[Paleopsych] WP: Joel Kotkin: Rule, Suburbia

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Rule, Suburbia: The Verdict's In. We Love It There

[Splendid picture of three views of downtown Bethesda in the print 

    The battle's over. For half a century, legions of planners, urbanists,
    environmentalists and big city editorialists have waged war against
    sprawl. Now it's time to call it a day and declare a victor.

    The winner is, yes, sprawl.

    The numbers are incontestable and the trends inexorable. Since 1950,
    more than 90 percent of metropolitan population growth in America has
    taken place in the suburbs. Today, roughly two out of three people in
    the nation's metro areas are suburban dwellers. "The burbs" have
    become the homeland of American success, with an increasing share of
    our national wealth and half the poverty of the urban core.

    We may continue to decry them and make fun of them, in cynical movies
    like "American Beauty" or on spoofy television shows like "Desperate
    Housewives." But we have embraced the suburbs and made them our home.

    For most of us, they represent both our present and our future. Over
    the next quarter century, according to a Brookings Institution study,
    the nation will add 50 percent to the current stock of houses, offices
    and shops, and the great majority of that new building will take place
    in lower-density locations, not traditional inner cities.

    Once we acknowledge this reality, we can turn to the task of making
    the best of it. The suburbs have given us -- in terms of space,
    quality of life, safety and privacy -- much more of what we call "the
    American Dream" than cities ever could. What they have failed to do,
    often miserably, is to live up to their promise of becoming
    self-contained, manageable communities that can both coexist amiably
    with the natural environment and offer a sense of identity. The
    prospect of a nation crisscrossed by ugly sprawl corridors like Lee
    Highway in Virginia or Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and San
    Bernardino may be too gruesome to contemplate.

    I'm the first to admit that most students at the architecture school
    where I teach -- like talented young people generally -- would rather
    work in the big city, designing cool lofts or arresting high-rise
    towers, museums and concert halls, than try to create something in the
    jumble of the suburban periphery. But the suburbs are where the
    action's going to be in the future. The great challenge of the 21st
    century -- not to mention the main economic opportunity -- lies in
    transforming suburban sprawl into something more efficient,
    interesting and humane.

    That's because, despite the ardent wishes of urban advocates, the
    suburbs are becoming ever more ubiquitous. Instead of clustering in
    large, crowded cities, Americans are building bigger and bigger houses
    -- twice the size of those in 1950 -- and doing so increasingly in
    low-density, low-cost regions such as Orlando, Fla., San
    Bernardino-Riverside, Calif., Phoenix and Las Vegas, where job growth
    has also been most robust.

    Many in the planning profession and others who bemoan the "cultural
    wasteland" of the suburbs will find it hard to swallow the reality
    that the suburbs rule. Others will hold on to the hope that higher oil
    prices will force more suburbanites back into dense urban cores. One
    city enthusiast, writer James Kunstler, declared on his Weblog last
    fall that it was time "to let the gloating begin." But I doubt that
    it's time for such new-urbanist glass-clinking. Suburbanization
    proceeded apace during the steep energy price rises of the 1970s; it
    has also accelerated in Europe and Japan, where energy prices are
    already sky-high.

    Traditional urban America isn't going to die. Instead, city living, as
    urban analyst Bill Fulton has put it, will likely become primarily a
    "niche lifestyle," preferred mostly by the young, the childless and
    the rich.

    But just as cities won't prosper if they don't cater to the niche
    resident, the suburbs need to evolve from a pale extension of the city
    into something more like a self-sustaining archipelago of villages.
    This concept has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries,
    when visionaries like writer H.G. Wells saw movement to the periphery
    -- what he called the "centrifugal possibilities" -- as a bold
    alternative to the horrors of the contemporary industrial city.

    This vision was widely embraced by both the right and the left.
    Friedrich Engels predicted that the overthrow of capitalism would lead
    to the end of the large mega-city and the dispersal of the industrial
    proletariat into the countryside, delivering the rural population from
    "isolation and stupor" while finally solving the working class's
    persistent housing crisis.

    For the conservative thinker Thomas Carlyle, the growth of the
    industrial city had undermined the traditional ties between workers,
    their families, communities and churches. Moving the working and
    middle classes to "villages" in the outlying regions of major cities
    could restore a more wholesome and intimate environment.

    Perhaps the most influential advocate of suburbia was British planner
    Ebenezer Howard. Horrified by the disorder, disease and crime of the
    Edwardian industrial metropolis, he advocated the creation of "garden
    cities" on the suburban periphery. These self-contained towns,
    surrounded by rural areas, would have their own employment base and
    neighborhoods of pleasant cottages. "Town and country must be
    married," Howard preached, "and out of this joyous union will spring a
    new hope, a new life, a new civilization."

    Howard's great vision remains a compelling one, and not only in
    America. Today, despite differing cultural patterns and political
    systems, virtually every major metropolitan area in the advanced world
    is suburbanizing, and usually rapidly. The urban centers of Tokyo,
    Sydney, London, Frankfurt and even that paragon of enforced
    centralization, Paris, are either losing population or barely holding
    steady as both jobs and people flee to the periphery.

