Suburbia During the Crash

Anthony Townsend's picture

Maybe it's the rain in New York today, but I'm gloomy. So while China collapses, it looks like the mobility-land use solution embodied in many of America's newer suburbs seems to be unravelling due to high oil prices.

The IHT reports:

Suddenly, the economics of American suburban life are under assault as skyrocketing energy prices inflate the costs of reaching, heating and cooling homes on the outer edges of metropolitan areas.... But economists and real estate agents are growing convinced that the rising cost of energy is a primary factor pushing home prices down in the suburbs - particularly in the outer rings. More than three-fourths of prospective homebuyers are more inclined to live in an urban area because of fuel prices, according to a recent survey of 903 real estate agents with Coldwell Banker, a national brokerage....

Full story: Life on the fringes of U.S. suburbia becomes untenable with rising gas costs

While an enormous amount has been written about the evils of American suburban form - from its abuse of the landscape to the economic isolated of those without private automobiles - very little has been said about how to fix it, aside from the New Urbanists' radically different, high-density transit-oriented prescriptions. Which are great, by the way. Before a wedding in the Chicago suburb of Glenview last week, I got to experience The Glen, a really top-of-the-line townhouse-and-high-street New Urbanist development built on the site of an old Navy air strip.

One of the few projects that has looked at how we can re-work suburbia (as opposed to building new suburbs more wisely) was the MIT School of Architecture and Planning's "Suburbia After the Crash" studio. With its visions of high density civic centers rising above the ruins of 1960s-era regional shopping malls, it was as provocative as anything I've seen.

While New Jersey is, in many ways, the archetypical suburb, it will probably actually fare the best during a decade of sustained high energy costs. Most of its suburbs date from before World War II, and so are pretty walkable, well served by transit, and very dense. Homes are also more modestly sized. Places like Montclair (home to Yogi Berra, Bill Bradley and Stephen Colbert), Westfield, or Morristown seem like they'll survive a suburban energy apocalypse. New Jersey's comprehensive state plan is also the most aggressive in the country at forcing developers away from virgin farmland and into re-development around existing urban transit hubs.

Technorati Tags: energy, housing, mobility, New Jersey, suburbanization

Anthony Townsend is a research director at the Institute for the Future (IFTF) in Palo Alto, California.

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