The Unknown Future Rolls Toward Us

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"The Unknown Future Rolls Toward Us"

I’m always surprised by the popularity of things like this Freakonomics colloquium on the future of the suburbs. Rising gas prices and various other considerations have prompted this increased round of speculation on whether the suburbanization of America will reverse, but the right answer needs to take into account the fact that what policy choices we make will have a strong impact on the course of the future:


Higher energy costs will, especially if we ever implement carbon pricing, presumably make urban living more attractive than it currently is now. By the same token, the relative desirability of living in an inner-suburb to a far-out exurb will increase. In a totally unregulated market, that would lead central cities and inner suburbs alike to become denser, with the inner suburbs taking on more of the characteristics of urban areas (as parts of Arlington and Montgomery counties already do in the DC area) as more people pack into these increasingly desirable areas. But of course real estate and development are anything but unregulated markets. Even in Houston, which you sometimes hear talked about as a zoning-free area, there are all kinds of regulations about what kinds of structures you can put on what size parcels of land.

It’s totally plausible that we’ll respond to high energy prices by keeping our transportation spending priorities similar, while incumbent homeowners in-or-near walkable places respond to increased demand by enacting tight development restrictions in order to maintain artificial scarcity of housing stock and maximize the value of their homes. A similar overall proportion of the population would live in the suburbs, but the urban/suburban socioeconomic mix would continue shifting (“demographic inversion”) and overall quality of life will be hampered. Alternatively, we could alter our land use rules to facilitate the construction of denser areas and shift transportation spending priorities. That would slow sprawl, encourage inner suburbs to become less “suburban,” and a shift of the population base toward the cities. That would also be the more prosperity-friendly solution (not because cities are awesome, but because it’s more economically efficient to allocate resources in a manner less constrained by arbitrary regulatory barriers) and I hope it’s the solution we adopt, but whether or not we do it is totally uncertain.

But to make a long story short, we have the built environment we have because of policy. The past half century or so has been dominated by rules about maximum lot occupancy and minimum lot size, parking requirements, and floor area ratio caps that were designed to produce something like the suburbs as we know them. Insofar as we keep those rules, the future will resemble the present. Insofar as we change them, things will change.

Photo by Flickr user lindenbaum used under a Creative Commons license

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