Predicting the Future of U.S. Suburbs

No drastic changes will occur in American suburbs over the next quarter century, Columbia University professor contends.
February 9, 2009, 12pm PST | Stuart Meck
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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."

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Published on Friday, February 6, 2009 in Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy--Rutgers
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