Our Sponsors

Want to take part in this feed?
Join us!

Search this Site
Hidden Stuff
« Some simple questions | Main | Friday News Digest »

Detroit: An American Autopsy

Go ahead and laugh at Detroit because you are laughing at yourself.

-Charlie LeDuff, Author of Detroit: An American Autopsy

As Andrew Burleson was putting the finishing touches on his post here last week about Detroit's pending bankruptcy, I was on vacation pondering a powerful book by Charlie LeDuff (twitter) that I had just finished called Detroit: An American Autopsy

For me, Detroit is both a fascinating and scary place. Fascinating because it is a glimpse into America's future and scary because the future is grim. I've long held that Detroit is not some one off place that we can discount but that it actually represents the logical outcome of the Suburban Experiment. Here's something I wrote about a simplistic explanation of Detroit back in a 2012 Friday News Digest:

It is more complex than simply (1) we were successful and grew, (2) people left and now (3) we don't have enough money to maintain everything. There is something between the growing and leaving that is critical... I've long seen Detroit as the canary in the coal mine and not some type of anomaly we can all sneer at.

And even way back in 2009, I wrote:

And if you think it can't happen, that we can't over-subsidize, overbuild and over-extend ourselves into collapse, just take a look at Detroit. While there are many complexities to the situation there that make simple analysis somewhat questionable, at that basic level, the rest of the country is trending towards Detroit, not away.

It was stunning to me, therefore, when LeDuff opened his book with the same basic argument. We can pretend that Detroit is a case of corruption or incompetence or racial issues or globalization -- and there are certainly many nuances and complexities -- but at the end of the day, what has happened and is happening in Detroit has a lot of commonality with nearly every other city in this country.

LeDuff summarizes this succinctly in an interview he did on the Colbert Report (minute 3:10):

You better look at Detroit because that's what happens when you run out of money. And we're all scared to death what they're doing in Washington...you're printin', we're spendin', we're not spendin', sequestration.... Get the money together or the kids don't have a future.

There's an entire group of our readership here that simply checks out when we start talking about finance or Federal Reserve policy. I get the emails from you guys. Hey Chuck, get back to bashing engineers and planners....that's what people want....they want to hear you say that sprawl is bad...they don't want all your goofy thoughts on the economy... To those readers, I'm sorry, but we have to get the money together. If you don't understand that, you don't understand Strong Towns.

Our local governments are going broke. And I'm not just talking about the Harrisburgs, San Bernardinos and Detroits. I'm talking about basically all of them, the only possible exceptions being a handful of anomalies I'm simply not confident lumping in with the rest (NYC, DC and SF being the primary ones). The rest are clearly "all in" on the Suburban Experiment to one extent or another, fully committed to maintaining miles and miles of unproductive STROADs, sewer systems and water lines for an asteroid belt of strip malls, big boxes and sheetrock palaces surrounding a downtown dependent on direct subsidies and a sea of asphalt parking for a subsistence existence. 

The process here is pretty clear. In the name of growth and efficiency, cities embrace the auto oriented pattern of development. This weakens the bonds of the traditional neighborhoods, changing the value paradigm from being one of neighborhood vitality to one of automobile mobility. Now the most valuable places are the ones with the most stuff, the biggest parking lot and the quickest in/out time. Let this approach simmer for a generation and the community, with the support of zoning codes, will segregate into pods based on income and level of affluence. 

Now you have the recipe for full decline. As the second life cycle of the Suburban Experiment kicks in, more growth and a little debt is used to make ends meet. Declining neighborhoods are gradually written off as being places where "those people" live, and they just don't have the same ethics and values as the rest of us. (By the way, identifying "those people" transcends race as I see the same labeling of the disadvantaged here in my 99.5% Caucasian community.) This all makes it easier to divert precious resources to growing (read: affluent) neighborhoods and neglect the others.

