The Future of Suburbia

56 thoughts on “The Future of Suburbia”

  1. Having commuted to work on 70 (I worked on 73 just north of the 73 & 70 junction) I can honestly say the whole area just exists for upper middle class to work and live near enough to Philadelphia to capture the market effects for employment that any large city generates (increased by the business specific taxes Philly levies on you if you aren’t a comcast or amazon), but “safely” at a distance that any undesirable elements are effectively unable to reach the area. There’s no beauty, real use of space or any reason to live there from an objective point of view except for convenience and saving up wealth via property prices. The only reason I would go back there now is to pick up meat from the Wegmens.

  2. This post was just republished on The American Conservative under a new title. And after checking I now see that at least one more post had been earlier, too. I assume this is part of their new “new urbanism” reporting drive. But how did the connection happen, if I am not too nosy? I am sure there is a story there.

    1. Yes, TAC reposts my stuff from time to time. They ask first, of course. Fine by me. Several other sites repost my material on a regular basis.

      If I had to guess the trajectory of this particular thread I’d say my stuff was reposted on Strong Towns. Then it was noticed by Joel Kotkin from New Geographies who reached out to me and reposted there. Then The American Conservative got wind of my writing. Howard Ahmanson probably had a hand in that process as well.

      It’s fun to see which stories are cherry picked by which organizations. The Granola and the Shotgun.

      For example, the Strong Towns folks celebrate new zoning in Minneapolis that now permits duplexes and triplexes in residential neighborhoods. They see this as a liberation away from top down control that rigidly enforces the single family only model. Meanwhile Kotkin declares that socialist Minneapolis has just outlawed the single family home – forcing people to become permanent renters – on its long march toward the Nanny State. Shrug. Both can be true at the same time. Depends on who you are…

    2. BTW, I just read The American Conservative repost of this story and realized it had been edited to change its flavor. The original is a compare/contrast. Urbanists want X and suburbanites want Y. My point was neither camp is likely to be satisfied with what’s actually being built.

      The TAC version removed entire paragraphs and reduced the story to one where urbanists want to transform the suburbs and they’re failing – full stop. For the record, I don’t mind the creative reposting to please a partisan audience. It actually reinforces my point. The two sides are permanently at odds, don’t see each other’s perspectives at all, and everyone will end up with a half assed result that’s broadly unsatisfying. Shrug.

  3. Just wanted to share: I looked up the Lennar at Lake Ridge thing which took me to a site where I clicked on “Massachusetts” communities: There are 60(!)in Massachusetts…but only one in greater Springfield (Wilbraham).

    Thank god we suck!!

    1. Lennar is the largest builder in the country. They benefit from economies of scale, supply chain management, and professional schmoozers who negotiate with local regulators. It often takes a giant corporation to get anything built these days. I’m ambivalent.

      They’re working on one of the largest developments in the city of San Francisco right now. I’ve taken the tour. It’s on land that used to be a massive military base. It’s not half bad.

      Do I want to live there? Meh. It has better urban bones than most new projects. And it’s in a good location with water and city views. There are little parks and such.

      But like all new construction (no criticism of Lennar per se) it’s loaded up with endless HOA rules I want no part of. And the buildings are made of highly engineered compressed particles and plastic. Shrug. It’s the same all over.

      I have lots of photos but I was told in no uncertain terms by security that under no circumstances could I blog about the place unless I wanted some high powered lawyers to crawl up my ass. No thank you.

      1. It will be interesting to see how new engineered building materials hold up. I suspect not so well. I’m moving from a 50 year old townhome to a 90 year old house, and while both have maintenance issues, its not from building materials, which should stand several more decades. Older construction seems to have more solid craftsmanship, especially on the commercial side.

        1. One thing they don’t do well with is fire. This was a massive fire in NJ a few years back. They are basically designed to avoid a total conflagration for a few minutes to let people get out, but not in a way that will contain a fire once it starts. If you search around there are some other stories on this phenomenon with recent stick built apartment buildings.

          1. Having seen my neighbor’s house turn from A-OK to raging bonfire in 15 minutes and their daughter survive only because she could crawl out of a 2nd story window and climb down a ladder, I don’t like flammable buildings where you can’t jump out of the top story.

