What Is the Future of Suburbia? A Freakonomics Quorum

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On a forum at the Chicago outpost of City-Data.com, a certain JohnDoe2008 asked suburbanites:

Why do you like suburbs over [the] city? Be honest please, I never understood it, still don’t. I might have serious problems, because I hate even looking at pictures of suburbs.

Respondents cited backyards, quiet and cheap living, and congestion-free commutes — the very sort of suburban characteristics that have started to change due to higher gas prices, more single-person households, and even refugees.

What will the future hold for suburbs? In an interesting article about Clifton Park, a suburb of Albany, N.Y., that has swollen mightily in past decades (and where I, during one long, hot summer, helped build new houses), here’s what a local architect and urban planner, Dominick Ranieri, thinks may happen to suburbia: “If we don’t change the patterns, we’re in for a long and slow and arduous collapse.”

Several months ago, we ran a quorum here about urbanization, pegged to the fact that more than half of the world’s population now lives in cities. Given the economic changes of the past several months, particularly those in the housing market and in energy prices, it seemed like a good idea to run a new quorum on suburbia, even if it might cover some of the same ground. (Indeed, we even invited two participants from the first quorum to respond to this one as well.) So we gathered up a group of smart people — James Kunstler, Thomas Antus, Jan Brueckner, Gary Gates, John Archer, Alan Berube, and Lawrence Levy — and asked them the following:

What will U.S. suburbs look like in 40 years?

Their answers are informative and often fascinating. As always, Kunstler is vastly entertaining as he advocates what one critic calls “apocalyptic utopianism,” while Antus gets a bit Swiftian on us. Brueckner and Archer are far more measured (and, if I had to lay money on the future, closer to reality), although Archer borders on his own utopianism. Gates takes a surprising and compelling angle, Levy is brutally realistic, and Berube is prescriptive in a way that I wish political candidates could learn to be. I hope you enjoy their replies, and learn from them, as much as I have.

James Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century, World Made By Hand, and three books about suburbs and cities: The Geography of Nowhere, Home From Nowhere, and The City in Mind: Notes on the Urban Condition.

“The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins.”

There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

I say this because American suburbia requires an infinite supply of cheap energy in order to function and we have now entered a permanent global energy crisis that will change the whole equation of daily life. Having poured a half-century of our national wealth into a living arrangement with no future — and linked our very identity with it — we have provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment that will make it difficult for us to let go, change our behavior, and make other arrangements.

Compounding the problem is the fact that we ditched our manufacturing economy for a suburban sprawl building economy (a.k.a. “the housing bubble”), meaning we came to base our economy on building even more stuff with no future.

This is a hell of a problem, since it is at once economic, socio-political, and circumstantial.

Here’s what I think will happen: First, we are in great danger of mounting a futile campaign to sustain the unsustainable, that is, of defending suburbia at all costs.

In fact, it is already underway. One symptom of this is that the only subject under discussion about our energy predicament is how can we keep running all our cars by other means. Even the leading environmentalists talk of little else. We don’t get it. The Happy Motoring era is over. No combination of “alt” fuels — solar, wind, nuclear, tar sands, oil-shale, offshore drilling, used French-fry oil — will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World.

The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not. Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital.

The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. In any case, the suburbs will lose value dramatically, both in terms of usefulness and financial investment. Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be “fixed” or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions. They were built badly in the wrong places. We will have to return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape — villages, towns, and cities, composed of walkable neighborhoods and business districts — and the successful ones will have to exist in relation to a productive agricultural hinterland, because petro-agriculture (as represented by the infamous 3000-mile Caesar salad) is also now coming to an end. Fortunately, we have many under-activated small towns and small cities in favorable locations near waterways. This will be increasingly important as transport of goods by water regains importance.

We face an epochal demographic shift, but not the one that is commonly expected: from suburbs to big cities. Rather, we are in for a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people moving from the farms and small towns to the big cities. People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future. I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead.

