What is the future of the structures built during the Suburban Experiment? While it is unsettling for many to even consider, it is likely that a high percentage will be used for salvage material. Acknowledgement of this by Americans is not a sign of failure but an indication that we can be a thoughtful and resourceful people. Present times call for nothing less.
We want to again say thank you to everyone that logged in last week to read the Curbside Chat Companion Booklet. It was very gratifying to have our work so well received in so many places. A special thank you to everyone that passed it along to leaders in their community. I was copied on many of those emails and each one was wonderful -- you are awesome. We're just getting started here at Strong Towns. If you want to help us do more of this, consider becoming a supporter. We're just about the get another "insider" conference call together to discuss our next project and we'd love to add to the list of participants.
The act of writing about a topic is a self-organizing process and so, when I anticipate a question on our work or there is an emerging line of thought I'm trying to follow, it frequently becomes a subject of a blog post. That means I'm basically experimenting on all of you, trying out new stuff that will be used somewhere else or built on to reach some other place. (That makes your job equally important, Strong Towns advocates. You are here to sharpen the blade, so to speak, in the comments section.)
Last week I was interviewed by a number of reporters about the conclusions and recommendations contained in the Curbside Chat Companion Booklet. There was one question that kept coming up that I was not really prepared for: What is going to happen to all of the stuff we've already built? It's not like I haven't thought a lot about it -- I certainly have -- but more that the way things came out of my mouth in answering it were not coherent enough.
Or perhaps too coherent, because while the answer is complex, the "news" that emerges from the conversation is as follows: Strong Towns believes your suburban house will soon be sold as salvage material.
Oh yes, that is a great way to win friends and influence people, is it not?
If you've not read the report, and if you are new to Strong Towns, let me give you the elevator speech. The American pattern of suburban development is a huge social experiment begun after World War II. To the extent that it has been "successful", that success has been predicated on a series of one-time events such as America's primacy in the world of finance, abundant cheap energy and the underlying financial mechanisms of the suburban development pattern itself. In pursuit of prosperity, we've over invested in infrastructure that are simply not productive enough to be sustained. This reality is forcing a change in how we grow and develop our cities, towns and neighborhoods. At Strong Towns we are trying to explain this transition to local leaders and to help them guide their places through the process.
So what will happen to all this stuff we have built that we can't afford to maintain? The simple answer is that, if we can't afford to maintain it, we won't. Stuff will start to fail and, initially, will be patched together. We're already in this phase, actually. When resources get tight enough, things will fail and they will not be restored. We'll simply accept that failure and it will become the new normal.
There is a precedent for this in American history, albeit one much different from this situation. At the beginning of the Suburban Experiment we largely abandoned our central cities. Resources, while not scarce at that time, were diverted away from the maturing of our core cities and into suburban development. What you saw in these cities was a general decline that became normal. In fact, for those born and raised outside of an urban area (myself being one), the decline and decay of the urban core is the prevailing narrative of big cities.
Suburban decline is going to be vastly different and far messier than the urban decline of two generations ago. First, it is not going to involve a diversion of resources but a lack of resources. This has huge implications, especially when one ponders the demographic makeup of much of suburbia. Second, despite an individual's affection for their own sheetrock palace, very little of suburbia is "loveable" (to steal a term from the great Steve Mouzon and The Original Green). We are going to have a difficult time acting collectively in its defense. Third and most important, the lack of productivity of suburban development is our underlying economic problem -- the weight on our backs, so to speak -- and as soon as that is fully understood by the electorate (and we're getting closer) there is not going to be a lot of desire to take collective money to prop up the suburban lifestyle.
For these reasons and more, I see four potential fates for those homes and businesses that currently exist throughout suburban America.
1. Lower Entropy. I think many of these places can persist, albeit at a lower state of existence. My sense (or my hope) is that the home I live in falls into this category. There will be fewer trips to town -- more by bicycle and fewer by car -- and we'll rely more on our garden and the lakes and forests around us for our living. This is not unlike the conditions I grew up in on the farm a few miles from here. We were quite isolated, despite being only a short distance from town. It should be understood that the roads were very "rural"; low speed and low volume. Nothing like we have today. I sense they will devolve back in that direction rather precipitously. A trip to town was a big deal when I was growing up. It will be again.
2. Neighborhood Repair. Some of the suburban subdivisions can recreate themselves into something that could be viable in a New Economy. There are some really intelligent people working on this over at the Incremental Sprawl Repair Working Group and the work of Galina Tachieva (Twitter) and her Sprawl Repair Manual is nothing short of brilliant. Obviously, the prevailing densities suggest that the further you go out from the urban core and the closer you get to exurban areas, the more difficult this strategy will be.
3. Abandonment. I toured a gorgeous building in downtown St. Paul last spring that had been abandoned decades ago. As my friend described it; "It was as if the shift got over, everyone got up from their sewing machines, walked out the door and never came back." As property values continue to decline along with the demand for suburban, commuter-driven living, we're certain to see the same abandonment of suburban buildings. In fact, there are many that are abandoned today, vacant except for a "for sale" sign (or foreclosure notice) that has been in place for years.
4. Salvage. This is the most controversial (and thus widely reported) but there is ample proof in the common episodes of copper thievery that salvageable parts of suburban homes will be reused. Back in the early days of the United States when nails were very rare and expensive, it was not uncommon for a home to be burnt to the ground as a way to salvage the nails. When the individual components of a building have a higher total value than the assembled structure, the market will turn that structure into salvage. Note that global competition for commodities such as copper, iron and timber and even for things like appliances and fixtures will continue to drive up their individual value even as the overall value of the suburban home declines for an entirely different set of reasons.
Nobody wants to be told that the highest and best use of their house is for salvage. I sit at my kitchen table right now in a house that I built myself and I have a hard time imagining someone in here removing the trim, pulling out the windows, ripping up the floor, taking out the wiring etc... that I so painstakingly put together. The pictures of my kids are on the walls and my dog is sleeping in the spot where we always put the Christmas tree! I can't even imagine moving just those things, let alone salvaging the building materials from the house.
But what happens when the city no longer maintains the road in front of my house? What happens when the county can't afford to maintain the six miles of overbuilt road that gets me to the highway? What happens when that highway is no longer maintained, or at least has only minimal maintenance? What happens when gasoline is $5 per gallon? $8 per gallon? $15 per gallon? What happens when my few neighbors are forced to abandon their homes? What happens when the police and fire departments are no longer able to serve us this remotely?
I suspect that things will change. My greatest hope is that our local leaders will get out in front of this and adapt their approach to the new realities. The other option -- denial of the seriousness of problem until the system collapses -- is what we seem to be headed for right now in the financial markets of Europe. In so many places it appears to be the default setting.
Are we any different? I'm optimistic, but only because there are so many people that want things to change. Americans want to live in Strong Towns. Actually, that too is humanity's default setting.
- Curbside Chat Companion Booklet by Strong Towns
- Sprawl Repair Manual by Galina Tachieva
- The Original Green by Steve Mouzon
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