  4. This is all very interesting and yet very foreign. The Connecticut River Valley in Massachusetts has seen such anemic population growth, or even decline, over the last 50 years that there isn’t as much of this stuff(ie “gated communities”) around here.

    We have some horrible stroads to be sure, but most haven’t expanded in 30 years. In suburban Hartford I’ve seen some of these places being built but none around here. I think the best thing that ever happened to us here is just how unfavorably most people see us!

    Good luck to all the re-ruralizers and the re-urbanizers; I’m having fun seeing how this post industrial New England city transforms/ages/declines or renews itself. I’m stunned both by how much we’ve lost AND by how much we still have…mostly non-sequiters I know!

  5. Former Houstonian, living in the country now, approximately 35 miles out from the edge. Still close enough to the city if I need it. I read with interest the local county Facebook page as people say what they wish would be done and open up in the nearby town of 6,000. They say they want the same stores and restaurants and amenities that are literally 20 miles down the interstate. They don’t want the high property taxes and traffic and crime that the city residents have 20 miles down the interstate. Can’t have it both ways. I could care less about being close to shopping and museums. Interestingly, local mom and pop stores and restaurants struggle to stay in business. People want Starbucks and Planet Fitness.

    1. People want Starbucks and Planet Fitness. Well, some people want that. Others want the small town they already live in, without the traffic, crime and high taxes. The problem is… we tell the people moving into the town that it’s okay for them to change the place into what they think they want, and destroy it in the process.

      They should have just moved to a place with a Starbucks and a Planet Fitness already.

      The majority of people have a blindness to maintenance. They assume their environment will remain exactly the same, except for the specific changes that they make. They also fail to account for the unintended consequences of those changes. So they move to a place they like, but are not cautious enough about making potentially disastrous changes, and not attentive enough of doing things necessary to maintain the things they like about it.

      And then the Lennar’s of the world come along and just look at the attractive aspects of a location as value to strip mine for profit. By the time they’re done slapping up their slipshod development and filling it with buyers who mostly work a long commute away, the value of the neighborhood will have declined. Bad Party style to borrow from Chuck Mahron.

      1. I’m interested in a different dynamic. There are so many places (so, so, so many places) that have already been through the usual cycle of development, growth, plateau, and decline that are now ripe for reinvention. And these are the places no one is paying any attention to. I suspect the places that will emerge as the next desirable destinations for a specific cohort will be the run down unloved, ugly dead suburban husks that have gone bankrupt and been abandoned by the middle class.
        It’s going to take a generation, but these places have huge potential, not because they’re great, but because they’re so bad.

        1. Yes, the “starving” artists and musicians and urban craftsmen are priced out of the old big urban factories (now full of loft condos). So it’s not hard to imagine they will pack up their old beaters and fixies and head for the remaining 40s-70s inner ring small factories and dead strip malls. Who’s going to know if they’re living in the front offices and welding (or painting, or sculpting, or woodworking) and having shows in the back? Sub rosa conversion.

          This is one thing that probably won’t change: the arty/boho folks who like to live just under the radar will be in the vanguard of the movement you and I both envision. That, or refugees/immigrants. We have some of both going on in my metro.

          One big difference this time: it probably won’t be a “gayborhood”-style revitalization, what with the LGBTQ community going more and more mainstream (church, marriage, kids and minivans) in suburbia.

          1. I see religious groups colonizing a lot of dead suburban commercial ptoperties. A congregation has the collective resources to pay for old strip malls and dead big box stores, they are large enough as a community to fully inhabit the available space, and they have sufficient legitimacy to be tolerated by the local authorities. There’s a blog post in there.

            As for gays being permanently mainstream… I’m not convinced. Being a gay guy or lesbian was a lot easier (at least in big cities) in the 1920s than it was in the 1950s. It was easier to participate in “free love” arrangements in some of the bohemian transcendentalist enclaves of the 1840s compared to the pervasive Christian revivalism of the 1870s. The cultural pendulum keeps swinging. Remember, women in many states had the vote in the early years of the nation, and that right was stripped away for over a century.