One popular current fantasy I hear often is that apartment towers are the “greenest” mode of human habitation. On the contrary, we will discover that the skyscraper is an obsolete building type, and that cities overburdened with them will suffer a huge liability — Manhattan and Chicago being the primary examples. Cities composed mostly of suburban-type fabric — Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, et al — will also depreciate sharply. The process of urban contraction is likely to be complicated by ethnic tensions and social disorder.

As petro-agriculture implodes, we’ll have to raise our food differently, closer to home, and at a finer and smaller scale. This new agricultural landscape will be inhabited differently, since farming will require more human attention. The places that are not able to grow enough food locally are not likely to make it. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be shadows of what they are now, if they exist at all.

These days, an awful lot of people — the production builders, the realtors — are waiting for the “bottom” in the real-estate industry with hopes that the suburban house-building orgy will resume. They are waiting in vain. The project of suburbia is over. We will build no more of it. Now we’re stuck with what’s there. Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.

Thomas E. Antus, township administrator of Freehold Township, N.J., since 1994 and a township employee since 1984; member of the New Jersey Municipal Managers Association, International City Managers Association, and Central Jersey Managers Association; guest lecturer at Rutgers University and Princeton University.

“To pay for the expanded services taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual pay checks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury.”

In 40 years I could see living in the world’s largest city, a megalopolis, extending from New York City to Philadelphia and engulfing all of New Jersey. New Jersey could change the state motto to “The Overdevelopment State.” As we already have more cars per square mile than any other state, we could change the shape of the license plates from a rectangle to the outline of a car.

Government services such as police, fire, health, and public works will increase exponentially. To pay for the expanded services, taxes will also increase exponentially to the point where individual paychecks are made payable to the government and deposited directly in the general treasury. All individuals will have to use credit cards for all living expenses, going into massive debt and having to work until they are 90 years old, thus saving our Social Security system.

With a massive increase in the population density there will be a traffic light on every single corner. Smart individuals will have seen this coming and invested heavily in the firms that manufacture and install traffic lights, creating a new class of wealthy Americans (the “stop light rich”).

Developers won’t be impacted by the megalopolis as they rival Bill Gates in wealth and purchase the entire state of Wyoming. The first act of the new Wyoming legislature will be to abolish development so the developers can live in peace and quiet.

Jan Brueckner, professor of economics at the University of California, Irvine, and former editor of the Journal of Urban Economics.

“If [gentrification] continues in a significant way, large numbers of suburban households looking for urban stimulation may end up switching places with minority central-city dwellers, stirring the ethnic pot in both places.”

Urban economics tells us that cheap gas, lots of investment in highways, and rising incomes created the suburbs that we now see in American cities.

The first two forces made it affordable and convenient to commute from far out, and greater affluence made people covet big houses, which can be built for less on inexpensive suburban land. Lately, these suburbanization forces are being reversed by “gentrification,” with well-off, empty-nester households lured back to city centers by improving urban amenities (restaurants, museums, etc.) and the renewal of crumbling downtown housing stocks.

Over the next 40 years, these forces will continue to operate, with some new twists thrown in. Skyrocketing gas prices will lead some households to reconsider their long commutes, introducing an “anti-suburbanization” force that favors denser, more compact cities. Boosts in auto fuel economy will soften this blow, but the push for suburbanization will nevertheless slow. Urban densification will also mean a different look for some of our neighborhoods: single-story ranch houses, the hallmarks of past suburbanization, will increasingly give way to denser, two-story suburbs, as is already happening in many cities where land prices are high.

Suburbanization has shown a white bias, with most minority households yet to acquire their nice house in the suburbs. Some of this difference may reflect a history of housing-market discrimination, but lower suburbanization by minorities is mainly a result of lower incomes. As the black and Hispanic middle classes continue to grow and get richer, they are likely to follow the same suburbanization path as white households before them, restrained somewhat by higher gas prices. So U.S. suburbs 40 years hence will look much more ethnically diverse than they do today.

