From the Freakonomics blog at The New York Times, an excerpt from a post that solicited comments on the future of the suburbs:
Alan Berube, research director and fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, which he joined in 2001.
“… in 40 years perhaps we’ll get beyond our fixation with “the suburbs” (love them or hate them) and develop a richer vocabulary for what lies beyond the city limits.”
In 40 years, “the suburbs” won’t exist.

With all their current heterogeneity and further changes on the horizon, chances are we’ll have retired the phrase from popular lexicon by 2050.

That’s not because they’ll depopulate — the nation will need to accommodate at least another 100 million people during this period, and not even $10-per-gallon gas will send the majority of Americans scrambling back to cities. But “suburbia” will be an even less useful descriptor in 2050 for the diverse range of communities in which the majority of Americans will continue to live. An educated guess at what we’re likely to see:

New physical forms. Just as America’s first suburbs sprouted up along the streetcar lines built in the early 20th century, the first half of the 21st century will see the growth of “light rail suburbs” (even in areas that don’t have the rail yet).
High oil prices and the imperative to address global climate change will help spur denser residential development along transit corridors outside of cities. We’d see more of it today, if supply kept up with demand. Chris Leinberger estimates that walkable suburban communities served by transit today command anywhere from a 40 percent to 200 percent price premium over conventional drivable suburban development.

New demographic profiles. Suburbs of 2050 will be a far cry from the Ozzie and Harriet communities a century before. Already, most immigrants in the nation’s newer gateways — metro areas like Sacramento, Charlotte, Minneapolis, and Washington — skip the city and head directly for suburban communities. These regions boast a far-flung ethnic patchwork, with a tremendous diversity of national origin groups. Meanwhile, as the Baby Boom generation “ages in place,” the suburbs of several major metro areas are projected to have larger elderly population shares than their cities by 2030. And even today, there are more poor Americans living in the suburbs of major metro areas than in cities.

New governance. Diversifying populations and changing infrastructure needs will demand a less parochial, more regional approach to public decision making. Small suburban jurisdictions can’t finance and manage transit systems, public hospitals, or affordable housing on their own. A move toward more metropolitan collaboration on these issues, borne of economic necessity, may further blur the traditional political boundaries that define suburbs.

“Suburbia” is an oppositional concept — in Latin, it’s literally “under city.” But as the people and places that define suburbia look more and more like those we associate with the city, and less and less like one another — in 40 years perhaps we’ll get beyond our fixation with “the suburbs” (love them or hate them) and develop a richer vocabulary for what lies beyond the city limits.

[cross-posted at Blog-Lebo]


1 Response to "Dys-turbia?"

Ken Zapinski said... 8/15/2008 12:26 PM

It's an interesting question, as the variety of perspectives presented on the original post underscore. But whatever form suburbs take, I think that public transit will have to play an increasingly important role. Pittsburgh is already more transit-oriented than most regions, and the busways and T line are strong assets around which to build a world-class system.

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