? What if the economy picks up again and homes get larger again?

In the end, how do we know that this is really the point where we have turned a corner and the American suburbs are now on the decline? Could the future suburbs be more dense, a la New Urbanist developments, and more energy efficient while retaining their key suburban traits? These three statistics do suggest something has changed – but there is a long way to go before we can write off the American suburbs.

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