After several years of traveling around the country in the presence of city planners, economic development officials, elected representatives, engineers, production home builders, professional consultants, and groups of concerned citizens I’ve come to my own personal unified theory of America’s land use future. The short version is that we’ve got the built environment that we have and the overwhelming majority of it isn’t ever going to change much. If you want to know what things will look like in thirty or forty years… look around. That’s pretty much it.
There’s so much of it… tract homes on cul-de-sacs, suburban office parks, strip malls, big box stores, light industrial parks, self storage facilities, garden apartment complexes… even if society wanted to radically transform the landscape (which is absolutely not the case) it would be a sixty or seventy year endeavor. Personally, I won’t live long enough to see that shift. But business-as-usual isn’t an option either regardless of what most people might prefer. What will change is the way the existing landscape will be valued and inhabited.
Communities are hitting a financial wall. Current tax revenue is entirely insufficient to cover the ongoing maintenance of municipal infrastructure – and by “infrastructure” I mean public services and staffing levels as well as the physical roads, pipes, and civic buildings. There simply isn’t enough productive private economic activity to support the underlaying public chassis that’s been built since World War II. So we’re in for a great deal of deferred maintenance, failed pension obligations, reductions in services, higher taxes (which will be called “user fees” and “code enforcement”) and ultimately default on public debt. That’s already baked in to the cake almost everywhere.There are only two options moving forward. We can build more productive stuff on the existing infrastructure, or we can reduce the amount of infrastructure to come in to balance with the available productive capacity. So we’re going to do both – not necessarily on a voluntary basis. And the results will be unevenly distributed.