American exurbs are dying, is America?

U-M professor of urban planning Christopher B. Leinberger had an interesting op-ed a few days ago in the New York Times on the death of the fringe suburb in America. Here’s a clip.

…By now, nearly five years after the housing crash, most Americans understand that a mortgage meltdown was the catalyst for the Great Recession, facilitated by underregulation of finance and reckless risk-taking. Less understood is the divergence between center cities and inner-ring suburbs on one hand, and the suburban fringe on the other.

It was predominantly the collapse of the car-dependent suburban fringe that caused the mortgage collapse.

In the late 1990s, high-end outer suburbs contained most of the expensive housing in the United States, as measured by price per square foot, according to data I analyzed from the Zillow real estate database. Today, the most expensive housing is in the high-density, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods of the center city and inner suburbs. Some of the most expensive neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas are Capitol Hill in Seattle; Virginia Highland in Atlanta; German Village in Columbus, Ohio, and Logan Circle in Washington. Considered slums as recently as 30 years ago, they have been transformed by gentrification.

Simply put, there has been a profound structural shift — a reversal of what took place in the 1950s, when drivable suburbs boomed and flourished as center cities emptied and withered…

When I read that, I started feeling pretty good about life – like we might actually have a shot at righting what’s wrong with America without descending into a state of perpetual cannibal holocaust… So, I did what I usually do when I start to feel like things might not be so bad after all, and headed over to our friend Jim Kunstler’s website. Here’s some of what I found.

…A big part of the automatic economy was the idea of a “job.” In its journey to the present moment, the idea became crusted with barnacles of illusion, especially that a “job” was a sort of commodity “produced” by large corporate enterprises or governments and rationally distributed like any other commodity; that it came with a goodie bag filled with guaranteed pensions, medical care to remediate bad living habits, vacations to places of programmed entertainment, a warm, well-lighted dwelling, and a big steel machine to travel around in. Now we witness with helpless despair as these illusions dissolve.

The situation at hand is not a “depression,” though it may resemble the experience of the 1930s in the early going. It’s the permanent re-set and reorganization of everyday life amidst a desperate scramble for resources. It will go on and on until there are far fewer people competing for things while the ones who endure construct new systems for daily living based on fewer resources used differently.

In North America I believe this re-set will involve the re-establishment of an economy centered on agriculture, with a lot of other activities supporting it, all done on a fine-grained local and regional scale. It must be impossible for many of us to imagine such an outcome – hence the futility of our current politics, with its hollow promises, its laughable battles over sexual behavior, its pitiful religious boasting, its empty statistical blather, all in the service of wishing the disintegrating past back into existence.

This desperation may be why our recently-acquired traditions seem especially automatic this holiday season. Of course the “consumers” line up outside the big box stores the day after the automatic Thanksgiving exercise in gluttony. That is what they’re supposed to do this time of year. That is what has been on the cable TV news shows in recent years: see the crowds cheerfully huddled in their sleeping bags outside the Wal Mart… see them trample each other in the moment the doors open!…

And, actually, this may not be too bad, if we can do it somewhat gracefully – if people can learn to be content with less, and accept this new paradigm where the important stuff is that which keeps us alive. We’ll see.

Oh, and while we’re talking about the United States realigning around agriculture, I wanted to recommend an article that Mark Bittman wrote a few days ago about a recent trip he’d made to Vermont with Bernie Sanders to survey the flourishing local food movement there. Among other things, it’s got some pretty interesting stuff about Burlington’s Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) network, which is evolving so as to allow what were once traditional CSA farmers to specialize on just a few crops, thereby increasing efficiency and yield. Here’s a clip.

…Here it’s the presence of the 38-year-old City Market, a community-owned downtown supermarket where, says general manager Clem Nilan, the main problem with locally sourced food isn’t demand but supply. (Sales of local produce have more than doubled in recent years, says Nilan, as has membership.)