As those declining neighborhoods continue to grow as a percentage of the community, we try heroic interventions. Perhaps we build a stadium or label something an entertainment district. Maybe we simply tear down buildings and pay someone a subsidy to come in and rebuild something less offensive. Either way, the decline continues because the vitality and natural mechanisms for maturing have been sucked out of the neighborhoods and what has replaced them on the periphery is not financially viable. The clock is ticking.

Eventually the affluent coalesce in a handful of neighborhoods. Where they are outside of the city limits, the collapse of the place may accelerate, but even when these wealthy neighborhoods are within, one type of corruption (mob or gang style) is simply replaced with another (crony). Police and fire cutbacks. Reductions in park budgets. Public buildings in decline. Streets that are in such disrepair they are essentially abandoned.

Look around. Don't you see it?

Eventually, we reach the condition of Detroit. As LeDuff describes it, it feels a lot like some of the third world. Call the police, they don't show up. If they do, it takes thirty minutes or more. Same with the fire department. People who can hire their own security. The rest carry weapons and travel in groups. Money is allocated for fixing things like the cracked floor at the fire hall, but nobody knows where it went. The floor is never fixed. City hall is distant and clearly corrupt, but who among decent people would step up and try to fix it. Decent people need to survive, or they are already having their needs met and, in that case, there is little to be gained for the enormous trouble.

For most of the city and most of the people, things just stop working. A lot of resourceful people find work arounds. A lot of others don't. LeDuff's book is full of both. It will break your heart.

I spent last week in Mansfield, Texas, a growing and prosperous distant suburb of Dallas and Fort Worth. It was an odd juxtaposition to the book I was reading. The people I spoke with felt that Mansfield was a great place, that it was doing most things right. Just look at the new mall or the movie theater or the collection of chain restaurants. The idea that the place could ever fail -- that it would ever reach the depths of decline of Detroit let alone follow the trajectory of the suburb up the highway (you know...the one that had been the new place a few decades ago) -- was unimaginable to the people there.

But it will fail. It is simply not financially viable. Get the money together or the kids don't have a future.

It is important to understand that cities used to fail all the time. Not large cities -- they had pretty much demonstrated a need to exist and could generally figure out a way to continue -- but we used to have ghost towns all the time. These were small experiments that simply didn't work out. 

As with any natural system, which traditional cities were as the product of thousands of years of trial and error experimentation, failure is a necessity for growth. Small scale failure is a chance to learn. What we've done with the Suburban Experiment and the parallel centralized financial experiment the United States has embarked on is to create a system where the only possible failure is large. Catastrophic. All other failures get bailed out, subsidized away or coaxed back to zombie status. This presents the same moral hazard to local governments (and society in general) as it does to too-big-to-fail banks. Go big or go home. 

There's so much that needs to be done that sometimes I'm paralyzed by it all. I'm not sure if Detroit: An American Autopsy is inspiring me to work harder or putting me into a terrible depression over what I can clearly see coming. Is it unavoidable? Would we simply be better off getting it over with and then moving on?

Last year Charlie LeDuff golfed the length of Detroit, from 8 Mile Road to Belle Island. I watched the video last year and it felt like a simple stunt so I quit a few seconds in. After reading the book, I now understand what LeDuff was doing. I watched the entire video late one night last week, some tears in my eyes at the scenes as I thought back to the book, wishing the stupid news anchor would quit butting in and simply let Charlie tell the story of the city and its people. The tragic, but beautiful, story of a place that we all need to understand. 

Two thousand, five hundred and twenty five strokes and I golfed every inch of it. I'm thinkin' back to what I saw behind me. A city, its people, holdin' on, waitin' for a savior, a savior who may not be coming. I wonder if the people know that the savior might be found within themselves, their neighbors maybe, their families most definitely? The old saying is true: no man is an island.

And that's the most important thing. None of us is an island. We can retreat back into our nice subdivisions, shop at our discount stores and borrow more money to keep it all going today, but eventually we'll discover that we're in this together. 

