20 September 2013

The End of the Suburbs

What do you think of when you think of "Suburbs"?

A streetcar suburb
(image courtesy Paul Sableman, Flickr Creative Commons)

Or this?

(courtesy "MyBiggestFan" Flickr Creative Commons)

I sat for a while and thought about Suburbs in the American Imagination.

Leave it to Beaver
Brady Bunch
Back to the Future
Edward Scissorhands
Arrested Development
Youth in Revolt

And there's zillions more.   The Suburbs = The American Dream.  But think about that list.  At the beginning, the communities and families are "healthy", even sanitized in the suburbs.  But by the 90s, and certainly by the first and second decades of the new milennium, we're watching suburbs that have cracked open and shown their flaws.  It's not simply the people, but it's also the format of living.  In these narratives, suburbs are part of the problem.

But the dream isn't panning out, or at the least, it isn't sustainable.  No matter if you love it or reject it, the high cost of oil is having a significant impact on the suburbs and car culture.  There has to be more to The American Dream than a house in the suburbs.  Doesn't there?

I explored this before with Straphanger, but I find myself coming back around to this again and again.

I was driving (yes, I was) when I heard Leigh Gallagher's The End of the Suburbs featured on NPR's Marketplace .

Seriously, it's something we need to deal with.
After reading the book (in practically one sitting) I followed up with a film she recommended, Gregory Greene's The End of Suburbia (2004).

So, when the automobile-based suburbs were designed, municipalities and developers built with no thought for an alternative for transportation.  At the start they were an answer to a significant shortage in Post-WWII housing, and the mortgage interest tax exemption and GI Bill lending made single-family housing not just the "best" choice, but for most families, virtually the only choice for a home.

But now we are starting to see that we need a retrofit.  And that is going to be very, VERY painful.

Remember, "Peak Oil" doesn't mean the tank finally lands on "E" - it's the financially excruciating process of the price of gas going up and up and up: supply & demand.  Can you remember being shocked that gas was closing in on $2/gallon after 9/11?  Or that Will Hunting cites $2.50 as the outlandish price of oil in some nebulous future.  Well, I'd sure love to see $2.50/gallon again. Unlikely.  As of this writing the price is about $3.65.  And it's not just gassing up the car/SUV that hurts; it's all consumables.  Anything that requires transportation to be made, or to get TO you, is more expensive due to high oil prices.

The End of Suburbia was produced in 2004.  Eerily, the predictions of the experts have already started coming true: increasingly high oil prices, a deep recession, and a significant decline of the middle class. (BTW, as a fun aside, the Prelinger Archive, of vintage films is delightful.)

You know that thumbnail concept that housing should be 30% or less of your household budget?  Well, there's a new thumbnail.  The H&T Affordability Index says that housing+transportation should be less than 45% of a household budget.

For a comparison, look at the map of the county where I live:

Yellow areas are within the affordability index.  By the old index, much of Cumberland County is "affordable."  But if you add in the cost of transportation, look how little yellow there is.  My immediate neighborhood is not in the yellow zone (although my hairdresser's salon is, and I rode my bike to my haircut appointment last week).

Earlier this week my husband got into a somewhat heated conversation with a group of people who also live in our suburban small city (yep, I live in the 'burbs, even if it's more of a Streetcar Suburb, very much like the photo at the top of the post).  They insisted that we all live too close together and that we all ought to live on bigger plots of land.  He rolled his eyes (in his mind) and said, "No!  Just the opposite!   We live too far apart in this town as it is!  We shouldn't be living on big plots of land unless we're farmers!"  They think he's crazy.  I think he's DEAD RIGHT.

Do you live in a suburb?  Do you like it?  And what are your thoughts about oil increasing more and more?  Do you feel like there's a breaking point ahead for you, or for our culture?

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