There was a time when most people lived on a farm in the countryside. For some that was Nirvana, but for others it was stifling. It didn’t really matter much because farming was 90% of what was on the menu. There weren’t a lot of alternatives. Then the Industrial Revolution pulled workers in to big crowded cities and mechanization replaced human labor on farms. At a certain point it became impossible to earn a living in rural America. Some people fled the farm with great enthusiasm, but many others went against their druthers. There really wasn’t much choice.
There were once people who thrived on dependable factory union wages. They were able to buy a home, send their children off to university, and retire in relative comfort. There were others who hated factory work and couldn’t wait to escape to something better. Either way, those days are now long gone. It didn’t matter what people wanted. The economy moved on. As time passed the great industrial powerhouse cities rose and then fell. The Detroit, Cleveland, and Youngstown of 1950 are gone.
The death of industry coincided with the birth of suburbia. The “service” economy, the “knowledge” economy, and the “creative” economy advanced on the edges of sunny metro regions. Farmers and factory workers were supplanted by insurance agents, construction crews, retail clerks, mortgage brokers, and orthodontists. The Good Life was available to anyone with a car, a credit card, and a willingness to mow the lawn every Saturday.
We’re now in the early stages of another big shift. Because we’re still in the midst of the transition we can’t know how things will turn out. But not all suburbs are going to survive into the future – at least not in their current form. The cost of maintaining essential public services and infrastructure is outstripping the productivity and tax base of a lot of these spread out communities. The flimsy building stock isn’t aging well either. Many municipalities are like families who spend a bit more each month than they earn. They put things on the credit card. They take out a second mortgage. Then a third. They borrow from relatives. But sooner or later there has to be a structural change or things get ugly.
Looking back, not all rural towns died. Some adapted by becoming tourist destinations, retirement communities, small college towns, or were simply absorbed into a larger suburban metroplex.
Not all industrial cities died. In 1950 Cleveland, Buffalo, and San Francisco were all medium sized industrial port towns with equal salary levels and nearly identical property values. Some cities shifted their focus away from manufacturing towards finance, insurance, technology, and regional medical centers. Others… didn’t.
And not all suburbs will died. Many will continue to thrive. But there will be winners and losers. The far flung subdivisions that are so desirable and prosperous at the moment are extraordinarily dependent on all sorts of external forces they have no control over. These are isolated, vulnerable, wispy places with no roots. And they’re expensive to maintain and inhabit. Remember, people don’t always live exactly where they would prefer. They live where the larger economy dictates. We don’t yet know what the future will bring, but we do know that it will favor the flexible and adaptive, not the defenders of the status quo.
NIMBYs. Are you listening?