When it comes to shelter in the next century, the classic debate between "me" and "we" will take a decisive turn. The extreme privatization of American housing patterns will shift toward a more communal approach. The den will be out, the town square back in.
During the first centuries of housing in the United States, private development was king. Individuals staked their claims to land with barely a thought for the shape of the society they were defining. By the middle of the 20th century, the single-family home on a half-acre lot (preferably with V-8 automobiles in a multi-car garage) became synonymous with the American Dream.
But as the century came to an end, the costs of suburban sprawl screamed at us like so many home-sentry alarms. Wake up, they wailed, and smell the traffic congestion, pollution, and that last whiff of fossil fuel. People--at least some people--began to see single-family homes not as castles but as dungeons, trapping us in monotony, isolation and dependence on cars.
Predicting that Americans will ditch their autos and their dreams of a manse in the 'burbs may seem hopelessly out of touch with reality. But as the era of plentiful gasoline ends and the social consequences of ever-expanding development become obvious, there won't be much choice.
A hundred years from now, I believe the fall 1998 elections will be seen as a turning point, a referendum on our loss of community. Of 240 ballot initiatives nationwide to curb sprawl or protect green space, nearly three-quarters were successful. Twelve states passed growth-management legislation.
This about-face will continue in the next century. Americans will vote with their mortgages for the benefits that come with a diverse community. We'll hear more and more that our true capital is not square footage but mental vitality. We'll value the creative sparks kindled by daily friction with different ideas and groups.
This sort of stimulation is what cities are all about, and the back-to-big-city-life movement that began in the 1990s will accelerate. City dwellers will live in lofts, rowhouses and high-rise apartments, sharing sidewalks where a synergy between "we" and "me" already exists.
Meanwhile, the biggest changes will occur in the suburbs. One-dimensional neighborhoods without recreational and commercial activities may well become obsolete. Instead, settlement patterns that re-create pre-automobile villages will link us to our neighbors and the outside world.
The new paradigm won't mean some kind of Disneyfied Yesterdayland. True neo-villages will be high-density, walkable neighborhoods, with public transit at each doorstep. With design elements (porches, open space for common use) based on old-fashioned, low-tech activities like walking and talking, they will foster face-to-face interaction and sociability.
Basically, we'll get back to Andy Griffith's Mayberry--with a mag-lev link to Superman's Metropolis.
Carol Strickland's new book, "The Annotated Arch: A Crash Course in the History of Architecture," will be published by Andrews McMeel next fall.