Are The Suburbs Doomed?

The recession is bringing out the death of suburbia crowd in droves. How many times have we seen this meme? Higher gas prices, increased heating and cooling costs and most of all sanity will kill the suburbs.

The latest one I’ve found was on Yahoo this morning and they picked up from Here’s a small slice. 

The demand for suburban homes may never recover, given the long-term prospects of energy costs for commuting and heating, and the prohibitive inefficiencies of low-density construction. The whole suburban idea was founded on disposable spending and the promise of cheap gas. Without them, it may wither. A study by the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech predicts that by 2025 there will be as many as 22 million unwanted large-lot homes in suburban areas.

The suburb has been a costly experiment. Thirty-five percent of the nation’s wealth has been invested in building a drivable suburban landscape, according to Christopher Leinberger, an urban planning professor at the University of Michigan and visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution. James Howard Kunstler, author of “The Geography of Nowhere,” has been saying for years that we can no longer afford suburbs. “If Americans think they’ve been grifted by Goldman Sachs and Bernie Madoff, wait until they find out what a swindle the so-called ‘American Dream’ of suburban life turns out to be,” he wrote on his blog this week.

Now even though I currently live in a quintessential suburban city, Phoenix, my lifestyle is pretty urban. I live close in to the city center and don’t commute long distances. Moreover, most of my life has been spent in big cities and I prefer a city sort of environment.

With that disclaimer, I will now aver that the author of this particular piece like so many others is probably engaging in wishful thinking. I personally don’t think that the American public is a nation of sheep that have been led blindly to a suburban lifestyle. Rather, they like that lifestyle and have been and will continue to be willing to pay the price it entails. Governments may try and alter the behavior through carbon taxes AKA Cap and Trade and other more subtle artifices but my suspicion is that the four bedroom home with a patch of ground for a back yard is what many still aspire to.

About nine months ago, when gas was around $4 a gallon, I attended a seminar about land use and planning in Phoenix. One of the speakers was quite good and quite experienced in land use. He had also been through a few downturns in Phoenix. Quite to my surprise he noted that the major developers in the area had not given up on their model of building new subdivisions at the outer edges of the city.

They had originally thought that infill was the wave of the future with the next generation of buyers opting for smaller homes closer to work as a trade-off for shorter commutes and economy. A lot of consumer surveying proved just the opposite. Buyers were willing not to just put up with the commute but found cheaper but larger houses a distance from the city preferable to smaller more expensive centrally located housing. They did the math and figured out that the price differential more than made up for the cost of gasoline.

The death of suburbia has been the dream of urbanists for decades. I suspect that this time around it will turn out to be nothing more than another dream.



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