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May 03, 2008

Richard Florida

Suburbia's End?

« Half Awake in a Fake Empire ... | Main | Bad Air Days »

Jim Kunstler on Colbert and in Business Week:

The suburbs were largely products of industrialism. We had a huge supply of oil and cheap undeveloped land, and we decided to become a happy, motoring utopia. It had many practical benefits. The trouble is after a while it became a cartoon of country living ...

Cheap oil is what made suburbia possible. But we'll run into problems with spot shortages. As we get into trouble with these supplies, our economy will suffer. Major instabilities in the system will present themselves much sooner than we are led to believe. And by that I mean the way we produce food, the way we conduct commerce, and the way we move around ...

 Virtually anything organized on a grand scale is liable to fall into  trouble — government, finance, corporate enterprise, agribusiness, schools. Our gigantic metroplex cities will prove to be inconsistent with the energy diet of our future. I think our smaller cities and towns will be reactivated. We are going to be a far less affluent society.


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Kunstler is an alarmist hack with a shocking lack of imagination. He's about as useful to me as Karl Rove. Next.


Don't smaller towns' residents use at least as much energy per capita as suburbanites attached to bigger metros?

What he may be implying -- which would be useful food for thought -- is that America may need to start again in some cases -- or may start again in some regions. Abandon the car-tropolis and build more sustainable cities around the bases of existing smaller centers without suburban sprawl. (This doesn't necessarily sound like Kunstler, however).

I'm not sure what an example of a new place to start would be, however -- maybe some of the college towns? These are often oriented around people walking and sometimes have a modest bus service in place.

Vincent Clement

Kunstler's 15 minutes of fame are up. Let's stop citing him as some god that will save suburbia.

Kunstler believes that society will not be able to adapt to sudden changes or shocks. Seeing as we have survived countless wars, plagues, etc. and countless new inventions (electricity, internal combustion engine, etc), I have to disagree with his alarmist point of view.


I agree with many of Kunstler's points. Especially his admonition against relying on gauzy technological-determinism. He is 100% correct that we are not going to run the entire interstate-highway system and the whole suburban-based consumer economy on corn-oil, mulch, or for that matter on any combination of "alternative" energies. He is right that we are going to run the interstate system on fossil fuels or on nothing at all. He is right to refer to much of the American landscape as "A Geography of Nowhere". He is right to describe the building of American suburbia as the most serious misallocation of resources in the history of the world. And he is right to castigate people - including, and maybe especially the liberal left (of which I am a member) - for deluding themselves into thinking that it is a worthy undertaking (or even possible) to keep the suburban "happy motoring" society running at all costs. He is right to mock the hysteria surrounding hybrid cars, and to suggest instead that our attention should be on re-discovering how to design and build sustainable, livable communities based around principles of pedestrianism, accessibility, density, and diversity of use. His tone may be at times sarcastic and somewhat harsh, but I greatly appreciate him and his work. I also point out that many of his predictions from The Long Emergency seem to be correct, and playing out in fast-forward.

Karl Rove? I don't understand the comparison? And I would hope we could elevate the conversation above such ad hominem attacks.

Whitney Gunderson

I agree with Kunstler when he says that suburbs were mostly the result of cheap oil and the industrial age. I also agree with Felix Salmon, the topic of blog post "Cities and Suburbs," who says that "if the employees are moving to the cities, then the companies are going to have to follow suit."

But I disagree with Kunstler when he claims that expensive oil will make us "a far less affluent society." When people make the rational decision to cluster, that decision is based on many factors. The overall return on labor may be the biggest factor; the cost of energy (ie. transportation costs) can be considered a "line-item" in the overall return to labor equation. So, if oil goes to $200 per barrel, there will be a higher economic value on clustering. Clusters of people create wealth independently of energy prices. The effect of the price of oil on overall affluence is minimal when people cluster.

If a worker makes $100 per day and spends $10 per day on transportation (cost of oil: $50 per barrel), the worker takes home $90. But, the cost of oil increases to $100 per barrel. Instead of driving to work, the worker rides a bike, or chooses to cluster within walking distance. Even with oil prices 100% higher, the worker eliminates the $10 per day transportation cost and now takes home $100 per day. Clustering allows affluence to be independent of the price of oil, while maintaining or increasing affluence.

I also agree with Kunstler when he says that "our smaller cities and towns will be reactivated" because of high energy prices. Increasing transportation costs will create higher returns for regional economies, hence Florida's mega-region concept. How can Kunstler claim that high oil prices will increase clustering in "smaller cities and towns," while at the same time discounting the clustering effect in mega-regions, which will drive the 21st century economy?

Kunstler's alarmist view is alarming, especially when energy prices will motivate people to cluster to be independent of buying gasoline, etc. These clusters, in turn, will create greater affluence, which will more than make up for the economic effects of oil that costs $100, $200, or $300 per barrel.