    Yet the suburbs have largely failed in creating Howard's "new
    civilization." They lack a basic definition of what they are and the
    boundaries between them often seem vague at best. This is sprawl's
    most lamented and least admirable quality: It produces vast "slurbs"
    of undistinguished, unappealing space.

    And yet, build them and people come. It's amazing, given that suburbs
    often suffer from a deadening lack of things to do. And then there's
    the traffic. This remains their worst defining feature. In Los
    Angeles, where I live, the hours wasted in traffic have doubled since
    the early 1980s. Fleeing to the farther fringe, such as San
    Bernardino-Riverside, is no escape -- the traffic there is growing
    worse at an even faster pace. Suburbanites around the country, from
    greater Washington to greater Atlanta to the San Francisco Bay area,
    all register similar complaints.

    Ironically, this may prove the new imperative for suburbia's
    evolution. With transit to downtowns and other suburbs increasingly
    dicey, suburbs are being forced to supply an ever-wider array of basic
    needs, from cultural infrastructure to shopping and business services.
    They cannot lean as heavily on the central core, even if they wanted
    to. "In the San Fernando Valley, we have achieved our own kind of
    secession," attorney David Fleming, a leader of the suburban area's
    failed attempt to break away from Los Angeles, quipped to me recently.
    "It's called traffic."

    The digital revolution has also made it easier for suburbanites to
    bypass the city. The home-based workforce has grown 23 percent over
    the past decade, according to the U.S. Census. A lawyer working in
    Thousand Oaks, an often excruciating commute from downtown Los Angeles
    that can take as long as two hours, can now do his job without braving
    the freeway except to appear in court.

    The urbanization of suburbia -- the creation of a more sophisticated,
    self-sufficient community -- is already beginning. From the suburbs of
    Northern Virginia to the Los Angeles basin, cities are restoring the
    commercial cores of what had once been autonomous small towns. Often
    devastated by malls and big-box shopping centers, these downtowns once
    gave suburban towns a sense of distinctiveness -- something many now
    wish to recover. Other places are attempting to create whole new
    communities, with their own defined town centers complete with fine
    restaurants, smart shops and even nightclubs.

    Over the past decade, for example, Naperville, Ill., has grown from
    simply another Chicago suburb into a definable place, with a
    well-appointed old town center, a lovely riverside park and even some
    striking public architecture. It is filled with pedestrians from the
    surrounding area. "Our downtown is what keeps us together," says
    Christine Jeffries, a civic leader in the community of 138,000. "It
    gives us an identity."

    This new principle of village-building can also be seen in some newer
    developments, such as Valencia in Southern California. With a
    well-defined town center, paths for pedestrians and cyclists, a lake
    and a range of housing types, Valencia is closer to a traditional
    village environment than the prototypical sprawl suburb so common in
    the region. This model is being repeated in numerous other places,
    particularly fast-growing regions such as southwest Florida, suburban
    Atlanta and the outer reaches of Houston.

    With this new development has come a relatively new phenomenon, the
    construction of large-scale cultural and religious institutions in the
    periphery. The suburbs are now host to some of the nation's largest
    new cultural centers -- the Music Center at Strathmore that just
    opened in north Bethesda, the Cobb Galleria Centre outside Atlanta and
    the sparkling Orange County Performing Arts Center in Southern
    California -- as well as a plethora of smaller, community-based arts
    facilities. And, at a time when churches in the hearts of many major
    cities are closing, new churches, as well as synagogues, mosques and
    Hindu temples reflecting suburbia's growing ethnic diversity, are
    rising in the outer periphery.

    In the coming years, the opportunities to develop suburban identity
    will grow as baby boomers look to trade in their tract houses for
    something more walkable and compact. Some urban advocates see them
    headed for the major downtowns, but high prices, cramped conditions
    and distance from family and friends militate against a return to the

    Instead, many developers see suburban villages as ideal places for the
    swelling ranks of empty nesters. "They don't want to move to Florida
    and they want to stay close to the kids," says Jeff Lee, CEO of a
    prominent D.C. real estate, architecture and planning firm. "What they
    are looking for is a funky suburban development -- funky but safe."

    Village environments might also provide an affordable housing
    alternative for people who want to be in the suburbs, but can't yet
    swing the much-desired single-family house. It could also offer a
    congenial environment for singles and younger couples without
    children. According to the last census, the number of childless
    couples and singles grew more than twice as much in the suburbs as it
    did in the central cities over the last decade.

    This redefinition of suburbia into someplace more diverse, interesting
    and multifaceted represents one of the most revolutionary developments
    of our times. It provides us with an opportunity to stop complaining
    about sprawl and start learning how to make better the places that
    most of us have chosen as home.

    Author's e-mail: [3]jkotkin at pacbell.net

    Joel Kotkin, an Irvine Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation,
    teaches urban and suburban history at the Southern California
    Institute of Architecture in Los Angeles and is the author of "The
    City: A Global History," to be published by Modern Library in April.

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