America in 2050: a look at the future of sprawl

In July, Greg Lindsay from Fast Company magazine blogged about a debate entitled: “America 2050: What Will We Build.”

While the debate posed urban development against suburban development, many of the arguments made in favor of suburbs and the way they can change can be applied to the exurbs, as well. While neither Lindsay, nor the debaters specifically highlight the exurbs, I will be including them where I feel it is relevant here.

The debaters — Joel Kotkin, author of The Next Hundred Million, and Christopher Leinberger, a developer, and author of The Option of Urbanism — focused on the four key issues of demographics, housing supply & demand, transport, and density while battling in the familiar war of city versus sprawl.

Kotkin proposes the demographics of the suburbs will emerge as a mix of young immigrants, retiring baby boomers who chose to stay close to home and millennials choosing non-city areas to raise their kids as their parents did. He argues this group of people will be large enough to soak up excess housing created by the boom and bust.

But Leinberger pulled out statics similar to those asked by the Ohio State University’s “Is Sprawl Dead?” analysis. They show households with children are shrinking, and he argues that they will continue to shrink to 14 percent with children and 86 percent without in the coming decades. This leaves sprawling areas “awaiting a second baby boom that isn’t coming,” Lindsay writes.

Kotkin has faith that cars will evolve to continue to provide transportation from sprawling areas through a combination of smaller electric vehicles or perhaps even cars that drive themselves. He argues this is much easier than rearranging where people are already living. In the blog post, Lindsay sites this article to describe why getting rid of cars in favor of densely packed walkable cities is unfavorable. It concludes that ultimately the freedom cars created in society will be hard to give up and doing so might even be detrimental to economic development.

Leinberger sees continued efforts placed in creating walkable neighborhoods and mass transit. He calls on developers to pay for part of light rail and other commuter trains, who would then benefit from the increased value of the land surrounding the mass transit system as an incentive for shouldering part of the burden.

Kotkin says cities will grow, too, just not as much as suburbs. In the end he argues that people will continue to choose to live outside of cities as they have done since suburbs emerged in the 1950s. “You’re not going to change the way people live by forcing them to live a way they don’t want to live,” he told Lindsay.

Leinberger reiterates a theory from his book about how suburbs emerged in the first place as a result of a massive partnership between industries. Lindsay puts it this way: “By the end of the 1950s, the Big Three auto companies and the industries they spawned or converged with — oil, steel, mining, finance, insurance, repairs, highways, and the construction of a vast suburbia navigable only by car — were responsible for as much as a third of U.S. GDP.” This industry created and necessitated the suburbs, but Leinberger argues the days when the market called for sprawl are past, leaving cities as the dominant location for populations.

While they are calling for different locations, their visions of what life will be like in the future are similar: Denser concentrations of houses with walkable amenities that rely on green transportation (whether by cars run on renewable sources or mass transit).

When we look at these ideas in the exurbs the question emerges: if what brought people to the country was distance from their neighbors, how would Baldwin respond to denser housing developments? Is there a way to marry walkability with rural living?

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