The End of the Suburban Experiment

There have been numerous articles in recent weeks explaining how the coronavirus pandemic is destined to bolster demand for spread out suburban living. The supposed insight is that, fed up with tight living conditions in an extended quarantine, and newly liberated to work from home instead of commute to an office, many more Americans will now opt for the American dream of single-family home ownership on a large lot in a suburb. There they will have their own isolated space, safe from infection, free to live out their lives in freedom and enduring prosperity.

This is a ludicrous interpretation of current events, one that belies not only the facts on the ground, but the situation Americans find themselves in. The suburbs are not about to have a renaissance. In fact, there are many reasons to believe we are nearing the end of the entire Suburban Experiment.

I have chosen my words carefully here because what is ending is not merely sprawling suburbs (though they have passed their peak) but the entire experimental pattern of urban, suburban, and rural development prototyped on the North American continent in the 20th century. Our attempts to prop it up have failed and I do not think we are going to be capable of going back, even if we had a broad consensus to do so (which I don’t think we will).

The End of Big

For thousands of years, humans built their habitat incrementally on a continuum of improvement. Neighborhoods began modestly and, as more and more humanity came together, grew incrementally in relation to underlying land values. The resulting pattern of development was adaptable, expandable, and financially productive. These cities were, in a word: strong.

In the 20th century, in pursuit of economic theories of centralized and managed growth, the United States (and to a more modest degree, Canada) embarked on a new development pattern. In a generation, we centrally-directed the transformation of an entire continent around ideas developed largely by European intellectuals (though generally rejected by Europeans).

Instead of building incrementally on a continuum of improvement, we began to build human habitat in large blocks to a finished state. The resulting pattern of development was easily replicable, easily transacted, and hyper-efficient. To obtain these attributes, North American development patterns sacrificed adaptability, expandability, and financial productivity. Our development pattern became, in a word: fragile.

As we’ve described here for years, the North American development pattern is brilliant at creating near-term growth. For many decades, we were able to grow our economy very robustly with this approach. What we give up for near-term growth is long-term stability. This is always the tradeoff in the phase shift when complex systems become merely complicated.

The best visual representation I’ve seen of the Suburban Experiment comes from a drawing by the great architect Leon Krier. The top image is of a mature city, something once ubiquitous but now found in North America only in isolated museum-type places (think historic Charleston or even Greenwich Village).

The second image is described as “Vertical and Horizontal Overexpansion.” This is what we call the Suburban Experiment, the building in large blocks to a finished state, a pattern of building found all across North America.

The third image then is labeled “Organic Expansion through Duplication,” or what we would call the Traditional Pattern of Development. It’s growth, but it is growth harmonized through many complex feedback loops.

In 2013, Nicco Mele wrote The End of Big. It was a book largely interpreted through the prism of technology, but I read it in more revolutionary ways. The big institutions that have shaped our development pattern for 75+ years are not able to adapt to new realities, to heal themselves, because they are designed—in a way that is very un-American, in my opinion—to resist adaptation. They are dinosaurs waiting for the meteorite.

I thought that meteorite struck with the economic crisis in 2008. It may have, and history may yet record the past decade as merely an effort to buy time. History may also point to coronavirus as the meteorite, the event that fatally revealed the fragility of big. It doesn’t really matter for us. We’re not going back.

The Suburban Experiment: Bad for Pandemics

The most brilliant thing I’ve seen written on pandemics since the declaration of a State of Emergency was a piece on our site by Spencer Gardner called Effective Quarantines and Strong Towns. By our standards, it received hardly any readership, which sometimes happens for random reasons. That’s too bad. It should be required reading for anyone talking about shifts in our development pattern in response to pandemic.

To summarize, traditional development patterns are based off an assembly of neighborhoods. Each neighborhood is its own independent unit in some state of maturity. You can live in a neighborhood and get food, work, recreation, and all your other needs without being forced to leave the neighborhood. (For those of you that didn’t read that closely, I’ll note that you can leave if you choose, but you’re not forced to leave.)

Many neighborhoods come together to form a city. We can travel from neighborhood to neighborhood, city to city, but each are their own fully functional unit. Not to get too technical, but this is what Benoit Mandelbrot described as a fractal pattern of development.

In a pandemic, if there is a breakout in one neighborhood, it can be temporarily closed and isolated from other neighborhoods without destroying the function of either place. In one neighborhood there can be a shelter-in-place impacting everyone in that neighborhood, and in the adjacent neighborhood there would be no need for any restriction except one on travel to and from the infected neighborhood. Our local economy can be open for business and closed for transmission simultaneously.

The suburban experiment includes a false sense of security of allowing people to isolate in a pod of residential dwellings. That is, isolated until they need to go get food. Or go to work. Or, as was apparently happening in my hometown this weekend, half the population of Central Minnesota needs to get out and buy mulch at Home Depot. It is at this point that everyone in the entire region congregates in one of the efficient pods we’ve set up for commercial transactions. For spread of a virus, there is no better petri dish than the frequent mass clustering of people demanded by the Suburban Experiment.

Another way to think about this is through the brilliant case study of the Texas Donut and Historic Charleston put together by Bevan and Liberatos on You can go through that case study and see all the density, greenspace, parking, and other metrics, but for our discussion, focus only on mass clustering.

With the Texas Donut, there are a limited number of access points in and out of the building. Everyone must travel through these points, often at similar time schedules, touching the same doors and buttons and breathing the same air. Very efficient, for constructing, financing, and as a viral vector.

Now look at the Charleston block. You could image, even in pandemic conditions where people are sheltering in place, the residents of such a place being able to travel around within that neighborhood to get food, get some exercise, check in on a neighbor, all while being able to keep a safe distance from other people. Very resilient approach to building, and far more naturally resistant to viral spreading during a pandemic.

