Predicting the Future of U.S. Suburbs

No drastic changes will occur in American suburbs over the next quarter century, Columbia University professor contends.

In a paper prepared for the Robert A. Catlin Memorial lecture at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Professor Herbert J. Gans observed that the future of the suburbs is linked to the state of the economy; changes in the family, households, and related social institutions; the energy situation; and the spread of global warming. Nonetheless, he said, "the American Dream will remain focussed on the single family house and . . . people will continue to make sacrifices in the hope of spending a large part of their lives in one."

"Once the recession is over, and assuming it has not grown into a full scale depression," Gans said, "I imagine that the customary patterns will resume. As young families grow in size and income, many will again become home owners and move to lower density settlements. And many of them will wind up in new subdivisions built on cheap land beyond the last previous zone of such construction."

"Since few people live by economic rationality alone, more expensive gasoline will not produce a desire to live in the city or to move to a higher density suburban home even when it makes economic sense. I assume that, instead, daily commuters will buy smaller cars, perhaps in the least densely settled parts of the country as well."

Gans anticipated, however, experimentation with "popular and regionally variable new versions of New Urbanist planning all over the country." Still, he said, "the neo Greenwich villages associated with gentrification or with orthodox New Urbanism will not appeal to the middle class American mainstream."

"Although everyone is against global warming," Gans declared, "at this stage not many people are ready to seriously change their habits and lives, except in an emergency of the kind in which they have no choice."

"The reason is simple; global warming does not have sufficient and personal effect on anyone. Right now the glaciers are melting only on TV, and I am not sure whether people who are too young to think of the welfare of their grandchildren will sacrifice now to save them from 110 degree summers that might arrive when these grandchildren are adults."

Full Story: Imagining the Suburban Future



Neo-Greenwich Villages????

"The neo Greenwich villages associated with gentrification or with orthodox New Urbanism will not appeal to the middle class American mainstream."

It is very odd that most critics of the New Urbanism say (incorrectly) that it is just a new way of building suburbs for the middle class American mainstream and that it does not build urban neighborhoods, but some critics say that it just wants to build urban neighborhoods and not suburbs.

I would think that Seaside is about as orthodox an example of the New Urbanism as anyone can imagine. Does it look like Greenwich Village?

Charles Siegel

Please wake me up the first

Please wake me up the first time New Urbanists decide to create anything that could remotely be called a "neo Greenwich Village."

One Neo-Greenwich Village

Have you seen Liberty Harbor in Jersey City? It is no Greenwich Village, but it might remotely be called a neo Greenwich Village.

Charles Siegel

Economics matters

Prof. Gans assumes that the current pattern of sprawl is driven by tastes, as opposed to economics, despite evidence to the contrary. Auto-dependent sprawl has been subsidized heavily, gas has been cheap, and transit has been unavailable.

As CTOD as documented, the growth in households over the next 20-30 years will be primarily groups other than the "parents and children" group. Demand for urban living is high, and with the growth of childless households, it will dominate the development market for some time to come.

Demand for urban living is demonstrated by the price premium paid. As long as there is a 10-25% premium for transit-oriented development, we can safely conclude that there is not enough supply to meet the demand.

One of the safest predictions is that tomorrow will be much like today. One of the least likely predictions is that 10 years from now will be much like today.

Gans And Levittown

Gans became famous for writing The Levittowners (1967), a book that defended Levittown and other sprawl suburbs against their its elitist critics, who undoubtedly lived in Greenwich Village.

An update of that book would be named something like The Celebrationers, defending Celebration and other New Urbanist suburbs against their critics.

Charles Siegel

Big changes require enormous forces

I agree with the sense in this piece: there won't be major changes in lifestyle. Put another way, for big changes to happen the forces would have to be much larger than credit crunch or gas prices, or even global warming (which is a big force but has diffused on most individuals). As I explain in my book - Future Savvy - that investigates how/why the future changes or more likely does not, no new forces means the status quo stays or evolves very slowly. -Adam
Author: "Future Savvy," Amacom Press, 2009

This is embarrassing

Wow. What a failure of imagination: tomorrow will be like yesterday because that's all we've known and we'll still have the luxury of choice because, as bad as times may get, we will still maintain our 20th century lifestyle, no matter what!

Professor Gans is a legend, but hopefully Rutgers has other voices teaching young minds.

Steve Austin, J.D./A.S.L.A.

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