I left the Congress of the New Urbanism on Saturday and headed home with a notebook full of writings, a backpack full of books and a head full of ideas.  My lack of blogging Friday and Saturday had everything to do with the technology constraints and the absolutely full days at CNU and not my lack of substance to blog about. I sit here trying to break down about eight pages of notes into something coherent for a blog post. Let's see.

Demographic Shift

We all are aware of the baby-boom generation and the bull-in-the-china-shop impact they have had on the country at every demographic shift they have undergone. Here are some interesting statistics: 

  • 59% of all households in the United States are one or two persons
  • 61% of all U.S housing units are single-family detached 

For those of you who are not numbers people, what that essentially means is that the Boomers largely still own family homes (three or four bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, lots of space....), but they are seeking (or are entering the time of their life when they will be) homes more well-suited for one or two people. The result: a market where there is a huge oversupply of detached single-family homes (aka the housing crisis).

This presentation did some Boomer-bashing (which I have to admit enjoying as a member of Generation X) and featured a great mock-AARP magazine cover. I'm going to save it for the News Digest this Friday, so tune in then.

James Kunstler

I got my first taste of James Kunstler (The Geography of Nowhere), whom I had previously avoided. The little I had seen or heard of Kunstler put him, in my mind, in the category of "kook".  My bad. While the guy uses some very colorful analogies and certainly presents on the far end of a spectrum, I walked away respecting his basic arguments.

He started his presentation by saying "we are paralyzed today as a society because people are not understanding what is going on." I could not agree more, but to put Kunstler in some perspective, if you put a "paralyzed society" at the middle of the spectrum, on one side you would have the eternal optimists (wishful thinkers) that believe we are going through a downturn and that, when things "pick back up" it will be business as usual (as in, business as we have known it since the early 1990's). On the other side of the spectrum is this range of skeptics, of which I am one. For myself, I have said in this blog many times that I believe we, in small-town America, should aspire to stagnation as opposed to decline, meaning prosperity is going to remain elusive for some time. Kunstler goes much further, suggesting that it won't be a matter of stagnation or decline but of actually finding enough food to eat.

That is where the "crazy" comes in, until you consider others who have suggested, with less color perhaps, similar notions. Coming to mind quickly would include such philosophically-diverse minds as: 

I'll paraphrase some of Kunstler's basic arguments: 

  • Without growth, the financial system of the country is unsustainable. The U.S. is broke at every level (individual, corporate, government) and, without growth, that debt can not be repaid. But growth is no longer possible, due to the lack of capital, oil scarcity, food distribution, etc... This combines to undermine our prior assumptions and make what we know obsolete (the notion that things will just return to "normal" after the recession). 
  • We have made massive investments in infrastructure that has no future. There is a tremendous wish to keep it going. This has spawned a fantasy (ie, things returning to "normal") that will create tremendous losses when the fantasy is forced to adjust to reality. 
  • Communities of the future that will have the advantage will be those that:
    • Are geographically located in advantageous areas (ie, not Phoenix or Las Vegas),
    • Have proximity to good farmland,
    • Have proximity to harbors, and
    • Are not overly burdened with "crap" (and by "crap", I believe he means wasteful infrastructure and bureaucracy to maintain). 

On these three concepts, I tend to agree. We are broke as a country. Small-town America is largely broke and, in nearly every instance, dependent on outside government subsidy for survival. Because our federal and state governments are broke, that subsidy can not last much longer. What will happen then?

Things won't return to normal for our small towns. They can't, even if we want it to. Those in the best position to react will be those not overburdened with debt and long-term maintenance liabilities (too much infrastructure to maintain) and those that can provide for themselves (the old Jane Jacobs import-replacement concept).

That is only two pages of my notes - I think I am going to save the rest for Wednesday's posting. Please, I'd love to hear counter-arguments to this line of thinking.