If I ride my bike to work, gas can cost $10 per gallon - I don't care, except when I buy groceries. The problem is that a significant part of the United States economy is energy dependant, so high oil prices can create short-term unemployment. As much as I hate high oil prices, they will stimulate clustering and greater affluence. That is something that we all might be failing to see. Take that Bush and Bernanke!



It isn't merely an issue of workers commuting to and from work. High energy prices percolate through the entire economy and raise the costs faced by workers, consumers, producers, businesses, etc. These higher costs might be built in to the system if the system is designed around cheap oil facilitating transport of goods (and people) over long distances. Agglomeration effects are nice in terms of "knowledge spillovers", innovation, and whatnot, but clusters don't necessarily help with the higher prices/costs. And I'm pretty sure that many people would resist giving up their American Dream suburban lifestyle until the bitter end anyway.

Whitney Gunderson

Brian - You seem to be saying that I don't quite have the right idea, but you don't come out and say what I don't have the right idea about. My point is that high energy prices will encourage clustering, precisely because they perculate through the entire economy. Furthermore, these high energy prices can only be compensated for on an individual, micro- basis.

Does it make sense for a 55-year old worker to sell a suburban home and cluster in an urban area to save commuting time and money spent on $3 per gallon gas? It could, if that person is looking for a lifestyle change. Does it make sense for a 25-year old worker who is a recent college graduate to cluster in an urban area with a high number of jobs instead of living in a suburb and communting with $3 per gallon gas? Yes.

These micro- decisions will eventually have an impact. That's why Felix Salmon says "if the employees are moving to the cities, then the companies are going to have to follow suit."

Michael Wells

What Kunstler doesn't cite as a reason for suburbanization is government policy. The VA and FHA loan programs after WWII financed single family homes on cheap flat land, but not city apartment buildings. The heavily subsidized highway system encouraged commuting. The archaic 1950's planning zoned for separating residential and business.

The American Dream suburban lifestyle was the result of misguided social planning, not just people's choosing freely among equal choices. I'd make a case that the move back to cities has actually been a more populist grassroots movement. For instance, what is now Soho was caused by people moving illegally into old factory buildings and warehouses, until there was a critical mass to force policy changes.

Whitney Gunderson

There is a popular misconception on this blog, reiterated by Brian, that suburbs are going to actually cease to exist. Brian says that "many people would resist giving up their American Dream suburban lifestyle until the bitter end anyway." That is just not going to happen. Bulldozers are not going to come (on a mass scale, anyway) and knock over McMansions. What will happen, as energy prices increase and when more people move to cities and companies follow, will be much more boring: The prices and appeal of the McMansions will dwindle on a relative scale. When we run around thinking (or in this case, posting) that hundreds of men with the nickname “Billy-Bob” are going to climb into bull dozers and flatten suburban communities throughout the United States, we cannot think clearly about what is actually happening. Hayden Fisher would love it if suburbs actually got bull dozed, but dude, it’s just not going to happen!

Michael brings up a good point about government policy subsidizing suburbs, but misstates it a little bit: “The American Dream suburban lifestyle was the result of misguided social planning, not just people's choosing freely among equal choices.” At the time, it was not misguided, because it provided affordable housing to millions of people, hence the success of the Baby Boom generation. Like or loath what the Baby Boomers have done, the social policy that worked then is not going to work now. Government policy made the choice to live in a suburb a no-brainer decision among other choices in the 1950s, and people like to live cheap where-ever that may be. Frankly, I take a Richard Floridian stance on government subsidy programs; which is to minimize them because they usually don’t work the way they were intended anyway.

We have a good discussion going here. I do not mind people making ad hominem attacks on Karl Rove. As far as I am concerned, the more the better. I plan on making plenty of those sorts of attacks in the post I am writing for tomorrow under the "Half Awake In A Fake Empire...." topic.

Michael R. Bernstein

"Bulldozers are not going to come (on a mass scale, anyway) and knock over McMansions. [...] dude, it’s just not going to happen!"

Where the alternative is trying to maintain the infrastructure for depopulated and abandoned suburbs, yes they will. In fact, it's already starting:


hayden fisher

Good discussion! Some missing points:

1-- Suburbia was dying long before the oil crisis, the crisis will only accelerate what was already happening (I don't advocate bulldozing all of suburbia, it will happen for practical reasons because some of those communities cannot be sustained)--that said, I confess to being a suburba-hater.

2-- The suburban movement owes some of its manifestation to the reaction to Brown v Board of Education and the civil rights movement; ie, build new neighborhoods and don't sell the houses to blacks, thereby creating new sets of schools to be predominately white; and house poor blacks in concentration-camp style "housing projects". That was part of it, it's a complicated phenomenon BUT it's finally coming to an end. I could write a book on this topic but won't here.