Although some cities, such as Chicago, have seen dramatic recent gentrification, the future path of this phenomenon remains unclear. If it continues in a significant way, large numbers of suburban households looking for urban stimulation may end up switching places with minority central-city dwellers, stirring the ethnic pot in both places.

Gary J. Gates, a Senior Research Fellow at the Williams Institute, UCLA School of Law, and co-author of The Gay and Lesbian Atlas, has written extensively on the demographic and economic characteristics of the lesbian and gay population.

“The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated.”

While Ward and June Cleaver and their two boys might still be around in the suburbs in forty years, my guess is that their neighbors will be Olivia and Harriet and their twin girls. The Will and Grace version of gay America — urban, wealthy, and white — is starting to look a bit dated.

Suburban locales like Decatur, Georgia (Atlanta), Takoma Park, Maryland (Washington, D.C.), and Ferndale, Michigan (Detroit), are joining urban neighborhoods like Castro, Chelsea, and West Hollywood as gay meccas. Lots of lesbians and gay men now view the suburban home with a white picket fence and a family with 2.5 kids as their version of gay equality.

In 1982, Gallup found that only 32 percent of Americans considered homosexuality to be an acceptable “alternative lifestyle.” Their 2008 poll shows the figure at 57 percent. With greater social acceptance, gay people are coming out of the closet, and many are doing so outside of urban America.

From 2000 to 2006, the number of same-sex couples in Montana, Wyoming, Iowa, and Utah increased by more than 140 percent. That’s nearly five times higher than the national increase in same-sex couples and 23 times higher than the general population increase. Since there’s little evidence of a mass migration of gay folk to Montana, these big increases probably reflect more willingness of lesbians and gay men to be visible in the heartland.

Not surprisingly then, the proportion of same-sex couples living in large cities has been halved from 45 percent in 1990 to only 23 percent in 2006. Houses are a lot cheaper in Ottumwa than Manhattan. Perhaps that explains why home-ownership rates among same-sex couples have increased from 52 percent in 1990 to 70 percent in 2006. With marriage now available to same-sex couples in Massachusetts and California, lesbian and gay couples are making it legal — more than 11,000 in Massachusetts so far and an estimated 5,000 just in the first week it was possible in California.

Suburbs, home ownership, and marriage — what’s left but the kids? In 1990, fewer than one in ten same-sex couples had children. Today, it’s more like one in five. In states like Mississippi, South Dakota, Alaska, South Carolina, and Louisiana, it’s one in three. The gay-by boom is alive and well in small town and suburban America. And these new parents are largely non-white. African-American and Latino/a lesbians and gay men are two to three times more likely than their white counterparts to be raising kids.

So back to the question at hand — my vision of suburbia circa 2050. Lesbian and gay families will be a much more visible community fixture. They’ll probably be married, own their homes, be raising a few kids, and will very likely not be white.

John Archer, chair of the Department of Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature at the University of Minnesota and author of Architecture and Suburbia: From English Villa to American Dream House, 1690-2000.

“Suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid.”

First of all, forget the personal helicopters. Frank Lloyd Wright promised them to us in the 1930′s, and the Jetsons reinforced the idea in the 1950′s, but they are one futuristic vision of suburbia whose proponents just got it wrong.

Nevertheless they do embody fundamental aspects of suburbia that are going to persist well into the future, as they are endemic to Western, and now global, society. Modern suburbia evolved in the early eighteenth century along with Enlightenment ideals of private selfhood and capitalist economics. As such, suburbia — not the city — became, and remains, the perfect social and geographic apparatus for bringing fundamental ideals and principles of our culture to fruition, for better or worse.

Ideals of privacy, property, and selfhood — overoptimistically embodied — in those helicopters, are splendidly realized in the single nuclear-family detached house, set in its private surrounding yard. And no matter the threats of global warming or energy shortages, the solutions that we pursue are going to adhere to those ideals.

Nevertheless, as we look to the future, suburbia is evolving in three key directions — not incidentally, along the same paths already being paved by global capitalism; suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid.

