Friday, January 22, 2010

Suburbia: The Battlefield

Didn't know there was a war on. Sort of like Afghanistan. Anyway, an article by Joel Kotkin in New Geography is good commentary on the change in public policy regarding development, but I have some problems with how Kotkin supports his premise.

A year into the Obama administration, America’s dominant geography, suburbia, is now in open revolt against an urban-centric regime that many perceive threatens their way of life, values, and economic future. Scott Brown’s huge upset victory by 5 percent in Massachusetts, which supported Obama by 26 percentage points in 2008, largely was propelled by a wave of support from middle-income suburbs all around Boston. The contrast with 2008 could not be plainer.

He paints this as a political movement when it's really a public policy reversal from the expansionist post-war era. No one party is responsible for "diktat". As always, it's the economics, stupid. Another post ago I discussed How We Got This Way. The first early rail development, on the back of the history that we all learned in school, the Transcontinental Railway completion, was responsible for the form of Los Angeles by linking the early small cities and destinations together in order to make money on the resulting development boom. The westward expansion, growth and development has always been predicated on the consumption of presumably unlimited resources, an official Federal public policy, upon which our country generated tremendous wealth over the last two and a half centuries.

As the USA shifted from an agricultural model to an industrial one, and then to the post-war development model to expand the market for consumption (remember that the Federal Highway program was responsible for sprawl and the decimation of local transit corridors), the whole thing starts to turn into development for its own sake, assuming unlimited markets for goods and the resulting supply chain and truck transit networks. GDP measurement shifted as well, focusing on construction and durable goods consumption as a measure of well-being, which then drives public policy all over the country. Cities and towns nationwide continued to grow, expand and become more dense, along with the traffic, congestion and consumption issues that ride with this.

Well, this is obviously unsustainable, and frankly, serves no purpose other than to consume greater and greater quantities of stuff. It's kind of like a disease where everyone feels entitled to everything, the vector of infection being advertising. It's not this way in Europe and in third world countries, although that's changing now, too.

So now in 2000, the light bulb goes on in DC, public policy has to recognize that there's no more room for "expansion" that drives most of the GDP profit and pays most of the taxes. And the population can't support the existing infrastructure, entitlement programs and housing costs. Since nobody in Washington has got a spine, it devolves into throwing money at transit and housing while at the same time attempting to address the CO2 issue that the rest of the planet has demanded a response to (rightfully so). Where to put all this development and transit? Right on top of what's there now, and call it a CO2 regulation mandate. Moving Cooler is bunk, just a distraction to get the idea into the public arena that less transit will solve the consumption and emissions issues,
which is patently not true. Then you legislate stuff on top of this belief system. Which, by the way, supports the old expansionist model even more with overdevelopment, thus setting up an expanding bubble that's unsustainable and destructive with respect to our resources and the environment.

So the article is very good in pointing out the shift in policy coming out of Washington, and rightfully makes the case for making suburbia more efficient, "greening" what's in place. What he's missing is that the expansionist model has to go, it belongs to both political parties, and it's not viable as it stands now. He starts to point towards telecommuting and more "local lifestyles" as a means of developing a sustainable means of creating profit - as opposed to building stuff - which has been increasingly propounded by economists and policy commentators. Profit needs to be built into sustainable activities that create resources rather than consume them so that our population doesn't burn up what little is left of what were immense natural resources in our country prior to the 1800's.

The "green" global movement recognizes this, and is using that to generate tremendous innovation and problem-solving in this new sector of energy, digital, and experientially-based products and services. The values are shifting from huge houses and the "stuff" in public storage to a lighter, more enjoyable existence that doesn't require a lifetime of maintenance and an eternal daily-grind job.
Yes, it means we get to share. How about a long lunch at the neighborhood sidewalk cafe?