Thursday, February 28, 2008

Trouble In Paradise

I recently came across this interesting article from the Atlantic regarding the possible future of suburbia. The main culprit driving the crisis referred to in the article is the fallout from the bursting of the real estate bubble, namely the subprime mortgage meltdown and resultant credit crunch. Nowadays even in the wealthier jurisdictions of this sort, including Loudoun, there have been more and more foreclosure auctions and fewer and fewer takers.

Being the quinessential urbanite (my long commute from one central city to another notwithstanding - it's mostly on a train) I had never quite fully understood the appeal of the outer fringes of metropolitan areas. But all through the 1990s and even during the early years of this decade, most of the country appeared to disagree with me as outer suburbs boomed, notably nearby Loudoun County, Virgnia.

Nonetheless, from an objective point of view, it had occurred to me that outer suburbia was becoming a less desirable place to live for a variety of reasons.

* Some people moved to outer-ring suburbs or exurbs to be closer to wide open spaces, but the building boom in such areas over the last generation has brought more and more people and traffic, their appeal has declined, unless one was willing to live ever further from the city center.

* Much of the mass suburbanization the nation has seen has been driven by "white flight," white middle class families fleeing urban crime, urban blight, poor performing schools, forced busing plans, and other maladies that befell central cities over the second half of the 20th Century in particular. (Of course at this point "white flight" is something of a misnomer in many places since black middle-class families joined the exodus as well and in some locales have created their own patches of suburban development, some of them quite prosperous.) However, as recent immigrant populations come to the suburbs in search of more affordable housing, they often bring challenges to the standard assumptions about infrastructure needs in the subrubs - local school systems unaccustomed to language issues, road and transit systems not used to needing to provide the transportation and/or increased road capacity that these populations tend to need. The result has been a backlash and a backlash to the backlash. I don't need to mention that they make the suburbs look quite different then they did a generation ago, but racism is not the only factor and may not even be the most significant one.

* And of course, there's the factor I always thought would really sour people on the long commutes and hours waiting in traffic - the increased price of fuel.

I read peak oil theorist James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency upon a friend's recommendation and dismissed a lot of it as a little over the top, and when his prediction of a massive collapse in the Dow in 2007 utterly failed to materialize, I discounted or at least took with a grain of salt most of what was in the rest of the book. But a portion of the book where he described a scenario whereby some low-density suburbs might become the slums of tomorrow always stuck in my mind. With gas prices seemingly caught in an ever upward spiral, depending on residents to commute 40 or 50 miles every day each way to get to and from work seems like an unsustainable trend.

Other countries, those that have higher gasoline prices, are already ahead of the curve so to speak. I recently cam across ann odd little fact about the film Juno. In the movie, the title character and her family lived in a working class/lower-middle class suburb of Minneapolis with relatively small housing stock, and the Lorings, the prospective adoptive parents of Juno's baby live in a large house in a wealthy exurban area. But like a lot of movies, much of the filming actually took place in Vancouver, Canada. And while the pattern suggested by the movie still largely holds true in most American metropolitan areas, it turns out that in metro Vancouver, the modest house where Juno lives is worth more than the McMansion where the Lorings live, mostly because one could more easily walk or use public transit in Juno's neighborhood than in that of the Lorings, where a private vehicle is a necessity on every trip.

The bottom line here?

We junked our cities over the last 50 years in particular, in part to distance ourselves from poor people in general, and in part distance ourselves from other people in general. To that end, we built superhighways to facilitate our movements through these former open spaces that have now been filled with subdivisions and shopping malls and starved public transportation investments in most places, creating entire metro areas based exclusively around long car trips. We created almost by accident a tax system - federal, state, and local - that encouraged and incentivized people to move to bigger houses consuming more and space and more and more energy further and further outward. We fostered a politics of isolation, of alientaton, and of radical individualism - but ironically did so using a complex system of government subsidies and public incentives to a degree that a truly free market could not have indulged.

It was a shortsighted and foolish call on our part, but it was hard to notice that as long as oil was cheap and plentiful. None of this necessarily makes us any more or less venial than any other nation or culture on earth, for it cannot be said that the siren song that led us to where we are would have gone unheard by other nations or peoples. Indeed we are watching China and India trying to repeat our patterns of consumption before our very eyes. Whether or not the disaster that the Kunstlers of the world predict comes to pass, things will have to change and the sooner that we change our mindset the sooner we can get started.

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