How History Killed the Suburb

Times have changed, and the key assumptions that encouraged decades of urban sprawl no longer hold true. Welcome to the era of smart, green growth.

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Vehicles crowd a Los Angeles freeway during rush hour. Lucy Nicholson/Reuters


For today's entry I am happy to return to Washington Post commentator Roger Lewis, whose April 23 column analyzed market forces now favoring walkable neighborhoods over the automobile-dependent, sprawling subdivisions that characterized most U.S. land development in the late 20th century. In particular, Lewis—sounding very much like the esteemed professor of architecture that he is—says that now-declining "suburban planning and zoning templates were predicated on four key assumptions":

  • America had an unlimited supply of land;
  • Automobiles and road building, thanks to inexpensive and presumably inexhaustible supplies of petroleum, would forever satisfy metropolitan transportation needs;
  • Grouping homogeneous land uses, not intermixing them, would best protect property values, especially for residences; and
  • The only way to realize the American dream was to own and inhabit a mortgaged house.

Today, all four of those assumptions have collapsed or are in the process of collapsing. We now know that much of our land, especially in and around metro areas, should not be developed, because of risk (flooding, wildfire, landslides); limited resources (water); or ecological value. There is considerable variation in these factors from one place to another, but the supply of land in regions experiencing growth can no longer be seen as "unlimited." Gasoline prices are back up to four bucks a gallon and, as global supply declines and demand for oil grows in developing countries, are surely going to continue to grow over the long term.

Lewis explains:

Much of America's land cannot or should not be developed. Dependency on oil and limitless use of cars pose daunting environmental, economic and geopolitical problems. Homogenizing and grouping land uses impede walkability, diminish transportation efficiency, waste energy and promote social segregation, all without necessarily enhancing real estate values. And when home ownership dreams recently became financial nightmares, many Americans discovered that having a house and a mortgage might not be all they were cracked up to be.

Much of the rest of his column is devoted to changing demographic forces, which I have covered repeatedly: the projected growth in housing demand is going to come largely if not entirely from young people who are much more comfortable with urban lifestyles than their parents, and from retiring baby boomers who no longer have large families living at home that need large amounts of house and yard space. Both groups value easy, walkable access to amenities at least as much as, if not more than, the benefits of a subdivision lifestyle based on driving significant distances and caring for lawns.

We will still have continuing demand for large-lot suburbia, but the portion of the housing market that will seek it will be much smaller than it once was. In the 1960s families with kids made up half or more of American households; that portion is down to a third and projected to shrink further to only a quarter.

Beyond demographic shifts per se, Canadian urban observer Wendy Waters (in her blog All About Cities) attributes the increase in demand for walkable places in part to changes in the larger economy and culture, including these:

  • Maturation of the knowledge economy, reliant on the Internet, that has benefited from a very urban workforce constantly looking for inspiration;
  • De-industrialization in many metro areas as manufacturing declined either outright or as a percentage of employment (while service and knowledge jobs grew);
  • Generations X and Y started to make their ideas and culture felt in cities, as they embraced an experience economy over a consumer goods and large-home-and-car based one;
  • Women's higher rate of degree attainment resulted in career women selecting short commutes and urban living (with the trade-offs) over suburban homes;
  • The fertility rate edged up slightly, likely as younger Boomer and older Gen-X women who had postponed children had one or two children but didn't give up urban living or urban careers and wanted short commutes;
  • Millennials defining freedom as their "first iPhone" rather than first car, and driving less;
  • More recently in 2008 and now in 2011, high gas prices are encouraging more people to rethink automotive lifestyles.

Some observers suggest that 2010 U.S. census data contradict these trends. Don't believe them.

Presented by

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. More

Kaid Benfield is the director of the Sustainable Communities and Smart Growth program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, co-founder of the LEED for Neighborhood Development rating system, and co-founder of Smart Growth America. He is the author or co-author of Once There Were Greenfields (NRDC 1999), Solving Sprawl (Island Press 2001), Smart Growth In a Changing World (APA Planners Press 2007), and Green Community (APA Planners Press 2009). In 2009, Kaid was voted one of the "top urban thinkers" on Planetizen.com, and he was named one of "the most influential people in sustainable planning and development" in 2010 by the Partnership for Sustainable Communities. He blogs at NRDC's Switchboard.

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