Monday, April 9, 2012

The Exurbs Are Slowly Dying

"The project of the American suburbs is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." - James Kunstler

Well, Jim, you have to be feeling pretty good about the recent vindication you received from an article that appeared last Friday in USA Today:
Almost three years after the official end of a recession that kept people from moving and devastated new suburban subdivisions, people continue to avoid counties on the farthest edge of metropolitan areas, according to Census estimates out today.

The financial and foreclosure crisis forced more people to rent. Soaring gas prices made long commutes less appealing. And high unemployment drew more people to big job centers. As the nation crawls out of the downturn, cities and older suburbs are leading the way.

Population growth in fringe counties nearly screeched to a halt in the year that ended July 1, 2011. By comparison, counties at the core of metro areas are growing faster than the nation as a whole.

"There's a pall being cast on the outer edges," says John McIlwain, senior fellow for housing at the Urban Land Institute, a non-profit development group that promotes sustainability. "The foreclosures, the vacancies, the uncompleted roads. It's uncomfortable out there. The glitz is off."
The fucking glitz? Pardon me for being so crude, but I live in a metropolitan area that is ringed by a huge band of exurbs that has been exploding over the past couple of decades. It is fucking UGLY, a vast wasteland of bulldozed fields and woodlands, tract homes, strip malls, megachurches, ribbons of new asphalt and horrendous traffic. What compels people to move to such godawful soulless places just so they have a bigger back yard is absolutely baffling to me.

There is perhaps no other phenomena the so clearly demonstrates just how far we have our collective heads shoved up our asses in this country than the exurbs. Think about it. America's rapid drive towards car-centric suburbification after World War Two was short-sighted enough, but at least then we had the excuse than we had never before experienced an oil shock. Then in the 1970s, we received two major shots across the bow in the form of the 1973 and 1979 Middle East oil supply disruptions. Those should have served as a warning that a automobile-dependent transportation infrastructure was ultimately not sustainable. So what did Spoiled Rotten Nation do in response? As soon as oil prices began to fall, we doubled down on our stupidity by building ever farther flung and even more car dependent communities as well as starting to buy gas hogging minivans and SUVs.

The building of exurbia, in fact, went into overdrive during the housing bubble years this past decade leading right up to the next major round of oil shocks. Instead of putting the brakes on sprawl as we were so clearly warned that we should do, we petulantly stepped on the accelerator and ran headlong right into the brick wall of peak oil and permanently high gasoline prices.

Nevertheless, this being a mainstream media article, it fudges on sounding any kind of warning about our real predicament:
"This could be the end of the exurb as a place where people aspire to go when they're starting their families," says William Frey, demographer at the Brookings Institution. "So many people have been burned by this. … First-time home buyers, immigrants and minorities took a real big hit."

During the '70s gas shortage and the '80s savings and loan industry crisis, some predicted the end of suburban sprawl. It didn't happen then, but current trends could change the nation's growth patterns permanently.

Aging Baby Boomers, who have begun to retire, and Millennials, who are mostly in their teens and 20s, are more inclined to live in urban areas, McIlwain says.

"I'm not sure we're going to see outward sprawl even if the urge to sprawl continues," he says. "Counties are getting to the point that they don't have the money to maintain the roads, water, sewer. … This is a century of urbanization."
First of all, Mr. McIlwain, the Millennials are not drawn to the cities because of any particular change in the American mindset. They are being drawn there becuase they are graduating from college with massive student loan debts into the worst jobs market since World War Two and thus they cannot AFFORD to buy a fucking house. Secondly, this isn't going to be the "century of urbanization." It is instead going to be the century of decentralization and economic collapse. When the day finally comes that the just-in-time delivery support systems for the urban areas cease functioning, both the exurbs AND the central metro areas are going to become very bad places to be for anybody.

Bonus: "How come...I can't tell...the free world from a living hell?"


  1. NascarNation's Salvation will be found in Tebow's vernal equinox fertility rites to Ishtar.

  2. What compels people to live in crowded cities? To hell with that too.

    1. Jobs. And at least living in the city, you aren't driving 60 miles round trip to get to them.

    2. i used to drive 60 miles ONE WAY (dont hate me couldnt afford to live where the jobs were). I now live 327 yards from the office. and i'll be damned if thats gonna change.

  3. Living in densely populated areas also presents the option of walking, cycling, or using public transit to get around. The prospect of car freedom in an era of shrinking incomes, and job benefits, not to mention permanently high gas prices, is a positive prospect indeed.

    It turns out, that is the life my wife and I are living. And we are not alone.

  4. John, I agree that true urban and even close in suburban have the advantages you note, at least for now. Some doomer types also believe that the far flung and remote locations will find their grocery stores closed and/or less well supplied before the cities do. Ultimately, I don't think any location will be ideal when the shtf.

    But more to the point of this particular blog entry ... The exurbs (at least in the NOVA area) are indeed exceedingly UGLY and soul-less places to live. Even before I became peak oil aware, I never really understood why someone would choose a McMansion over a cute and convenient place closer in.

  5. "...This is a century of urbanization."

    Yup, think Caracas, Nairobi, Mogadishu and dozens of other lovely places that are simply crawling with first-class career opportunities... in things like gangs, drugs, guns, etc.

    But I'm sure things will be different in this country. No doubt the 150 million Americans living in suburbia will gladly eat their investment and race to the cities, where, no doubt, they will be welcomed with open arms due to the enormous numbers of unfilled jobs and vacant housing units in the cities. Yes, in America, this will simply be a smooth transition into a more productive future.

    Seriously, somebody once noted that the conventional wisdom was that third world nations would eventually raise their standards of living to join the developed world, but that the reality was that the opposite was rather more likely. Look around Africa, South America, or Asia and see what happens when their is no work or energy or food or services outside the cities and millions (not thousands, but millions) move inward. The result is not a pretty picture, but it's as predictable as the sunrise. If this is the century of urbanization, it is unlikely to be very pleasant.