I was recently asked by Gracen Johnson (check out her site here) to elaborate on the possible future of suburbia. How are the suburbs likely to fare over time? This coincided with a city planner friend of mine who asked a more poignant question about the suburban community he helps manage. “What’s this place for?” If we can answer that question we might be able to get a handle on the possible trajectories of various suburbs.
For example, we all understand what a farm town is for. Small rural towns produce food. The people who live in the countryside are actively engaged in the business of feeding society. They take soil, water, plants and animals and convert it all into breakfast, lunch and dinner. For the people who want to live this way there are tremendous benefits: fresh air, open space, privacy, independence, a direct connection to nature, strong family bonds, tradition, and so on. Whatever else we might say about farm country we can be certain that it will carry on one way or another or else civilization will grind to a halt pretty quickly.
We also know what industrial cities are for. They take the raw materials from the surrounding countryside and transform them into finished goods. Grain becomes flour and bread. Timber becomes lumber, then homes and furniture. Iron ore and coal become machinery and power. Crude oil becomes gasoline, petrochemicals, and plastics. There are obvious trade offs for industrial workers, but for many people it’s a pretty good arrangement. If we expect to have manufactured goods in the future these cities will have to continue somehow.
The new post-industrial locus is a bit trickier to pin down. The service economy doesn’t actually produce any “thing” so the workforce is liberated to live just about anywhere in a way that farmers and factory workers can’t. Oddly, well educated highly paid people don’t actually spread out and inhabit a million cabins in the woods as you might expect. Instead they clump up in a handful of regions that provide abundant cultural amenities. At the same time the post-industrial economy exists in a physical world and all those people and electronic components rely on the underlaying farms, factories, and raw resources that support them. The so-called dematerialization of the economy still requires a serious amount of real “stuff” to function.
So what does this all mean for the suburbs? The nature of suburbia has always been consumptive rather than productive. People move to the suburbs in order to purchase and enjoy things: a spacious home, a good school district, security, a clean environment, more respectable neighbors, and so on. The majority of the commercial activity is actually in service to suburbia itself. The mortgage brokers, insurers, real estate agents, landscapers, school teachers, firefighters, orthodontists, pancake houses, and auto body shops are all there to help keep the suburbs humming along. But they’re all consumptive in nature. No one is making the tennis shoes sold at the mall or growing the oranges at the supermarket. This is compounded by the fact that the suburbs are maintained largely through debt. Private debt is required for all the mortgages, car loans, credit cards, student loans, and business loans while municipal bonds prop up many essential suburban government functions. The fact that many people don’t understand the difference between production and consumption is one of the big problems the suburbs are going to have to sort out in the future.
I’m going to get a lot of push back on this concept. I’m sure many of you think that your suburb is full of productive enterprises: the Krispy Kreme, the Jiffy Lube, the dozen Shell and Exxon stations, the Applebee’s, the Foot Locker, the Honda dealership, and the Kroger’s. But these are merely outlets for things that were produced elsewhere. Let me offer another example from my own life. I spent a chunk of my childhood in the San Fernando Valley in Los Angeles. Back in the 1960’s and 1970’s nearly everyone had some connection to companies like Rocketdyne, Litton, and General Dynamics. Those were the engines of the local economy for decades. And they did in fact produce real physical things. But they were all funded entirely by the federal government. Tax money was skimmed off the national productive economy (all those farms and factories) and then spent on missile guidance systems, satellites, and fighter jets. The same was true in Huntsville, Alabama and Marietta, Georgia. Remember what happened to all those places when the feds turn off the spigot during budget cuts? Money flowed in, not out. There’s a reason Peru doesn’t have a space program. The underlying national economy isn’t productive enough to support such extravagant government spending.
As the material abundance we enjoyed in the Twentieth Century tightens up suburbs will have to become much more efficient places that provide things the outside world needs and is willing to pay for. At the same time internal consumption and debt are going to have to be pulled back. That doesn’t necessarily mean a lower quality of life, but it does demand that suburbs retool and ask themselves, “What’s this place for?”