Our historic way of buildings places was not perfect. It left many behind and treated many more unfairly. It was slow moving, chaotic and inefficient. Those weren't disadvantages, however. They were design features. It was the slow moving, chaotic and inefficient approach that strengthened cities, made them financially resilient and provided the platform for ongoing improvement of the human condition. It was that daily friction of people inhabiting the same space that made cities ultimately work. If we want our kids to have a future, we need to get that back.

We're all Detroit. The sooner we realize it, the sooner we can commit ourselves to building a nation of strong towns.


Over at the Strong Towns Network, I'm going to follow this piece up with a short example on how lawlessness is induced by the Suburban Experiment in places during the decline phase. I'm also going to tell a story about a hotel I stayed in this past weekend in Kansas City and how it relates to this overall narrative. 

And if you'd like more, check out my book, Thoughts on Building Strong Towns (Volume 1). It is a primer on the Strong Towns movement and an essential read for those wanting to get up to speed quickly.

PrintView Printer Friendly Version

EmailEmail Article to Friend

Reader Comments (26)

I don't check out! LoL Economics is one area I'm short. I love your explanations and in fact, saved the 5 part series you recently wrote about the economy.

As for Detroit...I could never laugh about it. Seeing that once great city in decay, knowing the people who live there are in dangerous straits, is infinitely sad.

Still, there are movements to re-capture the city from a state of decline, as briefly recounted in the near end of this op-ed from the New York Times.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterConnie Moser

Nope. Not buying it. Detroit's problems are not caused by suburban planning. They are caused by deindustrialization in the north-east United States. Other places that aren't as focused on welding bits of metal together are doing fine with suburban-oriented planning (see Valley, Santa Clara).

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

As I have said before, a macro economy is not The same as a large micro economy. It is a different animal and has different rules. Our monetary system encompasses far more than just Detroit or other municipal funding. I guess what I am saying is that I'm glad you are doing the Analysis that you are doing, but I wouldn't want you in charge of the Federal Reserve.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPhil J

First, @SFB, you are either not understanding me or putting words in my mouth. I did not say that Detroit's problems were caused by "suburban planning." Detroit's problems are complex and defy simple explanation (your's -- deindustrialization -- fails as well because it has happened in other places w/o them becoming Detroit). That being said, America's Suburban Experiment (which is vastly more than suburban planning) has taken away a lot of the natural, self-correcting mechanisms that used to exist in complex cities. That, more than anything else, has hastened Detroit's downward trajectory.

And good luck with that whole Silicon Valley meme. I'm sure the residents of Detroit felt the same way 60 years ago about the primacy of the automobile and their eternally secure place in its manufacture.

And second, @Phil J, macro and micro are obviously different, but the idea that they go in separate boxes and have no meaningful interaction is just nonsense. With our macro approach we've removed the feedback loop at the micro level, ensuring that every corrective downturn is arrested with liquidity. Our macro policy assumes a sound business model, which we lack at the local level. You can flood the market with as much money as you want in response to cyclical downturn, but when you are propping up failure, you will get larger and larger failure.

I'm pretty passionate about this, so you guys better come hard if you're going to come at me over this one today.

July 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

To anyone interested in Detroit, I also highly recommend "Detroit is the place to be". Another excellent book. On Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/0805092293 ...

I can’t help but observe that people who grew up in Detroit have more character and perspective than the average American. The city seems to breed this. And, I can’t explain why, but I’ve always loved Detroit. Maybe it started with my fascination of Barry Sanders – the Walter Payton of the 90s – or that I always root for the underdog? And … Detroit just feels AMERICAN.

I read Detroit: An American Autoposy a few months ago; and saved this quote from Charlie LeDuff.