              1. I’ll add this to my reading list. AIDS might have been like the Black Death in Europe where a third to a half of the population died. Then the survivors found themselves suddenly with more bargaining power for their labor (higher wages) while there was a lot more real estate and resources available with fewer buyers and less competition (lower prices.)

        2. I agree, and part of the equation that makes them ripe is that they’re bad enough to fall below the notice of a lot of the regulatory apparatus – as you said, no one is paying attention, including the folks down at the planning department. The other group not paying attention are the banksters, so whatever financing is available isn’t going to automatically pencil out another Khrushchyovka.

          There’s a bit of a tightrope though. The middle class that abandoned the place may have been too predictable and not willing to allow enough disruptive experiments, but the opposite isn’t automatically better. People can be disruptive in negative ways, which is why the bourgeois put up all those rules and roadblocks in the first place. For one of these places to thrive in semi-anarchy, it’ll need to attract people willing to buy into each other’s ideas and experiments at least enough to voluntarily work out the conflicts. To voluntarily be good neighbors!

          And that’s what I was really trying to say with my “they should have just moved to a place that already had a Starbucks” comment. Nothing about Starbucks, it’s about sharing the same sense of community the people already there have – move to a place where your ideas are compatible with your neighbors. We have to re-learn how to create voluntary communities again.

          1. One trend I see is the corporate rebranding of space. At the moment it’s at the high end in trendy locations. but in the future I see the low end as where all the growth is. As the middle class contracts and the lower class bulges co-living arrangements will be required. A corporate model that deals with the rules and regs (and gives the local authorities a cut to smooth the deal) will provide the structure that organizes human behavior. Electronic security will be ubiquitous and non conformists will be spit out.

            1. I don’t much like the cameras and electronic security, but I wouldn’t worry about the conformity. That’s nothing new. Last year you profiled a seaside community in NJ. Owned by a church, it had been a seaside family getaway for generations, first with people putting up tents on platforms, gradually adding walls and building small cabins. I suspect long before video cameras, they were using the time-honored surveillance techniques of gossip and nosy old Mrs Hibbert to encourage conformity.

              The thing I’ve noticed about conformity, most people are reasonably flexible about it. They have a few things they want their neighbors to conform to, but as long as you do that, they don’t really mind what other things you’re non-conformist about. But different people have different requirements, and if we don’t allow self-sorting into like-minded communities, we end up with the lowest common denominator, most restrictive, conformity set. But if we let people self-organize into compatible communities, the conformity required to fit in isn’t a burden, and people are free to color outside the lines where they really want to.

            2. Maybe WeWork can get into WeLive. I recall when it was more common for apartments to be furnished. Sure made moving a lot easier.

        3. I’m not sure what it’s going to look like, but if it takes a generation I’m pretty sure the next cycle of plateau decline reinvention is going to look a lot different from the last. Pretty sure the 30+ mile commute in and out is going to be done and cooked. Anything below 30 ft sea level is going to be in major adjustment mode to put it nicely, with cascading impact all the way to mile high city. Where else it goes from there we’ll all just have to stay tuned, eh?

          1. I definitely agree that the reinvention will be impacted greatly by increased oil prices, economic decline, the widening income gap and climate change. I live slightly north of the area mentioned in this post and am constantly contemplating the future of suburban development in the face of increase oil prices and climate change.

            The RT 70 corridor is under the sway of Philadelphia culturally and economically. The boom in that area is tied to the boom in the city of Philadelphia. As stated this area will see a combination of the suburban expansion and infill density increase. Expansion wise this area does have some natural/legal limits. To the west is the Delaware River. To the east development is hindered by the Pinelands preserved areas (wildfire prone), Fort Dix Military base and a large amount of preserved farmland. To the south the low lying lands of Gloucester County are currently a big source of expansion but the slightest rise in water level or increased precipitation will cause a lot of flooding issues. To the north infill within already large suburban areas will be the norm and will lead to a merging with the suburban areas around Trenton which are under the sway of New York City. The Boswash Megalopolis lives!

