Death of a Dream?

by Richard T. Stuebi

Last week, both CNN and the Wall Street Journal ran stories that similarly raised the heretical question: is the American dream of suburbanism being killed by high gas prices? Increasingly, the answer seems, yes.

Eastern philosophies teach us that our strengths are also our weaknesses. In the case of the U.S., our abundance of land led to a pervasive trend of sprawl in the last half of the 20th Century. We fled cities and towns to massive homes on big tracts in subdivisions, premised on the convenience afforded by independent vehicles on running on low-cost roads and gasoline.

The boon of growth has now become our bane. No longer can people rely upon cheap fuel, and as gasoline purchases fall, so too will the quality and/or affordability of the road infrastructures as Departments of Transportation become underfunded. In short, many Americans are now trapped living in a system of deteriorating fundamentals.

The pathway out of the conundrum may lie in the concept of New Urbanism — a smart-growth philosophy based heavily on transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD implies mixed-use clusters of green buildings, highly-walkable communities, nested around mass transportation nodes. TOD seems increasingly inevitable as a response to the new realities of the 21st Century.

It won’t (can’t) happen quickly, but I speculate that America will slowly but surely begin to look more European: cities and towns with refocused density, linked by mass transit corridors (e.g., rail), allowing the rural countryside to re-emerge in its glory between the developed areas. CleanTech innovators and entrepreneurs are well-advised to be working with this macro-trend in mind.

Richard T. Stuebi is the BP Fellow for Energy and Environmental Advancement at The Cleveland Foundation, and is also the Founder and President of NextWave Energy, Inc.

2 replies
  1. Gammer Gurton
    Gammer Gurton says:

    Bull. We'll have cheap, plentiful electricity to run our vehicles. Solar; algae farms; wind/solar/geothermal. All sorts of generation, from big and small businesses and from individuals. We'll all contribute electricity to the system as well as take it from the system. We'll use telecommunications instead of transportation systems. We'll substitute capital for human labor (e.g., eliminating ticket salesmen at airports, and tellers at banks), and then we'll drive down the capital costs. We'll invent machines to harvest fruit, and other machines to plant using no-till techniques. We'll conserve energy too, not because we have to, but because it will happen of itself, as we invent more efficient machines and gadgets and things. Hairshirt? We don't need no steenking hairshirt!

  2. Neil
    Neil says:

    I would love to see this happen. As a Silicon Valley resident, we are "built out" so sprawl is limited compared to other places. The net results are vibrant downtowns all over the valley and ample opportunity to walk to a shop or restaurant for a large (but probably not majority) of the population.I went to high school in Adrian, Michigan where like many places in the US, downtown investment was replaced by building a mall and a Red Lobster out by the freeway. The freeway was, of course, purposefully built away from the people to reduce traffic. The result 20 years later is that these rural towns are ghost towns. The same has occurred around Detroit where Southfield, Farmington Hills, Troy, Sterling Heights, etc.. have no downtown and everyone drives for everything. The quality of life is greatly reduced when the only time you see other members of the community are behind you in the drive through lane of a Burger King.

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