The Limits Of Radical Exurbanism

My baseline view is that American population will grow over the next 50 years, so we’ll need more of all kinds of housing. Big cities, small towns, whatever. More. But it’s interesting to speculate about the balance. Karl Smith describes his “growing interest in radical exurbanism”:

The idea that developments in telecommunication will allow people to live far away but still have business relationships.

We might then imagine living arrangements evolving solely around being near family and friends. A sort of extensive network of small towns, each containing people highly sorted to wanting to live within the norms of that small town and with the people of that town.

I think that’s very appealing in many ways. But I doubt it will predominate. In the future, the trend toward increased mechanization of manufactured goods production will continue. And the trend toward digital goods being extremely cheap and plentiful will also continue. That means, more or less necessarily, that the majority of people will be involved in selling face-to-face services to each other. What kind of services? I’m not sure. Cops, yoga instructors, chefs, and preschool teachers all seem like plausible candidates. And there will necessarily be some advantages to scaling that kind of thing up. In a radical exurban community there might only be the population base for a Papa John’s. A larger community that supports a Papa John’s, a Pizza Hut, and a Dominoes will be better able to match idiosyncratic customer preferences with available variety of crappy national chain pizza. Consequently, the larger community has higher productivity in the crappy chain pizza sector (for the record, Papa John’s is the right choice).


And this same dynamic applies to a wide range of face-to-face services in a way that militates in favor of some kind of metropolitan living.