Tuesday, June 9, 2009

How will the next 50 years be different?

Interesting question. Perhaps the bigger question is why the next 50 years must be different. To do so we must have an understanding of the failure of our built (and natural) environment since the end of World War II. I don't need to rehash the well documented impacts that the explosion of suburbia has had on the global economy. To find the best resource on that, check out Suburban Nation, by Andres Duany, Lizz Plater-Zyberk, and Jeff Speck. More importantly, just open the paper.

The most tenuous parts of our economy were based on the suburbs. The auto-industry failed because it over-leveraged itself into gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles sold to people with average commuted in excess of 20 miles each way. Foreclosures are highest in the suburbs because families "drove until they qualified" for a large house or builders/developers constructed subdivisions for whole populations that never arrived (I'll need to cover that more in the myth of popular demographics). Banks and large financial institutions failed because they either bundled highly leveraged mortgages for those people who couldn't afford the home in the first place (mortgage backed securities) and then insured their profitability as credit default swaps. And then someone tugged at the loose string of our economic sweater and it all unraveled.

Perhaps if there is one lesson that we have learned it's that the suburbs are predicated upon an often untenable dream - one that is mired in debt, future costs, monthly payments and IOUs. And I'm not just referring to the average household. And this debt is not always in the form or a financial instrument. Often times our built environment is built on premise that a future generation will pay for what we purchased. Drained wetlands, drought-starved rivers, lost farmlands, dependence on foreign oil (if we still use oil in 50 years) - these are the costs that future generations will be saddled with if we don't continue to change our fundamental approach to growth.

Smart growth, new urbanism, compact communities, sustainable cities - these are all buzzwords that boil down to the need to think strategically and systemically. Yes, growth is indeed good. And to borrow as phrase from Charlotte, NC Mayor Pat McCrory - "if you are not growing (as a city), you are dying." This site is therefore intended to explore the ways in which our communities can grow more sustainably - economically, environmentally, and socially - into the next 50 years. We'll find some lessons and best practices in the past and the present but mostly we'll be inventing a new wheel, a new way of growing our cities and towns. As a city planning practitioner, I'm excited about the possibilities. The moonshot of our generation will not be the compact, florescent light bulb. I believe it will be the compact, efficient community that's paid for by this generation and left to the next as a debt-free inheritance.


  1. Acutally, WWII was the economic catalyst to the structural framework laid out in the decade before. The public infrastructure, the middle class benefits known as social security and unemployment benefits, as well changes in the housing and urban development front such as the Baltimore Plan by James Rouse, and last but not least, the changes in mortage rules, lending rules, and the like that MOss and Rouse capitalized on and made the suburbs possible for the returning masses from WWII.

  2. "Yes, growth is indeed good. And to borrow as phrase from Charlotte, NC Mayor Pat McCrory - "if you are not growing (as a city), you are dying."

    Are you sure about that? Here is a quote for you: "Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell." - environmentalist Edward Abbey

  3. No suggestion was ever made that all growth is good. Rather, it is the quality of that growth that is the subject of this blog. No city ever stays in balance - they are in growth or decline from a population perspective. I opt for the former every time.