Intervale Food Hub, a next-generation C.S.A. that aggregates produce from 24 farmers, divides it into shares and distributes it to consumers at their workplaces, thus minimizing risks and maximizing convenience…

“We’re getting to the next ring of consumers with the Food Hub,” says Travis Marcotte, the Intervale Center’s executive director, “people who like the concept of the C.S.A. but were unlikely to participate in the traditional way.” He’s projecting that the Food Hub will grow by 20 percent in both membership and sales next year, and involve more farmers from all over the area. (Already, only about a quarter of the Food Hub’s produce comes from farms within the Intervale.)

Burlington and the Intervale Center are hardly alone in building a more sophisticated system that moves food from small- and medium-size farms to local consumers via C.S.A.’s, farmers’ markets, local supermarkets (and, increasingly, national chains) and hubs. Each of these things is happening nationwide, and barely a day goes by that I don’t hear from someone touting their local food scene, each of which appears to be at a different stage and has some innovative twist.

Yet as more sound models like the one in Burlington appear, it will become easier for those communities that are newly trying to increase their production and consumption of local food to do so. As Senator Sanders says, “We’re in the midst of a food revolution.” On visits like this it really seems that way…

I think we’ve talked about it here before, but I wonder if Washtenaw County has the land necessary to produce a majority of its own food.

OK, I have to go and work on baby names now… What are some good, solid farming names, anyway?

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  1. Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:09 pm | Permalink

    OK, I found one of the old articles on Washtenaw Country farmland.

  2. Jim
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    George. Means “farmer.”

  3. Gillian
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

    Chris Leinburger has been stumping for a while about how baby boomers and millennials will raise the demand for walkable urban housing, and I really want to believe him, but I can’t reconcile his thesis with the 2010 census numbers, at least in Michigan.

    Instead of the return to walkability, we saw Detroit and the inner suburbs empty out in favor of exurbia. It seemed like the people who moved from Detroit to Hazel Park in the 60’s went even further afield to backwater burgs like Dexter and Fenton rather than coming back to urban centers.

    I’d like to believe that the census was just reflecting a trend from 2000-2008 and that the housing crisis and rising gas prices have taught us our lesson, but I’m afraid that people are lying in the surveys Leinburger refers to – that they just *think* they’re supposed to want walkable urban housing but they’ll actually be happy to move out to the boonies once they can afford it again.

    Anyway, I hope Leinburger is right, and while I usually trust Mr. Kuntsler to make me feel terrible about the future, I can’t help but smile when I think of those McMansions being converted to barns and their garages to chicken coops in the new agricultural revolution.

    Ramble ramble. Everett would be a good name for a farmer.

  4. LisaD
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 11:46 pm | Permalink

    Hey, I went to a whole conference about this (sort of) – the reImaging Work conference in Detroit last month. Perhaps we should do a local brainstorm. There is no shortage of WORK to be done, just a shortage of jobs. It frustrates me to no end to have all sorts of people with amazing skills just sitting around (ok, sending out resumes and filling out job applications too). If there was some sort of hub where you could go to connect to people doing interesting work and plug into a short-term project or two that would make your community better, that would be awesome.

    I’m really fond of the various schemes which allow you and a few of your neighbors to place an order with a farmer that will be delivered to a central neighborhood place for pick up. Like a CSA, but you get to choose your veggies. As is pointed out above, that would be a lot easier with a few farmers so allow for some specialization.

    Intervale is AWESOME. I had an opportunity to tour it and the 7th generation corporate headquarters (and meet Will Raap) and when I was there for a Business Alliance for Local Living Economies conference a few years ago. (Digressing – the conference is in Grand Rapids in May 2012 – y’all sustainable business types should mark that down).

    p.s. I’d say Herman, but it’s been tainted by recent candidates. Harold? I love how we all think of men’s names (I do). So I vote for Clara (boy OR girl).

  5. alan2102
    Posted December 2, 2011 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Gillian wrote: “I usually trust Mr. Kuntsler to make me feel terrible about the future”.

    “Terrible”? Why? Or were you being tongue in cheek?

    Kuntsler’s view is highly optimistic. Peak oil will, ideally, mean an end to all of the wild and ugly excesses of the oil age, including not least empire, the military-industrial complex, the auto-industrial complex, etc., etc. I say “ideally” since it is possible (though unlikely) that renewables could be scaled-up fast enough to take up the slack.

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