Thursday, February 12, 2009

Thoughts on the Suburbs

I came across an interesting post today titled "How to Save the Suburbs: Solutions from the Man Who Saw the Whole Thing Coming" and read through it. The suburbs are a particularly interesting issue since we are more or less stuck with them and they seem to defy any and all solutions. Unfortunately, the man who saw the whole thing coming didn't seem to have any new ideas.

The typical thinking on suburbs goes something like this: People don't want to have to use a car, so lets make places walkable. To do that, we'll need really good public transportation. All we do is run a street car or subway into the suburbs and build some condos around the stop and presto--the problem of the suburb is solved!

To guess that the suburbs will build their way out of the boonies is utter nonsense. They lack the population and affluence to support massive public transit. More likely, bus lines will be run to the suburbs to bring in the menial labor that keeps cities up and running. This arrangement will get stale quickly as cities realize that they have plenty of sub-standard properties available for the working class.

Of course, I can count on my fingers the suburbs that will be getting their subway stop in the next 30 years. Any suburban strategy that relies on building and growth will fail. Suburbs will decay. Cities will eventually cut off the highway connections the keep the suburbs on life support and only the impoverished will inhabit them. The big unknown is how they might decay gracefully.

I have previously speculated on a sort of post-lawn agricultural utopia for the suburbs; it fits well with the resources that the slum-suburbs will have. Small scale agriculture projects take a lot of space but not much capital, perfect for the soon to be impoverished suburbs. Enormous amounts of research have been done on intensive agriculture, and our diets are slowly beginning to shift away from row crops to vegetables that take more human labor. The proximity of the agri-burbs to the dense urban core make them the prefect place for local agriculture. The new era of the small farmer will be born.

Of course, there are other options for suburbs. Periods of mass exodus and crime certainly await those that are unable to attract new residents by offering social and economic opportunity. Suburbs closer to the urban core will likely be gobbled up by an expanding urban population, but these will be rare.

As city land becomes increasingly valuable, developers will certainly push population density to its breaking point. The amount of land required to house the new urban dwellers will be a tiny fraction of the total suburban mass.

As demand wanes for the suburban experience and supply remains constant, development after development will fall to the forces of our capitalist system. The government seems intent on preventing this trend with tax breaks for mortgages and auto payments. If this is their approach, they will only delay the inevitable. Instead, the government should help transition suburbs into the viable social and economic communities that they could one day become.


  1. Once upon a time, suburbs in the boonies like Brooklyn, NY, Hyde Park, IL and Oakland, CA lacked the population and affluence to support massive public transit. That changed over time.

    Unless history has stopped forever, suburbs will continue to change; some becoming more urbanized, some becoming ruralized or abandoned.

  2. You bring up disparate but telling examples. All of these place have particular resources that make them intrinsically valuable. Suburbs too have valuable resources, but they are simply too large to ever fill up enough to support transit.

    I very much agree with you that suburbs will change. We should work to make that change go smoothly and productively, not to stand in its way.