The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

The Big Theory, Part 3

Sustainable City Concept.  Source: Sweco Group,
The first two parts of this series can be found here (Part 1) and here (Part 2).
I started this series in earnest last June by outlining my thoughts on American urban development patterns since the inception of our nation in the 1700s.  I know, a really large topic, but I’ve got a pretty simple theory that identifies previous patterns and may explain where we may go next as a nation. 
A quick overview:  I see three principal development eras in America since the late 18thCentury.  Each development era is comprised of four development periods, during which residential and commercial development types emerge that serve the needs within that particular era.  The first, what I call the Early Era, lasted from about 1795 to 1860, and was effectively ended by the Civil War.  The second, the Industrial Era, lasted from about 1870 to 1935, and was ended by the Great Depression and World War II.  The third era, what I’ve called the Auto Era, has lasted from 1945 to 2010.  The charts below provide a little more detail on the eras and the periods within them:
The Early Era
Revolutionary Period
Growth of American colonial cities into full-fledged independent places, centered on port trade and early roads
Plantation Period
Small agricultural centers (north and south) that sell or process the resources of the ag hinterlands
Mercantile Period
Emergence of cities  based on non-ag resources; improving infrastructure
Frontier Period
Establishment of towns in the Midwest, Plains, Far West
The Industrial Era
Railroad Period
Takes advantage of expanded rail network; emphasis on cleanliness, “getting away from it all”
Industrial Period
Planned industrial communities designed to house workers near employment
Streetcar Period
Neighborhoods built on grid patterns served by expanding streetcar network
Recreational Period
More customized version of railroad period; greater emphasis on exclusivity (golf courses, beautiful natural environments)
The Auto Era
Levittown Period
Development as commodity; emphasis on affordability and homogeneity
Split-Level Period
First serious attempt to attract upper-middle class buyers; emphasis on exclusivity
Edge City Period
Takes advantage of expanded Interstate network; emphasis on access; more mature as communities (more amenities like malls)
McMansion Period
More customized homes; greater emphasis on exclusivity combined with security (gated communities, golf courses)
What I want to consider here is how the last era has been put to bed, and what the next American urban development pattern might look like. 
The characteristics of the Auto Era have been well-chronicled and defined.  Here’s what I said in Part 2:
The Great Depression and World War II meant the collapse of the Industrial Era and its replacement with the Auto Era after the war.  But the Auto Era simply supersized the same “get away from it all” themes that were developed in the Industrial Era, and began to link the suburban development pattern with the suburban political entity.  There are only a handful of actual Levittowns, but the name perfectly characterizes the type of development – and communities – that emerged immediately after World War II.  Single family homes and a growing emphasis on affordability, all supported by a GI Bill (1944), a Federal Housing Act (1949), and an Interstate Highway Act (1956), all characterized the period.  The Split Level Period was the first attempt to bring some exclusivity to the suburban development pattern, and was the first development pattern to be (on the whole) beyond the boundaries of most of the nation’s largest cities.  The Edge City Period saw the maturation of the suburban development pattern as the location for malls, office parks and big box retailers.  The McMansion Period saw the emergence of even more exclusivity built on the Edge City model, similar to what happened in the Split Level Period, but now with greater private control of the public realm (hello, gated communities). 

I contend that the 2008 housing crisis, which we’re slowly climbing out of, signaled the end of the Auto Era and the development periods associated with it.  There are signs that things are changing, from the housing preferences of the Millennial generation, to the stabilization of housing values in cities compared to those of suburban homes, and the relative uptick of population growth in our nation’s urban cores. 

I’d add a couple things to that analysis now.  First, I think race has played a prominent role in the spread of development during the Auto Era, at least in cities where minorities – particularly African-Americans – were a significant part of the population.  Today, much of the sorting that took place over the last half of the 20th Century is done, and one catalyst of the Auto Era engine has largely been removed.  Second, the decline of driving in America, largely driven (pun intended) by technology and the preferences of members of the Millennial generation, can be considered another nail in the coffin of the Auto Era.
So what is the next era?  My best guess is that domestic and global economic realities, generational factors, and factors like global climate change will push us toward a Sustainability Era, for lack of a better term. 
We’re moving in that direction already.  Metros with traditional cities built during the Industrial Era at their core appear to be weathering the economic storm of the Great Recession better than metros with more recently built core cities.  Younger and more educated residents are expressing a preference for a better mix of housing types and amenities that give communities a greater sense of texture and complexity when compared to conventional suburban areas.
Much of what I believe will happen in the upcoming decades is similar to what author Leigh Gallagher described in her book, The End of the Suburbs, Gallagher has taken a lot of flack from supporters of suburbia, who interpret her book as an attack on them and their preferred development pattern.  But that’s not the case at all:

“It’s not that every single suburb in America is going to vaporize. My thesis is that there are a lot of reasons why the suburbs were poorly planned and poorly designed and are making millions of people really unhappy. That’s happening. Those people are looking for and moving into different kinds of options. Based on what’s happening with demographics and preferences of the younger generation, as you guys have well covered, those trends are just going to accelerate.

But to say that everyone wants to live in a 50-story skyscraper in New York City is not at all practical or realistic or in touch with how people want to live in this country. So a big part of the future will be “urban burbs.” Suburbs that are adapting or already exist in this fashion. Where they have a walkable downtown, a pleasant place to take a stroll and bump into people, and where it’s possible to live in closer proximity to the things you need to do everyday.”

What I believe will happen is that perceived differences between “city” and “suburb” will begin to disappear.  Suburbs will introduce more housing types than conventional single-family homes, to attract a more diverse group of residents.  Edge cities will become more walkable.  Downtowns and town centers will emerge where currently none exist.  They’ll have to respond to the aging of their residents and the needs they have.  Similarly, cities will continue to attract young, educated and affluent residents who will be attracted to the inherent adaptability of cities – their transit networks, mix of housing types, job centers, and amenities. 
On the surface, in many places it will appear as the “city” is gaining as the “suburbs” are losing.  However, the truth will be that there will be greater economic and social balance between the two, and that both will begin to look more similar than dissimilar.  To me, this is a positive.  I see this as a trend that will accelerate after 2020.

Of course, I could be way off base.  And if I am, I’m sure someone will let me know.

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