            I believe the impact of oil price increases will be an increase in the value of areas close to public transportation and a gentrification around the transit hubs will occur. This is already happening in Burlington City which is along the River Line light rail. There will also be infill of high density residential in the areas close to public transportation which is already occurring along the River Line and the Northeast Corridor rail line to the north. As for the far flung “drive to you qualify” areas of eastern Burlington County etc. their future in a expensive oil future is the big unknown for me .

            1. I’ve been influenced by Gail Tverberg’s writing on the topic of Peak Oil, which she feels is only half right.

              We are approaching limits to how much fuel can be extracted, but lower energy prices are as much a problem as higher prices. Basically, high energy costs kill economic activity. Low energy prices kill the incentive to extract harder to reach resources. So volatility will see-saw and drive both consumers and producers into insolvency.

              She suggests higher debt levels and unnaturally low interest rates for producers and consumers has masked the supply and demand situation in recent years. But you can only paper over the cracks for so long…

              There’s another factor to consider. Global supply chain disruptions could easily become a serious problem. A war in the Middle East, a terrorist attack at a major refinery hub or critical pipeline, a cyber attack, and/or the end of the dollar as the world reserve currency could lead to on-going shortages.

              Basically, the entire interlocking set of systems that keeps our society functioning is vulnerable to shocks. And the shocks will afflict every area, not just suburbia – so urban centers will be hammered as well.

  6. At the end of the day I think it comes down to what people want. You can start with a strip mall or a virgin piece of land and get that. The problem is usually that they want everything, i.e. I want the freedom to go anywhere at any time (car-filled super highways) AND I want to live in Mayberry. The places which have been successful at becoming something have done so because they have come to an agreement on what’s most important.

    But I also think whatever that important thing is, it has to have a soul. I’ll try to explain. When I see the pictures above, they’re just filled with stuff. You can have shiny new houses, a 100-lane freeway, all the services you want – but none of those things care about you. None of them fit the Cheers motto. They’re just things. It seems to be that only when a group of people get together and decide to care about something important – and about each other – is a true solution finally born. This isn’t something that can be legislated or architected.

    1. For me, I don’t think it’s about what people want as much as what external reality will provide. So much of what’s being built is extremely vulnerable to all sorts of shocks. Over time we’re going to see things shake out based on what can weather various storms.

      1. Well, we’re all speculating here – it’s anybody’s guess what will be – but I would counter with this: The end result will be a combination of what can weather the storms AND what people inherently need.

        So just making up a whimsical example, if what survives happens to be strip malls and what people need is greenery, then we’ll find people living and working in strip malls that have been converted into farms, green space, wellness centers, and so on.

        Money or no money, the human being is adaptable and resourceful and generally does better under a certain amount of stress. As the Jurassic Park scientist said about life, people find a way. They take whatever’s handy and make it into whatever they need. Because of this the end result will be interesting but not totally unexpected.

  7. Too much farming land and green space has been sacrificed to suburban housing, causing all kinds of problems that you’ve mentioned in your post. Sometimes the size of a house only satisfies more the ego’s of their owners than it covers their needs for housing. Common sense dictates that you should live as close as possible to your job, school, shops and all other facilities. In my country the government has created tax instruments that make property acquisition in the city more attractive than on the countryside and gives only reluctantly permission for new developments that would destroy more open space, and imposes higher real estate taxes upon them.

    1. > Sometimes the size of a house only satisfies more the ego’s of their owners than it covers their needs for housing.

      Perhaps, but I’ve never met a regular person whose owned property doesn’t in some way satisfy their ego, even for myself as an urbanist who elects to live in a smaller space to gain access to all the usual urbanist bells and whistles. It’s more a question of how the prevailing economic and cultural environments direct peoples’ innate need to satisfy their egos. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t a point at which bigger and bigger houses, cars, roads, etc. aren’t obnoxious, but people do operate partially by free will, and partially within a context.

      1. Nothing wrong with people having a datsja, but those daily commuter issues have to be addressed properly. Examples are to give business owners downtown incentives to build housing above their shops, not allowing big shopping malls without some housing project included AND making sure they’re located somewhere that doesn’t require additional infrastructure. Better would even be when they would take pressure of the already existing ones.

