Friday, August 16, 2013

What does 'the end of the suburbs' mean for sustainability?

Have we reached "peak suburbs"? In her new book, The End of the Suburbs, Fortune magazine editor Leigh Gallagher argues that powerful social, economic, environmental and demographic forces are converging to end a half-century of suburban growth in the US.
This is good news for those who believe that the US economy must become more sustainable, and that big houses, big cars and big commutes are wasteful. "No other country has such an enormous percentage of its middle class living at such low densities across such massive amounts of land," Leigh writes. Acerbic critic and author James Howard Kunstler, who's interviewed in the book, more bluntly calls suburbia "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world."
But if cul-de-sac living is approaching a dead end, what's next? And what opportunities for more sustainable businesses will arise as the suburbs decline? Those are among the questions I put to Leigh in this Q&A.
Let's start with the basics. Why are suburbs in decline? Are rising energy prices – or, dare we say it, concern about the environment – playing a role?
It's a number of forces all hitting at once, really. Rising energy prices play a huge role. As we've spread ourselves further and further apart, commutes have got longer and longer: some 3.5 million people now commute more than three hours a day. As I write in the book, a couple of years ago, local TV stations started moving back their first broadcasts from 5am to 4:30am, and even 4am in recognition of just how early so many people need to leave their homes to get to work. These epic commutes take a huge toll on people in terms of their health, their relationships and, yes, especially their wallets. Many people, especially in remote exurbia, now spend a greater percentage of their income on transportation costs than on their housing costs. Concern about the environment plays a role too, and is one reason movements like minimalism and LifeEdited, which I write about in the book, have gained traction. People don't want to have as much stuff anymore. Read More