It’s coming. The city is once again on the uptick and the American suburb – and bedroom communities at large – are in decline.

I have been giving the subject of just what the future American demographic might look like given the immediate realities of $6-8/gallon gasoline, existing soul-numbing 3+ hour commutes, and the fact that Americans sooner or later are going to have to give up their love affair with their big suburban homes if for no other reasons but the unsustainable economics.

I started thinking about the subject in earnest not long after I moved to downtown Washington, DC and took a job in the Virginia suburbs in 2006. It was a reverse commute; living in the city center but working out the suburbs. It was 1 metro train (Orange line), 1 bus and a 10 minute walk. It took 1 and 1/2 hours each way. 45 minutes of train, 10 minute gap for the bus, and then 30 minutes of bus.

Why did I do this? Real estate prices pushed the big government contractors out beyond the 395 Beltway. And it was these big government contractors that employed people like me. I was often asked why didn’t I move out to the suburbs and closer to my work. And my answer typically was that I liked living downtown (in the old venerable southeast neighborhood of Capitol Hill) and the commute was worth the pain.

Washington, DC is the exception and not the rule. Most regions in the United States do not possess the triple blessing of having multiple top-tiered universities, vital research facilities, and core industries and as such are at some stage in the process of undergoing a contraction. The suburbs are being abandoned in favor of the cities. This is a radical but necessary transformation – and with the exception of the interstate trucking commerce – it is undoing what began with the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956 (the interstate highway system) and with it, the advent of the modern American suburb.

It is ironic that Detroit, the most extreme example of an urban area in need of transformation, was nearing the peak of its glory when the interstate highway system was being built. Detroit’s affordable automobiles enabled the interstate highway system which in turn enabled the American suburb; all presently coming undone due in part to the flattening of the global economy and unsustainable energy consumption habits.

It should have been more readily apparent to more Americans that even if one could seemingly afford the payments on 8-cylinder SUVs and a six-bedroom house; that larger intractable forces (sooner or later) would come to bear on the energy wastes. Like with any system, man made or otherwise,  waste is a byproduct of inefficiency and in some form or fashion, it’s always accounted for.

And anyway it shouldn’t take a genius to figure out that the rising costs of heating and cooling a 5000 sf home for a family of three, affected in part by being loosely tethered a great distance from the core, is nature’s way of telling you something’s wrong.

 

 

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