    2. Sometimes the size of the house is to satisfy the banker, more than the occupant’s ego. (Which one of these is the “owner” is a matter of debate.) A friend told me that he and his wife wanted to have a relatively large lot, so he “had to” put a large house on it, because the banker wouldn’t lend the money for the land unless he could be sure that the overall project would meet “market expectations”. That is, a small new house on this large lot would have to be torn down to allow a “proper” sized house to be built for a new owner if my friend failed to keep up with his mortgage. Exactly how big this house is, I don’t know, except that it has two “central” air-conditioning systems. One for each occupant.

      1. From my perspective if you have a mortgage you do not own your home. You’re just renting from the bank. To test this theory just stop paying your monthly mortgage and see how long it takes for your landlord to evict you.

        1. Even if you don’t have a mortgage, you have property tax. So you’re still just renting, just from the county treasurer. And your fellow voters get to set your rent.

        2. The home is just collateral to the bank in case you stop paying. What the bank (and by proxy any of us whose savings are part your loan) really owns in is a cut of your economic productivity during the course of your life, or concretely, a chunk of your income.

        3. Recently, though, a mortgage could be seen as arbitrage. Borrow long and cheap while making money on your cash investments, especially if they are tax advantaged AND if the mortgage interest is deductible.

          My wife and I refinanced into a short mortgage a couple of years ago with the intent to pay it off pretty quickly. We have an historically low interest rate…fixed, under 3%; neither of us had ever borrowed any money that cheap nor will we ever again. We also have enough retirement savings to pay it off, but when we can make a couple of points more than the mortgage rate in fairly conservative investments, it didn’t make a lot of sense to pay it off except out of cash flow as “rent”.

          However with the tax law changes this no longer makes much sense, since we don’t pay enough interest on top of the now-capped state/local tax deduction to overcome the standard deduction…so one part of the tax arbitrage isn’t working and it makes the whole program dependent on a very volatile president and investment markets.

          1. It’s all fun and games kids until someone pokes an eye out.

            Low interest rates (punishingly low if you’re a pension fund or dedicated saver) are forcing people into risky investments. Taking out a super low interest loan to then invest in super risky hyper leveraged ventures is a disaster waiting to happen. If you’re counting on the current equity in your home to always be there, or your pension check to always arrive, or your 401K to continually spin off greater returns… You may be unpleasantly surprised.

            1. You buy real estate and when the rent you can ask for it is about 10 % of the cost of the purchase, it’s a no-brainer. Downside; better check carefully aspiring tenants or you’ll spend a lots of money on lawyers or lose time at the courthouse.

            2. Yet for several decades money magazines advocated such reckless arbitrage, despite warning about the risks of margin borrowing. To skim single digit profits by running double digit risks. Which may have (more or less) worked until now, but don’t count on so working indefinitely.

            1. Think of it differently. In a contracting economy it isn’t what you gain, it’s what you preserve. For me keeping out of debt entirely and opting out of the monetary economy to the extent possible is more satisfying. After the next crash you can buy back in when everything is on sale.

              1. My wife and I lean this way too, so we actually are accelerating our mortgage considerably. (At today’s low rates, CDs and bond funds return about the same as the mortgage costs, so it’s a wash, and paying down the debt seems smarter.)

                We have drastically reduced our risk profile because I think the end of the economic boom is not far off, and I would rather miss out on a little more upside to avoid getting caught in a 35% downdraft and needing to sell the house to fund retirement.

      2. This sounds awful. A banker coercing a client to build a bigger house, take out a bigger mortgage, probably based upon the premise that his client was “good” for it, thus allowing the banker to rake in a bigger commission.

  8. “Suburban Retrofit”… brings to mind a software engineering phrase: “Abstraction Barrier Violation.” It’s when an engineer is trying to add a feature that violates the underlying data model, crossing a conceptual barrier. At that point, the engineer is “fighting the abstraction”, but because it’s easier than fixing the original model (or the engineer doesn’t understand or like the model), violations are appended, over time, one on top of another, until a catastrophic failure occurs. At that point, a “Postmortem” will be conducted. Instead of identifying the root cause of the problem, surface level symptoms will be diagnosed as the problem to be avoided next time.

