I’ve spent a lot of time exploring small towns and big cities from Michigan to Texas, Illinois to Kentucky, Georgia to California – often in the company of city officials, professional consultants, and sharp people trying to figure out how to make things work better. I keep refining my understanding of the forces at play with an eye toward the gap between what experts suggest we could or should do, and what actually unfolds in reality. Here’s a short list of my findings.
1) We have the built environment that we have and very little of it is ever going to change much physically.
Almost everything ever built in North America has been built since World War II. And nearly all of it is suburban in nature: tract homes on cul-de-sacs, office parks, strip malls, mini self storage facilities, drive-thru burger joints, big box stores, garden apartment complexes, and muffler shops. There’s so much of it that even if we wanted to radically transform it all into something different it would take decades. It’s just not going to happen. The cultural desire isn’t there, the political will isn’t there, and the money isn’t there. So most of it will remain pretty much as it is now. In select locations where market demand is high and money is available things will change, but these will be the exceptions not the rule.
2) We aren’t going to alter the rules or procedures that govern what gets built to any meaningful degree in most places.
Once zoning regulations, building codes, the demands of the fire marshal, off street parking requirements, financing procedures, state and federal mandates, Department of Transportation guidelines, and standardized formulas for mass production are established it’s incredibly hard to change any part of the system. All the interlocking and self reinforcing institutions and cultural norms resist change and make wholesale transformation nearly impossible. Exceptions will be made in particular instances, but overall the regulatory environment will break long before it bends.
3) Most local governments don’t have the resources to maintain all the existing infrastructure and public services so winners and losers will emerge as triage sets in.
Towns have built more physical and institutional infrastructure than their underlying tax base can support. Deferred maintenance, creative accounting, funding transfers from higher levels of government, impact fees, and ever increasing amounts of debt have bought them time. But they can only kick the can down the road for so long. Many towns have already hit the wall and the process of deciding what gets maintained and what doesn’t is already underway. Roads, water treatment plants, pension obligations, schools… A lot of stuff is slowly going to be let go in areas occupied by poorer less powerful populations. Other more prominent neighborhoods will be subsidized by drawing funds from weaker locations.
4) Change will absolutely occur, but it will take two forms: large expensive official projects, and sub rosa adaptive behavior.
In locations where land values are high and market demand supports new building and renovation there will be special exceptions made that permit infill development that doesn’t necessarily conform to the standard regulations. The primary requirement for getting a waiver from the usual constraints is to build something really expensive and make sure the right people get a piece of the pie. Money must be strategically spread around to influential construction firms, material supply companies, labor groups, tax authorities, et cetera. It helps to get local subcultures on board with sweeteners and horse trades. That’s called “political will.” This isn’t corruption per se. It’s just the reality of what is required to overcome the gridlock of endless regulations and general resistance to change.
The alternative to large expensive projects is discrete household level work-arounds that are effectively invisible or irrelevant to the authorities. For example, single family homes on cul-de-sacs become de facto apartment buildings when large extended families or unrelated room mates occupy them in an ad hoc manner. Nothing physical changes – only the way the homes are inhabited. In other instances people reside in commercial or industrial buildings without official permission. And home based businesses quietly operate out of residential buildings even though zoning regulations strictly forbid such activity. In the end, people do what works for them and what their neighbors are willing to tolerate.
5) Exogenous forces will be the drivers of change.
History is cyclical, not linear. The next several decades will not be a simple extrapolation of the recent past. Instead we’re likely to experience a restructuring that will involve a cresting wave, then a crash, and a slow rebuilding of the next cycle.
Easy credit, cheap abundant fuel, plenty of water, investments in public education, and massive infrastructure projects funded by federal agencies all generated enormous growth in the twentieth century. Phoenix, Houston, Atlanta, and Orlando wouldn’t exist otherwise. Globalization decimated cities like Detroit, Youngstown, and Cleveland. The massive expansion of the financial sector and new technology pumped up a select few cities like New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. And huge flows of international capital seeking a safe haven poured in to preferred destinations like Miami, Vancouver, and Los Angeles. Much of the rural hinterland was hollowed out along the way. These trends are already in the process of changing in ways we can’t yet predict. There will be new winners and losers shaped by natural cycles, demographic shifts, geopolitics, financial disruptions, resource constraints, and the unintended vulnerabilities enabled by technology. Coming to a town near you!