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Building Back Better, You Say? It’s All About Scale

America's wealth of neglected but humane and mixed-use small towns is next frontier for redevelopment.

Telluride, Colorado. Nick Fox/Shutterstock.

In these days of the woke uproar, with both the economy and the republic crippled by circulating falsehoods of one kind or another, and debt replacing what used to be productive activity, what will become of our living arrangements?

What we considered normal in everyday life a year ago is subject to cancelation now, and not just the right to speak what’s on your mind without being branded a terrorist, a racist, and a dozen other categories of “hater.” Within weeks of the pandemic onset, Americans started fleeing the big cities, many for good, thinking they could work anywhere for the company that paid them. The companies agreed, and went further. Why shell out vast sums for office space in a skyscraper when the internet offered virtual collegiality? Overnight, scores of midtown office towers were transformed from assets to liabilities.

Now the big cities are stuck with countless obsolete megastructures and dead ground-floor businesses that used to serve them, as well as the residential high-rises that were the dorms in the system. When enough Americans are left without businesses and incomes, even the gigantic corporations will wobble and fall, leaving the workers-from-home stranded, without an employer to depend on. New York City was barely able to maintain its infrastructure at the pre-Covid height of financialization, when the assets stripped out of Flyover Land were pouring into the city, and getting converted into hedge fund fortunes, zillion-dollar Manhattan aeries, contributions to the Central Park Conservancy, and fabulous dinners at Per Se. Two years from now, will the city even have the scratch to keep its subways running?

Many refugees from the cities re-settled in suburbs—some flush enough to just buy a new house without selling their city digs. For four generations, the suburbs have stood as the epitome of normal in the national mythos. These re-settlers must have no idea how fragile the suburban dynamic actually is, or they wouldn’t have opted in. With all the vexations of Covid-19—especially school closings and children stuck at home—even people accustomed to thinking may be oblivious to the economic forces undermining suburban life.

Suburbia requires a sturdy middle class. That broad demographic is dissolving from the bottom up. They were losing ground even before the virus, but now the rot is advancing rapidly, with small businesses dying and livelihoods with them. It may not have hit you in your strata, but it’s coming for you. Mortgage forbearances can’t go on forever, though they have been extended again to later this spring. Then what? Is there ever a reckoning, or do we just go incrementally Soviet—turn foreclosed private housing into government-owned housing that you are suffered to live in more or less gratis, minus regular maintenance? How will your neighbors behave in houses they no longer care about? How will that affect the neighborhood?

And how will you get around? In suburbia, motoring is mandatory, meaning you must own a car, very often more than one car per household. How will broke Americans buy cars on installment loans—the way they’ve been doing it for generations? People without incomes are generally not creditworthy. The answer is they will not. When their last beater-car dies they will be marooned. None of this bodes well for the car manufacturers, by the way.

Executive orders issued by Joe Biden have prohibited oil drilling on federal lands and shut down the Keystone XL Pipeline project. That is driving down oil production further—it was already down 10 percent in 2020—and driving up prices again. Before long, those higher prices will diminish economic activity, which will destroy more livelihoods and with them demand for oil, and prices will fall again—demonstrating that oil over $75 a barrel harms economies and oil under $75 a barrel bankrupts oil companies. In any case, shale oil has proven itself to be a mug’s game. They never made any money producing it, and they produced it entirely on borrowed money. And there will be no additional new money for it, because now everybody knows it doesn’t make money. These are, alas, pitiless feedback loops. The upshot is that the basic operating system for suburbia is finished. It seemed like a good thing at the time, when we embarked on that development pattern back in the 1920s, but now it’s no longer practical. We have to find another way to inhabit the landscape.

The good news is there is another way, and it’s a better way: the traditional town, where all kinds of businesses can be integrated healthily and happily with houses and apartments; where most of the things you need from day-to-day are within a five-minute walk; and where everything is at a much more humane scale. There are thousands of towns across the USA that once formed the basis of what we considered most valuable about American life: places worth caring about, places that you could confidently call your home. Most of them are in terrible shape these days, because for most of the past century, Americans have been settling in the big cities and the suburbs. Dis-investment has been savage in small-town America.

But that is the next frontier for redevelopment and should be of special interest to New Urbanists. Get in early and avoid the rush. These small towns, and even small cities, are sitting there waiting to be reactivated with much of their infrastructure intact and already properly scaled to the more austere conditions we face going forward. The renovations can be accomplished at the small scale, building lot by building lot, without requiring absurd amounts of capital.

The giant metroplex cities will have to take care of themselves. It won’t be pretty but emergence is a harsh mistress. They have to contract, and attempts to prevent that just won’t work, no matter how much money gets thrown at them. The suburbs, tricked out as they were for incessant motoring, present a more tragic picture as we leave mass motoring behind. Think: slums, salvage, ruins, in that order. Find yourself a real town with a real history and a real reason for being where it is. Build it back. That will be better for everybody.

James Howard Kunstler is The American Conservative’s New Urbanism Fellow. He is the author of numerous books on urban geography and economics, including his recent work, Living in the Long Emergency: Global Crisis, the Failure of the Futurists, and the Early Adapters Who Are Showing Us the Way Forward.

This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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