The new suburban crisis is…

According to Richard Florida, the era of cheap growth is over and suburbs will struggle to address important issues:

Suburban sprawl is extremely costly to the economy broadly. Infrastructure and vital services such as water and energy can be 2.5 times more expensive to deliver in the suburbs than in compact urban centers. In total, sprawl costs the U.S. economy roughly $600 billion a year in direct costs related to inefficient land usage and car dependency, and another $400 billion in indirect costs from traffic congestion, pollution, and the like, according to a 2015 study from the London School of Economics. The total bill: a whopping $1 trillion a year…

When all is said and done, the suburban crisis reflects the end of a long era of cheap growth. Building roads and infrastructure and constructing houses on virgin land was and is an incredibly inexpensive way to provide an American Dream to the masses, certainly when compared to what it costs to build new subway lines, tunnels, and high-rise buildings in mature cities. For much of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and on into the 1980s and 1990s, suburbanization was the near-perfect complement to America’s industrial economy. More than the great mobilization effort of World War II or any of the Keynesian stimulus policies that were applied during the 1930s, it was suburban development that propelled the golden era of economic growth in the 1950s and 1960s. As working- and middle-class families settled into suburban houses, their purchases of washers, dryers, television sets, living-room sofas, and automobiles stimulated the manufacturing sector that employed so many of them, creating more jobs and still more homebuyers. Sprawl was driver of the now-fading era of cheap economic growth.

But today, clustering, not dispersal, powers innovation and economic growth. Many people still like living in suburbs, of course, but suburban growth has fallen out of sync with the demands of the urbanized knowledge economy. Too much of our precious national productive capacity and wealth is being squandered on building and maintaining suburban homes with three-car garages, and on the infrastructure that supports them, rather than being invested in the knowledge, technology, and density that are required for sustainable growth. The suburbs aren’t going away, but they are no longer the apotheosis of the American Dream and the engine of economic growth.

Florida is right on a number of counts: (1) many suburbs are long past their period of growth and now having aging infrastructure as well as changing populations; (2) sprawl can be very inefficient for providing basic services (from water to roads to social services); and (3) we are in a different economic era.

At the same time, it is not necessarily clear where the suburbs will go after this. At least a few outcomes are possible:

  1. A decline in interest in suburbs (either a plateauing in population or even decreasing) due to inefficiencies, costs to the environment, and a resurgent interest in urban life (particularly among younger adults). Suburban critics have predicted movement in this direction for several decades.
  2. A retooling of suburbia. This could include: older suburbs adapting to the lack of greenfield growth opportunities; an increase in retrofitting older suburban developments and making them new and exciting; and denser suburban development (from row houses to New Urbanism).
  3. The status quo: enough Americans continue to express a desire for the suburban life despite what critics say. Technology may even help as driverless cars could make commutes more bearable.

There are indeed real issues facing suburbs, the suburban life was never as idyllic as it was portrayed, and suburban communities and outcomes today are varied. But, I believe it is hard to bet against an ongoing interest among Americans for the suburbs.

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