"Detroit’s slide was long and inexorable. You might blame it on white racism and legal mortgage covenants that barred blacks from living anywhere but the most squalid ghettos. You might blame the city’s collapse on the 1967 riot and the white flight that followed. You might blame it on Coleman Young – the city’s first black mayor – and his culture of corruption and the cronyism. You could blame it on the gas shocks of the seventies, which opend the door to foreign car competition.
You might point to the trade agreements of the Clinton years that allowed American manufacturers to leave the country by the back door. You might blame the UAW, which demanded things like near-full pay for idle workers, or the myopic management, who instead of saying no took their piece and simply tacked the cost onto the price of the car.
Then there is the thought that Detroit was simply a boomtown that went bust, a city that began to fall apart the minute Henry Ford began to build it. The car made Detroit and the car unmade Detroit. Detroit was built in some ways to be disposable. The auto industry allowed for sprawl. It allowed a man to escape the smoldering city with its grubby factory and steaming smokestacks." [page 79-80]

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel Hood

Chuck, we can't really 'come hard at you', because you don't really have a testable thesis. If your thesis is that the 'Suburban Experiment' is primarily to blame for Detroit's economic decline, then that is plainly baloney. It's easy to find areas that are equally invested in 'the Suburban Experiment' that are thriving.

I guess what you are arguing is 'in times of economic downturn, a more centralized, compact city will withstand/adapt to the ensuing pressures better than a spread-out city'. I tend to agree with that, although I think it is almost untestable, and I doubt it tells us anything about Detroit. Do you really think that a different city layout would have saved Detroit after car manufacturing left?

Everybody uses Detroit as an example of what will happen if their own favored policy is not followed. I would like the discussion to be more data-driven.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

@SFB....no on your first paragraph and no on your second. Disagree with both.

The Suburban Experiment makes places fragile. That fragility makes them susceptible to breaking. The mechanism of breaking will be different in different places. The underlying fragility is the same.

And in terms of a testable thesis.....this is where I just shake my head. My thesis -- that the traditional development pattern is inherently resilient -- has been proven by history. It is the opposite that we should be demanding proof from, the approach that radically shifts from what we know works. Where is the proof that the Suburban Experiment works over the long term? There is ample evidence, both at the local and the national level, to demonstrate that it doesn't, that it creates a lot of fragility over time. Where is the rigor being applied to the assumptions behind the auto-centric approach?

On what basis do you contend that many places invested in the Suburban Experiment are thriving? Where is the proof that it is not just a short term illusion, the kind we see all the time in cities that follow the Suburban Experiment approach, the illusion we have demonstrated exists?

The fact that a fragile bridge is still carrying traffic does not allow one to conclude that it is strong. You're asking the wrong questions.

July 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

@ SFD "Do you really think that a different city layout would have saved Detroit after car manufacturing left?"

Yes, though it wouldn't have been guaranteed. The collapse of a collection of high employment industries (or more accurately, the collapse of the high employment consolidated industries that eventually became 3 behemoth car manufacturers) did not have to mean the near complete collapse of a city boasting such a large population.

The primary function of cities throughout history has been to increase the number of businesses per capita, generally resulting in greater diversification of tasks (also called more complex economies) and greater economic opportunity for each resident (economic mobility). The building pattern of the Suburban Experiment, however, consistently results in fewer businesses per capita and lower economic mobility.

The Suburban Experiment increases barriers of entry to the vast majority of industries so that the opportunity to start a new business becomes limited to a consistently smaller portion of the population. Study after study shows that businesses in the first 5 years of existence have contributed ALL net job growth in the United States in each period tested (though there is not enough data to effectively test extremely longterm historical trends). Old businesses as a group consistently bleed jobs. A similar trend exists with small businesses vs. large businesses, though there is some overlap with "small"/"new" and "old"/"large. Especially when considering how industries become obsolete as new ones take their places, all this points to the importance of an economy's ability to consistently generate new businesses as it's primary means of longterm survival.

