The battle's over. For half a century, legions of planners, urbanists, environmentalists and big city editorialists have waged war against sprawl. Now it's time to call it a day and declare a victor.
The winner is, yes, sprawl.
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Graphic: Central city and suburban office space development in the United States
The numbers are incontestable and the trends inexorable. Since 1950, more than 90 percent of metropolitan population growth in America has taken place in the suburbs. Today, roughly two out of three people in the nation's metro areas are suburban dwellers. "The burbs" have become the homeland of American success, with an increasing share of our national wealth and half the poverty of the urban core.
We may continue to decry them and make fun of them, in cynical movies like "American Beauty" or on spoofy television shows like "Desperate Housewives." But we have embraced the suburbs and made them our home.
For most of us, they represent both our present and our future. Over the next quarter century, according to a Brookings Institution study, the nation will add 50 percent to the current stock of houses, offices and shops, and the great majority of that new building will take place in lower-density locations, not traditional inner cities.
Once we acknowledge this reality, we can turn to the task of making the best of it. The suburbs have given us -- in terms of space, quality of life, safety and privacy -- much more of what we call "the American Dream" than cities ever could. What they have failed to do, often miserably, is to live up to their promise of becoming self-contained, manageable communities that can both coexist amiably with the natural environment and offer a sense of identity. The prospect of a nation crisscrossed by ugly sprawl corridors like Lee Highway in Virginia or Interstate 10 between Los Angeles and San Bernardino may be too gruesome to contemplate.
I'm the first to admit that most students at the architecture school where I teach -- like talented young people generally -- would rather work in the big city, designing cool lofts or arresting high-rise towers, museums and concert halls, than try to create something in the jumble of the suburban periphery. But the suburbs are where the action's going to be in the future. The great challenge of the 21st century -- not to mention the main economic opportunity -- lies in transforming suburban sprawl into something more efficient, interesting and humane.
That's because, despite the ardent wishes of urban advocates, the suburbs are becoming ever more ubiquitous. Instead of clustering in large, crowded cities, Americans are building bigger and bigger houses -- twice the size of those in 1950 -- and doing so increasingly in low-density, low-cost regions such as Orlando, Fla., San Bernardino-Riverside, Calif., Phoenix and Las Vegas, where job growth has also been most robust.
Many in the planning profession and others who bemoan the "cultural wasteland" of the suburbs will find it hard to swallow the reality that the suburbs rule. Others will hold on to the hope that higher oil prices will force more suburbanites back into dense urban cores. One city enthusiast, writer James Kunstler, declared on his Weblog last fall that it was time "to let the gloating begin." But I doubt that it's time for such new-urbanist glass-clinking. Suburbanization proceeded apace during the steep energy price rises of the 1970s; it has also accelerated in Europe and Japan, where energy prices are already sky-high.
Traditional urban America isn't going to die. Instead, city living, as urban analyst Bill Fulton has put it, will likely become primarily a "niche lifestyle," preferred mostly by the young, the childless and the rich.
But just as cities won't prosper if they don't cater to the niche resident, the suburbs need to evolve from a pale extension of the city into something more like a self-sustaining archipelago of villages. This concept has its roots in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when visionaries like writer H.G. Wells saw movement to the periphery -- what he called the "centrifugal possibilities" -- as a bold alternative to the horrors of the contemporary industrial city.
This vision was widely embraced by both the right and the left. Friedrich Engels predicted that the overthrow of capitalism would lead to the end of the large mega-city and the dispersal of the industrial proletariat into the countryside, delivering the rural population from "isolation and stupor" while finally solving the working class's persistent housing crisis.
For the conservative thinker Thomas Carlyle, the growth of the industrial city had undermined the traditional ties between workers, their families, communities and churches. Moving the working and middle classes to "villages" in the outlying regions of major cities could restore a more wholesome and intimate environment.
Perhaps the most influential advocate of suburbia was British planner Ebenezer Howard. Horrified by the disorder, disease and crime of the Edwardian industrial metropolis, he advocated the creation of "garden cities" on the suburban periphery. These self-contained towns, surrounded by rural areas, would have their own employment base and neighborhoods of pleasant cottages. "Town and country must be married," Howard preached, "and out of this joyous union will spring a new hope, a new life, a new civilization."