For example: one of the troublesome consequences of the tract-house boom of the 1950′s and 1960′s is that the housing stock of that era no longer suits current needs and desires. Except in the most expensive housing markets it is economically unrealistic to retrofit those houses, resulting in worries over the rise of suburban slums.

There is, however, an optimistic vision. With advanced methods of modular construction and individualized product design, suburbia, like capital, will learn to be flexible: instead of holding the same shape for 60 years, at the mercy of demographic shifts and mortgage-finance crises, houses can become resizable and reconfigurable to suit residents’ changing needs. Neighborhoods will evolve, instead of turning over, thus enhancing community and social capital.

Planning will become flexible as well, so that infrastructure of all scales can smartly adapt to changing demographics and advancing energy, water, transportation, and other technologies. Again, the flexibility of capital as an investment will be registered in the form of more flexible real-estate instruments — which, as different clusters and neighborhoods evolve in different ways over time, will afford more occasions for aesthetic and demographic diversity.

As many “new urbanist” and “new suburbanist” projects demonstrate, suburbia is becoming a hybrid place that melds desirable traits of city living (activity, diversity) while still maintaining allegiance to primary suburban ideals of selfhood and domesticity (and, one might add, consumption).

Still to be realized, but now on the horizon, are greater opportunities for aesthetic hybridity. Left behind will be master planning codes that leave critics complaining about the aridity of suburbia. In part motivated by the continual need to adapt to ever greener technologies, as well as the need to make “smarter” capital investments, Americans may well realize the advantages of a more adventurous range of housing types, scales, styles, colors, landscaping, and so forth, in any given locale.

One of the least recognized truths about suburbia is that it has always been more extensively segregated by class than it has by race. Affording the flexibility to make local modifications in response to changing desires and conditions can result in a more dynamic and diverse aesthetic that, instead of eventually becoming old and tired, sustains healthy growth and change for the person, family, and community alike.

Alan Berube, research director and fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, which he joined in 2001.

“… in 40 years perhaps we’ll get beyond our fixation with “the suburbs” (love them or hate them) and develop a richer vocabulary for what lies beyond the city limits.”

In 40 years, “the suburbs” won’t exist.

With all their current heterogeneity and further changes on the horizon, chances are we’ll have retired the phrase from popular lexicon by 2050.

That’s not because they’ll depopulate — the nation will need to accommodate at least another 100 million people during this period, and not even $10-per-gallon gas will send the majority of Americans scrambling back to cities. But “suburbia” will be an even less useful descriptor in 2050 for the diverse range of communities in which the majority of Americans will continue to live. An educated guess at what we’re likely to see:

New physical forms. Just as America’s first suburbs sprouted up along the streetcar lines built in the early 20th century, the first half of the 21st century will see the growth of “light rail suburbs” (even in areas that don’t have the rail yet).

High oil prices and the imperative to address global climate change will help spur denser residential development along transit corridors outside of cities. We’d see more of it today, if supply kept up with demand. Chris Leinberger estimates that walkable suburban communities served by transit today command anywhere from a 40 percent to 200 percent price premium over conventional drivable suburban development.

New demographic profiles. Suburbs of 2050 will be a far cry from the Ozzie and Harriet communities a century before. Already, most immigrants in the nation’s newer gateways — metro areas like Sacramento, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and Washington — skip the city and head directly for suburban communities. These regions boast a far-flung ethnic patchwork, with a tremendous diversity of national origin groups. Meanwhile, as the Baby Boom generation “ages in place,” the suburbs of several major metro areas are projected to have larger elderly population shares than their cities by 2030. And even today, there are more poor Americans living in the suburbs of major metro areas than in cities.

New governance. Diversifying populations and changing infrastructure needs will demand a less parochial, more regional approach to public decision making. Small suburban jurisdictions can’t finance and manage transit systems, public hospitals, or affordable housing on their own. A move toward more metropolitan collaboration on these issues, borne of economic necessity, may further blur the traditional political boundaries that define suburbs.

