Thursday, August 14, 2008

Suburbia in 40 years

The Freakonomics Blog asked this question: What will U.S. suburbs look like in 40 years? Here is who they asked - James Kunstler, Thomas Antus, Jan Brueckner, Gary Gates, John Archer, Alan Berube, and Lawrence Levy. Below are some of the quotes that I like (but read the entire post, it is worth it).

James Kunstler
In fact, it is already underway. One symptom of this is that the only subject under discussion about our energy predicament is how can we keep running all our cars by other means. Even the leading environmentalists talk of little else. We don’t get it. The Happy Motoring era is over. No combination of “alt” fuels — solar, wind, nuclear, tar sands, oil-shale, offshore drilling, used French-fry oil — will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World.

The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not. Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital.

Jack Brueckner
Suburbanization has shown a white bias, with most minority households yet to acquire their nice house in the suburbs. Some of this difference may reflect a history of housing-market discrimination, but lower suburbanization by minorities is mainly a result of lower incomes. As the black and Hispanic middle classes continue to grow and get richer, they are likely to follow the same suburbanization path as white households before them, restrained somewhat by higher gas prices. So U.S. suburbs 40 years hence will look much more ethnically diverse than they do today.

John Archer
Nevertheless, as we look to the future, suburbia is evolving in three key directions — not incidentally, along the same paths already being paved by global capitalism; suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid.

Planning will become flexible as well, so that infrastructure of all scales can smartly adapt to changing demographics and advancing energy, water, transportation, and other technologies. Again, the flexibility of capital as an investment will be registered in the form of more flexible real-estate instruments — which, as different clusters and neighborhoods evolve in different ways over time, will afford more occasions for aesthetic and demographic diversity.

Alan Berube
New physical forms. Just as America’s first suburbs sprouted up along the streetcar lines built in the early 20th century, the first half of the 21st century will see the growth of “light rail suburbs” (even in areas that don’t have the rail yet).

High oil prices and the imperative to address global climate change will help spur denser residential development along transit corridors outside of cities. We’d see more of it today, if supply kept up with demand. Chris Leinberger estimates that walkable suburban communities served by transit today command anywhere from a 40 percent to 200 percent price premium over conventional drivable suburban development.

What will the suburbs look like? My guess is with increased energy costs and less reliance on the automobile, it is almost impossible to determine, but mass transit will play a big part.

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