And I’ll just note, again, that the Charleston block is the way humans assembled their habitat for thousands of years. This used to be how every city was built; there is nothing magical, mythical, or even particularly difficult about it.

Suburban Living Burns Cash

Over at Strong Towns, I’ve published extensively about the long-term impacts of the Suburban Experiment on city budgets. In this approach, local governments get the cash benefits of immediate growth and in exchange take on the long-term liabilities of providing service and maintenance. When we look at the math, this exchange doesn’t add up, a behavior easily explainable by psychologists as temporal discounting (or by anyone who studies the behavior of humans with lung cancer from smoking or heart disease from poor diet – it’s how we’re wired).

You can think of the local government portion of this as a chronic problem, one that is pernicious in that the decline is of the slow and grinding variety. What is going on now with coronavirus, and what is going to thwart the fantasy that Americans are going to suddenly flock to the suburbs, is more acute.

Americans are broke. Yes, stay-at-home orders have devastated the economy, but the velocity and totality of the economic collapse is almost exclusively attributable to just how fragile we are. Americans living in the most affluent country in the world are less financially secure than any other advanced economy. We can debate why and just what to do about it, but the fact is that we don’t have the money to throw at another round of the Suburban Experiment.

Sure, the government might pass an infrastructure bill to try and make it happen. They might give banks and high-levered investors lots of money to buy up real estate in the hopes of re-re-inflating the housing bubble that is about to burst. They might even rain cash down on Americans to test the limits of our exorbitant privilege. None of this is going to result in a mass-exodus out of urban areas and into distant suburbs.

As I wrote in my book Strong Towns: A Bottom-Up Revolution to Rebuild American Prosperity, the North American development pattern is built with an assumption of permanent affluence. An excerpt from Chapter 6.

In post-war America, the cost of an automobile is the ante for living a productive life. It is extremely difficult to hold a job, find food, educate children, seek medical assistance, be part of a church or civic organization, or do any of the routine things that humans do without a motor vehicle. Burden poor families with the cost of an automobile and it starves them of essential resources, accelerating decline.

Individual homes require intensive, ongoing maintenance. For families already financially stretched, in neighborhoods prevented from changing or evolving to a higher state of intensity, where is that time and money going to come from? The resources aren’t there, and so homes begin to fail, dragging down entire neighborhoods.

There is also a sad irony to much of the maintenance of modern development. Traditional building materials require a base level of ongoing maintenance, tasks perfectly suited for the low-skilled worker willing to learn a trade. Modern maintenance-free materials don’t have these ongoing costs, which seems like a good thing, until they fail. That’s when they impose a huge replacement cost.

As Steve Mouzon points out in The Original Green, maintenance-free simply means not able to be maintained. There is no patching or hacking maintenance-free systems; they either work or they fail.

I’m not denying that some rich people might buy up land outside of their favorite city and build a compound for themselves, to flee the city like Old World royalty on holiday (they had better factor in the cost of security guards). That might happen, but there will be no middle-class exodus to the land of large lots and cul-de-sacs. If anything, the devastated middle-class is going to be seeking a lifestyle with a lower financial burn rate. That’s going to mean life with one car, at most, in a more modest home in a neighborhood where they can be more secure.

We don’t have enough of those neighborhoods and so people are going to start to build them out of what we do have: declining suburbs. We’re going to experience two or three families in homes theoretically built for one, and nobody is going to care all that much. Just like nobody cares that every neighborhood pod zoned single-family is suddenly mixed-use with people now doing all kinds of commercial activity from home. Those will expand too, with corner stores popping up in garages and people cutting hair in foyers and on back decks.

The people dreaming of a new round of suburban living need to get out of their towers and meet some Americans. They are broke, insecure, and scared. They don’t have faith that they will have a job six months from now, and for good reason. Many won’t. That these people will have the confidence, let alone the capital, to start a new round of suburban investment is just silly.

Urban Centers are Better Off without their Suburbs

For many years, those of us that live near the core of our cities have been told that we need suburban commuters in order to have any quality of life. If we want jobs and economic growth, if we want investment and somewhat stable property values, we must primarily focus on accommodating the ability of distant wealth to participate in our community.

This meant the added danger from turning our neighborhoods over to fast-moving through traffic. It meant the noise and reduced air quality of accommodating commuters. It meant spending money and denuding the tax base to provide ample, often free, parking to those who wanted to drive here. It meant higher taxes, more local debt, and ultimately lower services.

It meant the inconvenience of being forced to drive everywhere, of not safely or comfortably being able to walk to work or to the store. It meant losing our neighborhood businesses, local entrepreneurs that could not compete on the uneven playing field all the subsidy for the big boxes and franchises created. It meant losing our identity to homogeneity forced by financing programs that seek to bundle homes from Florida with similar homes from Nevada, California, and Minnesota.

All of this was lost so slowly and incrementally that we hardly knew it was gone. We adapted, made the best of a bad situation, complained about the way things were going, and got on with life.

Now, all of a sudden, everything has changed. Those of us living in cities can hear the birds instead of car horns. In lieu of the revving of engines, we hear children playing. I can’t sit on the porch with my neighbor, but I can cross the street to say hello and I’m not at all worried about being run over. The air seems cleaner. The city, more human.

If one thing is true about city dwellers it is this: we’re not going back. Now that we’ve experienced it, now that we’ve seen it with our own eyes, we all understand what has been taken from us. It doesn’t have to be sold to us anymore as some theoretical exercise of what could be.

Urban neighborhoods will be financially way better off once they shift from a strategy of prioritizing and accommodating commuters to one focused on improving the quality of life for existing residents. That case was strong two months ago. Now, in the age of coronavirus, it has become self-evident.

Originally published at Strong Towns.

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