“Suburbia” is an oppositional concept — in Latin, it’s literally “under city.” But as the people and places that define suburbia look more and more like those we associate with the city, and less and less like one another — in 40 years perhaps we’ll get beyond our fixation with “the suburbs” (love them or hate them) and develop a richer vocabulary for what lies beyond the city limits.


Lawrence C. Levy
, executive director of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University in Hempstead, NY, and a Pulitzer Finalist as senior editorial writer and chief political columnist at Newsday.

“It depends — on how smart and bold we are willing to be.”

In my former life as an editorial writer at a great suburban newspaper, I hated when politicians or even academicians (as I am now at Hofstra University) would answer one of my questions by saying, “It depends.” And I swore I wouldn’t do that to other journalists, as well as their viewers and readers, when I found myself at the other end of a question.

So I guess I will have to hate myself: How the suburbs will look in 40 years depends … on everything from local, state, and federal policies to the price of a gallon of gasoline.

One thing for certain is that most suburban communities — wherever they are — won’t look like they do now. There will be more clusters of taller buildings, surrounding more public transportation, and populated by people who don’t look a lot like — or earn as much at least at first — as those now living next door.

The suburbs are the locus of change in America — dynamic demographic change that is being driven by migration from nearby cities, counties, and, in a shift from prior generations, directly from other countries. (My family spent a generation after leaving “the old country” before moving to the “new suburbs.” Now, legal and illegal immigrants alike are bypassing that cramped apartment in a central city for a cramped subdivision, or sometimes, a subdivided house in suburbia.)

Overall, although not always, this change is pushing out in waves that are changing each subsequent suburban ring.

For nearly two decades, the inner-ring suburbs have been looking more and more like the cities they surround. They are nearly as physically dense, politically Democratic, and, unfortunately, socially and educationally dysfunctional. In more recent years, more of the outer rings of suburbia have acquired more of the characteristics of the inner rings. A recent study by the Brookings Institution, which is drawing attention to the need for cities and suburbs to work together to create stronger metro areas, found that there are more poor people in suburbia than the central cities.

These demographic trends should continue but not all of them have to be a negative for the people living there, rich and poor. The challenges of the changing suburbs can lead to smarter solutions that could transform the suburbs into cleaner, less congested, more liveable, more economically viable, and more welcomingly diverse communities for old and young, black and white, English speakers and non English speakers.

The energy price crisis, which is battering suburbia harder than other areas because of its dependence on the car, has hastened a trend toward building higher rise housing in village downtowns near commuter rail lines — aka “transit oriented development.”

The units are more affordable because builders can acquire land in depressed village downtowns more cheaply than in other areas and because they are usually allowed to build more units per acre. The affordable apartments in hipper, walkable urban-style neighborhoods become a magnet for young, well educated workers that many suburbs have been losing. Independent elderly couples, who no longer need or want a big single family house, also are drawn to these cheaper, more interesting neighborhoods.

And so it goes — a cycle of survival and renewal that will save the suburb from itself.

Success will breed success and courage. As more of these new suburban spaces succeed, without substantially changing the single-family home character of most of the rest of the community, they will become easier to sell politically. And as NIMBY uproar diminishes, politicians will more likely approve projects that they wouldn’t have dared let through a generation or even a year ago.

But the future of the suburbs depends (sorry about that word again) on more than the actions of local village, town, and county officials.

If the federal government reduces incentives for sprawl (by shifting funds from highway building, for instance, to mass transit or to sewer construction necessary for “densifying” suburbs), the so-called “smart growth” movement will hasten and spread deeper into suburbia. If the oil cartels and our own consumption habits keep energy prices high, consumers will pressure builders into putting up smaller and “greener” units that may not look like my parents’ split level. Highways may not be as congested or at least they may be safer because people will be driving slower to save on gas. Increased purchases of hybrids and other energy-saving moves will reduce pollution and the “carbon footprint” of suburbia.

And with environmentalists and builders, along with politicians, agreeing on less sprawling tract housing and more “clustered” homes that preserve large swaths of land, the outer “ex-urban” rings may not look like the Levittowns of my parents’ generation that grew out of fields that once bore potatoes.

