A while ago KieranTimberlake Associates founder James Timberlake, FAIA, told me something that made simple economic sense at the time, yet represents perhaps the most definitive and calculable sea change in architecture and urban planning today: “As we see the economy change, people are going to demand less space.”
“Demand less space?” What kind of admission of downward mobility is that? Haven’t Americans been demanding more space for decade after decade or even longer? I’m sure some master's or PhD student has already made their bones by drawing a comparison between the 19th centuries Manifest Destiny quest and the ballooning of suburbs and their nature-gobbling yards.
The economic causes for seeking smaller residential footprints are well documented (the unavoidable end of fossil fuels and subsequently exploding costs, the tightening of the home mortgage markets, increased concern about global warming, etc.) and more of Timberlake’s thoughts on how to address such a transition are available here. Both young professionals and the pig-in-a-python generation (Baby Boomers) are choosing to settle in urban centers and are gentrifying wide swaths of urban America. The typical benefits of suburban living (plenty of space, family-oriented civic infrastructure, cheaper land prices) are rapidly being devoured by $4 a gallon gas, and urban theorists have been tossing out nightmare scenarios of rotting suburban slums that have wasted into disuse and chaos after everyone who could headed back to the city. Because of all this, a popular parlor game of the late summer seems to be speculating on the end of suburbia as we know it.
The New Republic weighed in on this with a cover story recently, and Ned Cramer at Architect delivered a column in praise of the densifying effects of unaffordable gas. The New York Times hosted a quorum on its Freakonomics blog in August on this very topic, too. Aside from a few brave, but probably wrong, condemnations (“the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world”) the vague consensus seems to be that the concept of “suburb” is going to lose focus in the coming decades. In cities across the nation, suburbs are getting denser and more culturally and ethnically diverse as they becoming the first-stop destination for immigrants. In many ways, suburbs are becoming more urban. As this trend continues, suburbs’ fate will be more about staging interventions to keep them viable for the populations they are still absorbing than wholesale abandonment, which should provide plenty of opportunities for architects.
But aren’t cities becoming more suburban as well? As slick, glass-walled condos replace offices buildings (or more disturbingly, affordable housing), and corner stores begat wine bars and sushi restaurants, low-income people are pushed out to inner-ring suburbs, a haute bourgeoisie sensibility settles over the land, and Taxi Driver-like visions of decaying urbanity start to seem quaint ... almost. Taken to its logical extreme, city and suburb may envelope each other, leaving us with little idea of what to call either one.