The fact that a city the size of Detroit eliminated almost all of its productive urban area in favor of unproductive sprawl most certainly is the most prominent thing that destroyed the city's ability to shift with changing times. Having excessively consolidated industries that died off rapidly is not new to Detroit. The speed and scale of the city's collapse, however, is.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSkyler Yost

@SFB @Skyland
Look, I tend to agree with you that suburbia, or whatever you are defining as 'The Suburban Experiment' is more costly to maintain than traditional compact cities. But I am very skeptical that it is inherently unstable in all places in the long term, or that areas with suburban forms are doomed to Detroit-ification. I don't agree with this doomsday scenario and I think that if we push this, it makes urbanists look like the tin-foil hat brigade. There will always be suburban areas and there will be more urbanized areas. Different places will have different blends of the two. Whether a region prospers economically depends on more critical factors than urban layout.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

There will always be suburban areas and there will be more urbanized areas. Different places will have different blends of the two. Whether a region prospers economically depends on more critical factors than urban layout.

This has been true throughout the entire history of cities, for thousands of years. We are in agreement on this.

You should resist the narrow view of reducing all of this to planning, zoning or urban form. I've not made that argument and I'm not suggesting a doomsday awaits because we've had the wrong build to line for the past fifty years.

What I am saying that the auto-centric approach to building cities is (a) a HUGE experiment never tried before in the history of mankind, (b) one which nearly all American cities embraced wholeheartedly and (c) one that has inherent, provable and measurable fragilities that were perhaps not evident decades ago but are very clear now.

Cities using this approach are not financially strong -- regardless of their current cash flow -- but inherently fragile to a multitude of things not working out as planned. The only thing "Doomsday" here is the fact that nearly every US city has the exact same approach: the same codes, the same funding mechanisms, the same national retailers, the same subsidy approach, etc... and thus nearly every US has the same fragility. That does freak me out (you can brand me a "tin hat" if you like).

Silicon Valley is an incredible place. What gives anyone confidence that it will be that way 50 years from now? The David Ricardo school of specialization works really well for short term advantage (see Detroit) but is not a resilient long term strategy. You can already see a dispersion of high tech happening across the world, the same way auto manufacturing dispersed out of Detroit. Where's the diversity that will sustain it into the future?

I'm making a classic Jane Jacobs argument here. I'm no more radical than she.

July 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Detroit is suffering from two basic afflictions: declining population; and, the decentralization and socioeconomic segregation of the metro's population. The latter is the direct result of automobile-oriented suburban planning with grade-separated highways. So, the tragic irony is that the city lives by the proverbial sword and dies by it.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMatt Korner


I also am not saying all places built into suburbs are doomed to fail as Detroit did. I'm trying to explain how wholeheartedly converting from productive urban areas to suburbia makes a place unable to adapt quickly to how people make their living (Chuck's argument from a different angle). I'm not just saying that suburbia is more costly than dense urban development (we all agree on that), but that it is inherently less resilient. Change is the only constant in the long term, and being capable of dealing with change (or even poised to benefit from change) is inherently dependent on that settlement's ability to have a plethora of new businesses at any given moment.

As for "[w]hether a region prospers economically depends on more critical factors than urban layout"... not in the extremely longterm. Short term and medium term, yes. Macro conditions could propel one settlement for a very long time, and a city like Rome, for example, benefitted immensely from its role as capital of a long lasting empire and was able to support some lavish suburban living in that time. But after its specialization wore out its usefulness, the city reverted to a higher percentage of urbanism and a much smaller population than in the latter stages of empire. Essentially, the city wasn't economically productive enough in its own right to support those lifestyles or that population, and when things changed it went through a corrective contraction. This is exactly what happened to Detroit, but the fragility of its economy (due in large part to its layout, though not entirely) was much more extreme than Rome's, the ability of people to abandon it is much greater than Rome's was, and the productive urban area that the residents of Detroit could fall back on for a gradual shift to a new economy was much smaller than Rome's was.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSkyler Yost

No one noted that Detroit built miles upon miles of dense urban fabric – enough to house 1.8 million in 1950 with a land area bigger than Minneapolis and St. Paul combined. Granted, it has miles of sprawl around the city and freeways slicing through the center, but those features are not unique to Detroit. If anything, one would think that the urban fabric would have made Detroit more resilient but that did not prove to be the case.