So how will the suburbs look in 40 years? It depends — on how smart and bold we are willing to be.

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  1. Devon MacDonald says:

    I worry about some suburban areas that have been created just to exist – and so that people can exist in them. With no local economy (asides from the homes themselves) and with increasing energy prices I don’t see them as sustainable living for those who moved there (not true in all cases obviously).

    More affordable housing (as opposed to urban centres) and inexpensive commutes draw a lot of people to suburban areas – but how long will it continue to be affordable and inexpensive?

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  2. Tom says:

    The suburbs will continue to be defined by the desire create a place where we can live with people like yourselves, which these days means the same income class and education level. People raise families where they can find the good schools. Good schools are determined largely by parents who care enough to prepare their children for success in education and life. Suburbs will continue to revolve around the school system. If we change our school system, we can change the suburbs. Everything else (e.g. transport) will adapt to conform to the desire of parents to have a good ‘environment’ for their children to grow up in.

    If you want families back in the cities, create school systems that allow parents who care enough to prepare their kids to succeed in schools to self-select and aggregate in selective urban schools.

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  3. Tom says:

    To picture the future suburb, one must picture future transport and communication systems. They will surely be electrially powered, autonomous (no drivers needed), and will facilitate individual freedom of mobility (because that’s what we want).

    Picture individual and family sized pods which drive themselves, never crash, link together for efficiency at high speeds and long distances. Incorporate some rail/levitation technology to minimize wear on highways.

    The commute to a central city will be obsolete because communications systems will make center cities less important as people aggregation points, so the rush hour is likely to ease.

    I see highly individualized communities of 100-10000 spread out wherever there is room to spread, some more walkable than others, some devoted to families, some devoted to retirees, some hip and edgy. We may see the return of the ‘company town’. I don’t see the death of the suburb; I see the death of the high density city.

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  4. Mike B says:

    Would you consider a distinction between the old, inner ring, “trolley car” suburbs that were created before the automobile and the post-war “car centric” suburbs. My family had spent the last 80 years in the close in suburbs with a centralized downtown business district, neighborhood schools and mass transit connection to the urban core.

    Growing up I rarely had to drive or be driven places and back in the 70′s oil shocks my parents were able to park the car for weeks at a time and walk/transit everywhere they needed to go.

    I think there is a huge difference between the sustainable first generation “suburban” communities at the edge of urban cores and the later day exurban communities that filled in all the blank space. Property values reflect this in that in my town the “housing slump” has barely been seen in sale prices, while the old “drive until you can afford it” folks have been hit hard.

    I don’t see the absolute death of suburbia just a reversion to the type of suburbs one saw before the cheap energy fueled excesses. Basically centralized communities with denser housing, mass transit and higher costs for a more privileged portion of the population.

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  5. frankenduf says:

    is that casper the friendly mushroom cloud?!- I’m a city slicker and allergic to cars- go socialized transport!

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  6. Keith M says:

    Suburbs are an unsustainable monstrosity that will eventually run out of room to grow. Commuting to major cities by car will also go by the wayside. It is time to start using space more smartly.

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  7. Steve says:

    I grew up in the suburbs and hated every minute.

    Now I live less than 5 miles from my work downtown.

    Of course, I don’t care that people condider my choice of house to be less than what they consider adequate for their own ego gratification. The hell with the “Jones”.

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  8. econ2econ says:

    #2 is exactly right, it’s about school systems. I think the model will likely stay the same, but you’ll see more suburban town centers that offer some of the same benefits as urban areas (pedestrian-friendly, work/live spaces, boutique shopping, better restaurants). Telecommuting and flexible work hours, which is still vastly underutilized, will help people maintain this lifestyle they have come to love. Houses will definitely get smaller, but they’ll become more high-end (like city condos and townhomes are today). But unless school choice becomes a viable option for all families, middle-income households will continue to base their living situations on where they can send their kids to school.

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