Monday, April 17, 2006

No end to exurbanization, despite oil and the New Urbanism

[one of an occasional series entitled “Home at Ten: Are the New Urbanists Right?” on the 10th anniversary of James Howard’s Kunstler’s book “Home From Nowhere”]

   Ten years ago, social critic James Howard Kunstler predicted in "Home From Nowhere” that “the regime of cheap gas is near its end.” Americans would return to living close together in small towns and cities, he predicted.  Without a cheap-gas-and-automobile culture, laws would have to allow mixed land uses and foster greater interaction among various cultures. 
   Kunstler may yet prove to be correct.  Some oil experts say that we have already reached “Hubbert’s peak,” at which world oil production is at its apex and starts to decline.  (But it remains to be seen when whether oil scarcity won’t occur until after engineers figure out a way to run our cars and SUVs on hydrogen.)    
   But Kunstler’s broader prediction in 1996 of a decline of the suburban lifestyle appears to have been premature.  He wrote at the beginning of the SUV craze, which would have astounded the dour prognosticators of the ‘70s and ‘80s, and which shows no sign of ending, despite the imploring of the new urbanists.   
   In fact, the relentless move to the suburbs -– indeed, to the exurbs -- is continuing unabated.  According to new Census figures, millions of Americans continue to value a large yard and a cul-de-sac over proximity to culture and community.  Ninety-minute auto commutes are becoming more frequent.  And as jobs move further out, workers can move even further away from the city center.  A demographer at the Brookings Institution, William Frey, was quoted in USA Today as saying that this is “the decade of the exurbs of the exurbs.” 
   Ten years on, therefore, Kunstler’s prediction of a move back to cities and small town seems to have been simply wrong -– as was the similar prediction of Columbia’s Kenneth T. Jackson in “Crabgrass Frontier” 20 years ago.  Are these two harsh critics of suburbia victims of wishful thinking?  Time will tell …      

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