The future of 'nowhere'

Urban planners love to hate the suburbs, but what's going to become of them? Will Bellevue eventually become a post-carbon ghost town or a new urban hybrid? Some reflections on the urban/suburban debate.
Crosscut archive image.

The Bellevue skyline.

Urban planners love to hate the suburbs, but what's going to become of them? Will Bellevue eventually become a post-carbon ghost town or a new urban hybrid? Some reflections on the urban/suburban debate.

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:

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 3,000-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.

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.

An interesting thought experiment would be to see what American would look like if each community — cities included — had to feed itself from adjacent land. What if everyone had to live by the 100-mile diet? It would re-shape communities and likely shift population back to shrinking rural areas (Kunslter sees a boost for river towns). Just as the suburbs were a creation of national tax and spending policies (road building, tax deductions for home ownership, etc.), a post-carbon settlement policy could also redistribute population for the purposes of sustainability.

When I've talked about attacking growth in Puget Sound from the demand side, this is the kind of thing I've imagined. Though its purpose isn't sustainability, some people in Congress have been trying to pass a New Homestead Act that would provide incentives for folks to move into rural areas like Kansas and North Dakota that are losing population, just as the U.S. government fueled the settling of the West by giving away land to people who would work it, or build railroads across it. The thing to remember is that federal policies have created the "market" of today — they could also be adjusted to create a new, post-urban, post-suburban market of the future.

That would take a crisis, perhaps, or a change in public taste. Certainly, political will would have to be driven by demand of some kind. It may be our distinctly American tastes, however, that keep the suburbs going. Weighing in on the forum is 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." Archer believes the burbs are partly the manifestation of some deeply ingrained American, values-driven tastes:

Ideals of privacy, property, and selfhood ... 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.

In other words, if you think Charlton Heston wouldn't allow anyone to pry his gun from his "cold dead hands," just trying taking away an American's split-level.

Archer is right that suburbia is a reflection of our individualism, despite its reputation for conformity. Not only are suburbs not all alike on the outside, what happens inside those homes and cul de sacs is very individual and unpredictable. The modern suburb offers a kind of privacy often not possible in cities or small towns, and having a yard — even one grown with petro-chemical fertilizers — gives many people a sense of connection to the land. Many suburban tracts act as a kind of highly landscaped homestead, often behind walls like a frontier fort.

It would take perhaps an apocalypse to break us out of these deep, psychological and cultural patterns, even if that were a good thing. However, Archer does see change:

... [A]s 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.

That evolutionary change is already noted. Here you can see it in Bellevue, as it is the most rapidly densifying city in the county and outstripping Seattle in the percentage of minority population. Suburban towns throughout the region are becoming more classically urban: gay friendly, transit friendly, etc. In Pugetopolis, the city and suburb are meeting in the middle somewhere, but that's a national trend, too.

According to Alan Berube, research director and fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, the suburbs are not the new ghost towns. On the contrary, they are durable and will continue to grow and evolve:

... [T]he 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.

Berube says the burbs will be more walkable, more diverse, poorer (already more than half of the metropolitan poor in America live outside the city proper), and more diverse. He thinks they will have to become less self-focused and more regionally minded to solve problems, like transportation. He envisions better governance and more collaboration.

One thing Berube hopes is that we might get beyond the Manichaeism of the suburban debate:

'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.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.