    TLDR; Painting bike lanes onto a high speed suburban boulevard isn’t gonna turn your town into Paris. More likely: someone’s gonna get hurt. Law enforcement is not the answer. On the other hand, revitalizing that dumpy “Old Town” is a great idea. Or even the old mall. Heck, call it a “Centre” if you’re feeling frisky. Better yet, start over. There’s no shame in greenfield urbanism.

    1. Abstraction Barrier Violation sounds like a fancy way of saying kludge. Sort of like how garbage collectors or janitors became “sanitation engineers”.

  9. You are more pragmatic than Kuntsler, who has been predicting we will be trading in SUVs for buckboards for what seems like forever. Eventually he’ll be right…..just not in his (or my) lifetime.

    Having lived in NJ for about 6 years during the early and mid-90s, this piece brought back memories, and one thing that struck me was how the entire region seemed “either/or” with respect to density. Either Manhattan, or (mostly) low-density NJ – once you are out of the pre-WWII cities and towns, of course.

    Interestingly, a city like Irvine (I lived there ’98-’15) has surprisingly high density. (5k – 10k/sq mi). Every strip of land, every lot is spoken for, and general-planned down to the last detail. Still not dense enough to be truly pedestrian-oriented, or economical enough for good bus service, or any of those things you might hope for with higher density. Typically one is no more than a mile or two from a grocery store, CVS, etc., but you still need the car 90% of the time. Add in kids, after school events, your place of employment. You still drive. Just not as far.

  10. I wonder if the older, blue-collar, first-ring suburbs in the Rust Belt, where houses and yards are still small, could one day make the transition to urbanism. Many of them, like the one I grew up in, are walking distance from large arterials where transit could be built, and just dense enough to possibly make it worthwhile. They are also closer to redeveloping city centers, often by 10s of miles, than the later-built exurbia with huge houses on mid to large lots, and long winding roads to reach main arterials.

    Of course, this will require an income base to return to these areas, and also a mindshift (or people-shift) among the inhabitants toward urbanism. But just as the Quakers you write about never expected strip malls and Chinese restaurants, perhaps what lies ahead for those areas is something that the car-committed inhabitants of today could never imagine.

    1. I think the changes will come one funeral at a time. The people in charge (including adamant voters) will age and die – as we all must. And many communities will decline, lose value, and fail economically if they don’t shift to meet the needs of a new generation. But I caution people of all stripes not to assume their preferred land use pattern will prevail.

      Remember, it was easier for people to flee failing industrial cities and move to Arizona or Florida than to fix what was wrong with Flint or Ferguson.

      And it’s likely going to be easier to flee the cul-de-sacs and strip malls than to transform them into any version of New Urbanism. I’m not saying it can’t or won’t happen. I’m saying it isn’t likely in most places.

      Here’s what I think is possible in select locations with the right local culture and administrative wiggle room. It amounts to a slow re-ruralization of existing suburbs rather than increased urbanization. It’s the route I’m taking myself with one of my properties for the simple reason that it’s relatively easy, cheap, and doesn’t necessarily require much official permission or exotic engineering.

      1. It’s hard to pit re-ruralization and urbanization against each other, really. At least in my opinion, both are better options than the status-quo for many of these places. The only other “good” scenario I can imagine is returning some places to wild lands, as is happening by default in some places, and by intention in others. My parents are frequently seeing deer in their yard these days, something I never saw my entire childhood.

        1. I see a long term future where some places urbanize around a productive core – possibly an old suburban commercial corridor if conditions are right. By “productive” I mean a core that produces useful things and provides valuable services.

          Then the area around that core is re-ruralizes, which is also a form or productive land use. Food is cultivated, fuel and raw materials are extracted, and so on.

          This is a long slow process that might take a century or more.

      2. Another similar approach of Retro Suburbia is the new book by Samuel Alexander Degrowth in the Suburbs: A Radical Urban Imaginary, also on YouTube “Sustainable City Living in 1/10 of Acre – Degrowth in the Suburbs”

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