3-- Brian, your posts, and almost all of the media and "experts", ignore the reality that the railroad companies in this country have since 2003 spent more money building new rail infrastructure than they had in more than 100 years. There's a major rail boom that started at the turn of the decade (and century). So cost of transporting goods will not increase as much as it might otherwise have.

That's all folks.

Whitney Gunderson

Nice try Bernstein, but Youngstown, Ohio is not a suburb. It is located halfway between Cleveland and Pittsburgh on I-76 and I-80. Youngstown is a Rust Belt town that was built around steel mills. It was dead as disco back in the swinging '70s - a foregone tarnishment of the Industrial Age - with its fate sealed in the rusting chrome bumper of a 1974 Dodge Diplomat sedan with a bad ride - sort of like an ex-spouse you wish you never married.

The house pictured on the CNN link is not a McMansion; it looks like it was built in the early 20th century. Plan 2010, the initiative that is allowing abandoned neighborhoods in Youngstown to be reclaimed, is actually a type of urban renewal project. They are knocking down old houses and making playgrounds. That's nice.

hayden fisher

Whitney, the piece Michael cited is not an isolated story though. It's happening all across the country although, in most cases, the McMansions are or will serve as depos for criminals and addicts; or as unofficial boarding houses. Suburbia will die a slow and painful death that will present a host of problems and challenges. The urban renewal movement model cannot be applied to suburbia. You should read Richard's post several months ago from the Atlantic.

Whitney Gunderson

Hayden, are you referring to the "Rise of the Suburban Slum?"

I read Leinberger's article and the blog comments and agree with the overall conclusion, that as Leinberger says, "the shift to walkable urban environments will give more people what they seem to want. I doubt the swing toward urban living will ever proceed as far as the swing toward the suburbs did in the 20th century; many people will still prefer the bigger houses and car-based lifestyles of conventional suburbs. But there will almost certainly be more of a balance between walkable and drivable communities—allowing people in most areas a wider variety of choices."

The vandalism in McMansion neighborhoods is alarming, but I don't think that these houses will soon serve as depots for criminals and addicts. There are two different suburban environments: McMansion neighborhoods (like Plano, Texas) and the suburbs of old industrial cities (like Livonia, Michigan).

Many McMansions are standing empty due to foreclosure. The value of these homes will fall, and they will be bought back at a bargain price once the credit crunch is over. Old industrial cities will undergo isolated urban renewal projects, like what is happening in Youngstown, and hopefully the quality of life will increase due to more effective law enforcement strategies and better mass transit service.

To put $4+ per gallon diesel fuel in a bull dozer and then knock over hundreds of poorly built McMansions, or thousands of old homes in the suburbs of industrial cities, would require a shift in social priorities that would actually be quite traumatic. Revitalization and change is occurring, but not on this scale. I think the benefits of living in an urban environment are tremendous, but the people who have spent the money to build, buy and then foreclose on McMansions do not think on the same wave length.

hayden fisher

...but at some point these suburban homes will become fixer-uppers and many of them will not be worth renovating, unlike the beautiful older homes in urban cores. Who will care for these houses when their boomer-inhabitants move to assisted care facilities or die in them after neglecting them during the remaining years of their lives?? Who (and what) will occupy them when they become abandoned?? The X generation is relatively small in comparison to the boomer generation. The Y generation or new m.'s are the largest generation ever but they'll come-up well behind the boomers and will not want to live in these suburban homes. At some point, the MATH catches-up and it will become more prudent to bulldoze and re-plant than to renovate. Not all of suburbia obviously but more than we probably would guess now.

hayden fisher

... and I should also mention that some people submit that we can just send the artists into the dilapidated malls and other remnants of future suburbia; but the artists will not want to go there either!! Those would be the last places that would appeal to them.

Whitney Gunderson

Hayden Fisher - I double-triple-quadruple dare you to go up to a McMansion, knock on the door, and ask the person who answers this: “Who will care for this house when you, a Baby Boomer Inhabitant, move to an assisted care facility? Furthermore, after a long period of submitting your house to continuous neglect in the few short, remaining years of your life, what happens to this house when you die on your bathroom floor?” The response you get could alter your outlook on this issue.


Whitney- but will you triple dog dare Hayden?

Whitney Gunderson

double-dog triple dare!

hayden fisher

...I think I'll save the gas money for something more useful and leave be the suburbanites and their quaint McLives

mario b.

suburbia is only one mode of sprawl. have you seen the outskirts of tijuana or mexico city? or a favela? or city suburbanizations like (detroit)? suburbia isn't dead or dying. it's changing. and cars / gas have little to do with it.

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