The suburbs have been with us since Babylon, but what is their future? There's an interesting forum on that topic at the Freakonomics blog where various thinkers lay out visions for the burbs in 2040. Will Bellevue be a cluster of abandoned, post apocalyptic high-rises, or a thriving urban hub that hybridizes the best of town and country living?
It's taken as a given in Seattle that the burbs are bad. Period. The prejudice runs deep, and current pressures — global warming, gas prices, affordability — are helping to push a re-think of suburban growth. The received wisdom in Seattle is that urban density is an inherent good and suburban sprawl is bad, yet the market tends to think otherwise: Most of America's growth is outside the city proper.
Critics often paint the suburbs with a broad brush, trying to wedge them into concepts ranging from the entrepreneurial "Edge City" to the conformist "Crabgrass Frontier" to ennui-inducing "Geography of Nowhere." But anyone who ventures throughout Pugetopolis can see there is more than one suburban form here: Downtown Bellevue has evolved very distinctly from artsy Kirkland, gated Sammamish, high-tech Redmond, blue-collar Renton, or shopping-malled south King County.
I lived for years in a neighborhood walkable from downtown Kirkland. I was very comfortable in a 1914-era bungalow on a quiet, tree-lined street that could have been anywhere in Bryant or Wedgwood. Today I was at a doctor's appointment in Bellevue and counted 10 cranes, many of them erecting office towers near the freeway. Last weekend, I drove to Auburn where small patches of farmland survive between ethnic mega-malls and flat-roofed factories and warehouses — to my eyes as charmless a sea of sprawl as you'll see around here, yet with enough of the old valley peeking through here and there to remind you what a fertile and bucolic place it once was.
Are all of these iterations of suburbia evil? Are they doomed by mega-trends? Or will they morph into something new?
Leading off the Freakonomics discussion is author James Kunstler, who provocatively predicts disaster. The auto-centric policies that created the burbs are no longer sustainable, and dramatic shifts are ahead. It sounds to me like he's predicting they'll be the new American ghost towns:
Kunstler sees the coming peak oil/carbon crises as having an impact on big cities as well.
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.
Kunstler raises, I think, some excellent points. One is that a collapse of the carbon economy does not necessarily mean that cities are the mode of the future. His point about high rises bucks Seattle's conventional wisdom, which is based, of course, on a less convulsive version of the future. While cities are growing dramatically around the world, a collapse of the global food chain and the need to grow crops and feed people locally would necessitate re-populating rural areas (that's where the land is) and perhaps re-purposing suburban and even urban land for agriculture, something density makes more difficult. Farming methods, presumably, would return to a more human-powered era, so be prepared to get your hands dirty.
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