Leigh Gallagher is in the news with a provocatively titled book, The End of the Suburbs. Gallagher writes about the shifting geography of the American Dream from suburbia to growing cities and walkable places. In a summary for Time, Gallagher writes:
A major change is underway in where and how we are choosing to live. In 2011, for the first time in nearly a hundred years, the rate of urban population growth outpaced suburban growth, reversing a trend that held steady for every decade since the invention of the automobile. In several metropolitan areas, building activity that was once concentrated in the suburban fringe has now shifted to what planners call the “urban core,” while demand for large single-family homes that characterize our modern suburbs is dwindling. This isn’t just a result of the recession. Rather, the housing crisis of recent years has concealed something deeper and more profound happening to what we have come to know as American suburbia. Simply speaking, more and more Americans don’t want to live there anymore.
The American suburb used to evoke a certain way of life, one of tranquil, tree-lined streets, soccer leagues and center hall colonials. Today’s suburb is more likely to evoke endless sprawl, a punishing commute, and McMansions.
A few comments pop into mind:
This isn’t a new idea: Just googling some articles in recent years that I remember off the top of my head:
- Chris Leinberger, 2008 – The Next Slum?
- Alexis Madrigal, 2011 – The Beginning of the End for Suburban America
- Chris Leinberger, 2011 – The Death of the Fringe Suburb
- Hamilton Nolan, 2012 – The End of the Age of Suburbs
And I’m sure there are countless others, along with corroborating evidence from declining VMT, growing urban populations, and so on.
‘Suburb’ isn’t a descriptive term: Is Cambridge, MA suburban? Is all within the city limits of Houston, TX urban? The term could refer to the type of built environment, or to the nature of the political jurisdiction in relation to others in the region.
Suburbs are already evolving: Dan Reed highlights urbanizing suburban jurisdictions; Richard Layman describes potential paths for evolution; Josh Dzieza wonders if urbanizing suburbs might take some of the sting out of the culture wars and rhetorical battles between city-dwellers and suburbanites.
Suburban evolution isn’t a new thing: Alexis Madrigal offers a story about searching for the landmarks of Silicon Valley, finding that the center of a new industrial revolution is now a self-storage complex. Part of the myth of Silicon Valley is about a new industry emerging from agricultural landscapes; clean, new industry. But as Madrigal explains, the industry wasn’t that clean, and the pattern isn’t that new:
In our Internet-happy present, it’s easy to forget that up until the mid-1980s, Silicon Valley was an industrial landscape. Hundreds of manufacturers lined the streets of Sunnyvale, Palo Alto, Cupertino, Mountain View, and San Jose. This is the Silicon Valley when AMD, Apple, Applied Materials, Atari, Fairchild, Hewlett-Packard, Intel, National Semiconductor, Varian Associates, Xerox, and hundreds of other companies made their products right here in the Bay.
Now, with most of the production shifted overseas, the land uses have changed accordingly. Nonetheless, production of semiconductors and microchips is not without pollution, and leaking chemicals have littered the Valley with Superfund sites:
In contemporary descriptions of Silicon Valley as it was being built, every writer seems to note the absence of smoke stacks. A miracle! A clean industry! A better industrial capitalism!
The aesthetic was intentional. These factories of the future were designed to look like buildings on a college campus, which is to say, Stanford. The Stanford Industrial Park (later, the Stanford Research Park) set the visual standard from its founding in 1951 onward. There were rules governing which parts of the industrial apparatus could be visible, so as not to detract from the idea that these were locations for scholars, not laborers.
“Companies had to follow strict building codes, which included ‘complete concealment’ of things like smokestacks, generators, transformers, ducts, storage tanks, and air conditioning equipment,” environmental historian Aaron Sachs wrote in 1999.
Other municipalities wanted to encourage similar developments, and as Sachs concludes, “Stanford Industrial Park essentially replicated itself several times over–each time spurring the construction of new expressways and strip malls in neighboring areas.” What began as Stanford dean and Silicon Valley godfather Fred Terman’s dream to build “a community of technical scholars” in pleasant industrial parks became the architectural standard for the entire high-tech manufacturing world.
But the manicured look and feel had consequences. Storage tanks were placed underground, out of sight and out of mind. Until suddenly, in 1981, people in south San Jose living near Fairchild Semiconductor and IBM realized they were drinking water contaminated by the two firms’ manufacturing plants.
Several patterns of note: the influence of codes, unintended consequences, agglomeration economies, and the impacts of growth. And, hidden within the stereotypical suburbia is a more complex, evolved place:
What we see here is not simple suburbia. This is a landscape that industrialists, government regulators, and city planners sacrificed to create the computer industry that we know today. It has as much in common with a coal mine or the Port of Oakland as it does with Levittown or Google’s campus. All of which should lead us to a simple conclusion: the Silicon Valley of today is a post-industrial landscape, like the lofts near downtowns across the country, like Lansing, Michigan, like Williamsburg, like Portland’s Pearl District.
What we see now is a surreal imitation of the suburban industrial parks and commercial spaces of yesteryear. They’re built atop the past’s mistakes, erasing them from our maps and eyes.
The evolution of suburbia isn’t new. And Madrigal’s article is well worth the read.