I’m surprised by how quickly LeDuff marginalizes the 1967 riot, white flight and corruption in city hall. Can you imagine 215,000 people leaving in 4 years? That’s what happened in Detroit between 1966 and 1969. The level of funds wasted through decades of corruption in Detroit makes Minneapolis stadium subsidies look like small peanuts in comparison. It is difficult, if not impossible, to unpack and separate the Detroit’s suburban experiment with the larger context of social issues surrounding racial bigotry, riots, segregation and prejudice. Although I don’t want to delve into a long discussion of these issues here, I think this review of Detropia from a Detroit resident provides better context than I can offer: http://blogs.indiewire.com/shadowandact/whats-wrong-with-detropia-a-detroit-residents-perspective

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterFaith

@Chuck / Skyler
Again, I tend to agree with you that auto-dependent culture is on the wrong track. Take this from a sympathizer: you really sound like you are channeling ideology (Jacobs) via modish fad (Taleb). If you want Strong Towns to be more than a cult, I suggest you provide data to support the idea that Detroit failed because of a 'Suburban Experiment'. In the post, Chuck quotes himself, twice, and an excerpt from 'The Colbert Report'. Is that the best you've got? I'd say it's a hunch, conjecture, that suburbia is "inherently less resilient". I'd be happy to be proven wrong.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

Let me try one last time @SFB....

Detroit did not fail because of the Suburban Experiment. The Suburban Experiment, the embrace of auto-oriented development pattern, made it fragile and susceptible to the myriad of other things that afflict it.

We've spent the last four years here demonstrating how auto-oriented development (not just suburbia but patterns of development centered around the automobile) cost more and provide less revenue than the traditional development pattern. We've shown how this style of development provides a near-term illusion of wealth for a local government but ultimately creates more costs than revenue. We've documented how new growth and debt are used as a short term fix to cover this disparity.

In our search for rational ways to respond to the problems we've documented with the auto-oriented approach, we've also observed how the traditional development pattern -- a method of building at the scale of the individual -- has proven itself to be innately resilient over thousands of years. We've explored that insight and shown again and again how the traditional pattern generates robust levels of revenue with modest investment and provides a platform for growth with a very high upside for cities.

If there is a hunch or conjecture at play here, it is with the proponents of auto-based development who, despite NEVER running the numbers, place the burden of proof on everyone else to show that it doesn't work. This is akin to asking the FDA to prove a new drug DOESN'T work before it can be taken off the shelf, instead of placing the burden to prove it DOES on the drug company before it gets placed on the shelf in the first place.

This is totally backward. If you're sympathetic to our argument, than stop asking us to prove a negative -- that something new and untested does't work -- and instead start asking its proponents to prove that it does. That is where the burden rightfully sits.

July 15, 2013 | Registered CommenterCharles Marohn

Quantify 'fragility' or 'resiliency' and then we can talk. In the meantime, stop making ridiculous statements that 'we are all Detroit'. It's just as likely that 'we are all Silicon Valley', and even more likely that we are all somewhere in between the two.

July 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

When a recession starts, the first people to be laid off are likely to be the suspected goldbricks. The first storefronts to close are the cupcake ships and the like. And the first companies to fold are the ones with the worst management. It starts with them, but it never stops just with them. As the saying goes, "the Devil takes the hindmost first."

Same deal. Detroit has more infrastructure than the tax base can support. So Detroit is collapsing. There are so many reasons why Detroit would be the first to fold. But the fact is there are lots more communities in the same situation. Most of the Upper Midwest relies on more infrastructure than it can realistically afford to maintain.

SFB: just because something is difficult to quantiy doesn't mean we can't look at it. Do YOU know how your city would fare if the price fo gas went up another 20% ? Can you quantify that? If not, do you think that means you can just ignore the prospect?

