Love Affair with Suburbs Over?

The linked article asks the question, “Is America’s Love Affair with the Suburbs Over?’  (The article substitutes the term “exburbs” for suburbs, in a lame attempt to coin a new term.)  It goes on to chronicle how, in today’s economic environment, the high cost of large homes and long commutes in the ‘burbs is giving way to reality; people foreclosed upon are forced to seek out cheaper digs closer in to the cities. 

Is America’s love affair with suburbia over?

Though the recession has left few areas of the United States unscathed, the sprawling neighborhoods out on the far edges of the United States’ metropolitan areas have been especially hard-hit. Property values are falling, crime is rising, and the roads remain as congested as ever.

Some planners say the hard times are spurring a long-term shift away from the car-centric sprawl that has defined increasing swaths of the landscape since World War Two.

Rising prices for transportation and home heating, the declining number of two-parent households with children and a growing disillusionment with long commutes will prompt more Americans to choose smaller housing within walking distance of shops and mass transit, they say.

In this scenario, some of today’s developments intended for aspiring middle-class families could become tomorrow’s slums, warehousing those who can’t afford to live anywhere else.

A few comments are in order.  First of all, Americans never had a love affair with suburbs.  What we have is a disdain for cramped quarters that grew out of a pioneer spirit, a natural consequence of building a nation from a virtually uninhabited wilderness (or, more correctly, a wilderness forcibly taken from the indigenous peoples.)

Secondly, the ‘burbs are less a life-style choice than a natural consequence of rampant population growth in a regulatory environment that places no  limits on sprawl and encourages the leveraging of one’s financial resources to maximize consumption.  Nothing here has changed.  To look upon the effects of a recession and conclude that our preference for this lifestyle has been fundamentally altered is ridiculous. 

But, most importantly, to think that a turn away from this lifestyle in favor of cramped quarters in a more urban environment would be beneficial (essentially a lower standard of living) is to forget the relationship between per capita consumption and per capita employment.  Such a move would be accompanied by rising unemployment and poverty.  Yes, a densely populated nation can sustain a relatively high standard of living as evidenced by places like Japan, but not without a United States, with its high per capita consumption, to provide them work making products for export.  Take that away and you need to look to places like India and Bangladesh to see what life in a densely populated condition will resemble.

Is that what we really want?  Of course not.  There’s nothing wrong with suburbs, but they can’t expand outward indefinitely.  The time has come to put the brakes on the explosive population growth that now threatens the standard of living we’ve come to enjoy.


4 Responses to Love Affair with Suburbs Over?

  1. mtnmike says:

    Good article Pete, but what ever you do, don’t confuse them with facts.

    The picture being painted is a near utopia of peaceful masses co-existing to stroll through the open air market on their way to the opera after which everyone will gather at the coffee shop for some intellectual conversation.

    Your suggestion of a new Bangladesh is far more accurate. We will have a front row seat to observe the high standards of Japan begin to fall right along with their exports.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      The situation in places like Japan and Korea will be especially fascinating to watch. I really think that their days of using exports to mask their overpopulation problem is coming to an end. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see their societies come completely unglued.

  2. Clyde Bollinger says:

    Last spring we rented an apartment in Paris for a week. Although there were enough bedrooms and bathrooms for all of us (2 grandparents, 2 parents and 2 teenagers), it had practically no storage space. There was no place to put the conspicious consumption items we so take for granted. It was 7th floor with some great views, but no trees, no grass (no need for a lawnmower), no place for a car other than on the street or in a public garage. We did have metro stops nearby and the bus stop was on the block. We believed this to be a rather upscale apartment, definitely not a working family home, yet our modest home here has more conveniences, more storage, better HVAC, better plumbing, is more comfortable yet probaby costs 15-20 % as much as the Paris apartment.
    If we were to scale down the apartment size proportionately to the comparative value affordable to a working family, it would probably look like a large closet. Refrigeraton is so skimpy that groceries are pruchase daily.
    I have no doubt that given the choice, the ‘burbs’ would be first choice.

    • Pete Murphy says:

      Thanks for sharing that, Clyde. I’m sure it was a great visit in Paris. My only visit to Paris, unfortunately, was a very quick one-night stay on a business trip.

      France is a good example that I haven’t discussed much. With a population density of 287 people/square mile, they are more than three times as densely populated than the U.S., but not as bad as China and much less than places like Japan, Korea or even Germany. But they control the outward sprawl of their cities, which raises their “effective” population density to a higher level. So my theory predicts that the U.S. would have a trade deficit in manufactured goods with France and, of course, that’s exactly what we have. In 2008 the deficit was $10 billion. In per captia terms, that’s $164 per person in France, just shy of the level that would land them in my “top 20” list.

      What’s especially interesting about that is that it flies squarely in the face of those who blame trade deficits on low wages, and those who say that the U.S. needs to be more competitive. The French have very strong labor unions, are well-paid, and are well down on the productivity scale with one of the shortest work weeks on the planet. Yet, we have a trade deficit in manufactured goods with them nevertheless. It can only be explained by the disparity in population density.

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