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterOmri

When you quantify, you move from conjecture (opinion) to hypothesis, and lay the basis for providing evidence. I think you CAN quantify 'resilience', and in fact if you TRY to quantify resilience then it might get to the heart of what resilience means. Move it on from a buzzword to an actual metric. If you add an earthquake damper, or an overflow basin, you add resilience at the expense of efficiency. Engineering improvements like that are added in response to a quantifiable risk, i.e. the somewhat speculative idea of a 'hundred year storm' or whatever. You cite the idea of another oil shock, and that is a good example. What would be the measurable effects of that? Natural experiments already exist, so we have a pretty good idea.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB

Comment on “Detroit: An American Autopsy” for Strong Towns Blog
July 16, 2013


Before championing Silicon Valley as the pinnacle of suburban success, it might be useful to reflect on its history, and ponder its trajectory.

I was born in the Valley in 1960, my father having come west in 1952 to work at Stanford Research Institute (now SRI International), a research facility founded by Stanford University. SRI was but one of several major facilities in the area founded for scientific & engineering research in the aftermath of WWII.

The Santa Clara Valley became a hotspot for research when military funding turned from producing machines of war to less directly martial pursuits. I would propose there have been three major phases of the Valley’s history, which overlap somewhat but are nonetheless distinct:

-Research Phase: 1946 to mid-70’s
-Semiconductor Phase: Mid 60’s to 2000
-Software Phase: 1995 to present

If one looks at the major companies that have fueled the development and growth of the Valley, it is interesting to see that the “products” of those companies has shifted dramatically over time.

The Research phase was characterized by a strong military focus, primarily through the big players who derived the majority of funding through DOD contracts: US Navy (Moffett Field)/NASA/Ames Research; Lockheed Missiles & Space; Fairchild Semiconductor, etc. The “products” of this phase were the basis of our entire technology sector today: satellites, modern aircraft control systems, semiconductors, robotics, biomedical technology, etc.

The second phase, Semiconductors, was a direct outgrowth of the previous phase. The focus was primarily on hardware, although ARPANET was the other major outcome of this phase (and one could argue the the Internet is as much about hardware as it is software). The big players during this phase included Fairchild (still), Xerox, Sun, HP, Intel, AMD, etc. This phase produced major breakthroughs in the development of semiconductors, enabling the entire microcomputer revolution. The VC industry also started during this Phase, with...

...the boom becoming the bust, and with that one could safely say that everything changed in 2000. We are now the the third Phase of the story, Software. The big players now produce no tangible physical goods whatsoever (Apple notwithstanding). Yahoo!, Google, Facebook, eBay, Netflix, et al dominate: email, videos, internet search & auctions, advertising, and “social media” are the “products.”

This long-winded but necessarily simplified history of the Valley I think offers up a cautionary note: when the work of the Valley was once, literally, helping us get to the moon, nowadays it is about getting us to share cat videos. The infrastructure in the Valley is aging as fast as it is everywhere else; municipalities are dipping into reserves to meet budgets, just as everywhere else. The vast “wealth” being produced by software is masking a great deal of the entropic decline, but as we face the larger problems of the limits to growth I do not think that there is any guarantee that software will continue to fuel this vast empire of concrete.

I have watched the Valley grow and mature in my lifetime, and now I see it, too, is declining. Thermodynamic laws are immutable: endless growth is impossible, decay is inevitable. What we do with what we have is the crucial act of this generation.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAdrienne Adams

Meh...2nd law only requires that there is increased entropy somewhere in the universe, it doesn't preclude local stability of suburban areas for centuries or potentially millenia. America needs to get used to being an old country, which means we have to pay to fix things instead of moving the wagon trail on. Politicians aren't very good at this message but eventually they will be. I'd still rather be in Silicon Valley than a nice, compact, and utterly-failing town like Trenton. The history of Silicon Valley just shows that suburbia CAN withstand shocks caused by declining industries. This is my issue: Chuck needs a way of quantifying the extent to which the 'Suburban Experiment' causes 'fragility'. To do that, you need a careful definition of 'Suburban Experiment' and 'fragility', neither of which we have.

July 16, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSFB
Comments for this entry have been disabled. Additional comments may not be added to this entry at this time.