The Big Covid-19 Suburban Head-Fake
Big cities and sprawling suburbs are not opposites; they face the same challenges in a period of contraction and decentralization.
During the months of the Covid-19 lockdowns, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers fled the city, some for second homes in the country and some to resettle in the suburbs. The flight began in March and April, and got turbocharged after Memorial Day with the riots and looting that followed the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis. City life had practically overnight become a low-value deal: no more restaurants, stores vandalized, museums and theaters shuttered. All the amenity trade-offs for cramming your family into a 900-square-foot apartment were gone. Plus, there was Mayor Bill de Blasio wrecking the police force and what little remained of a viable school system. Moving to the suburbs seemed like a no-brainer.
Yes, that’s exactly what it was, because the people fleeing into the suburbs were not thinking through the quandaries of American life and where they are taking us. The suburbs will turn out to be a bad choice. The middle class is sinking economically now; it has been since well before Covid-19 came on the scene, actually. The newcomers fleeing the city with hedge fund money might be flush for now, but most everybody else is struggling—including many people already out there in suburbia—and with that goes the mojo to pay for suburban living—everything from covering the monthly mortgages to towns collecting enough revenue to pay for their extravagant centralized school systems, far-flung electric, water, and sewer infrastructures, vast road networks, and lumbering bureaucracies.
The old business plan for running the USA doesn’t pencil out anymore. This has been true since early in the 21st century. A lot of it has to do with the predicaments around energy’s role in the economy—poorly understood by the public—and you can forget the fantasy that we’ll run all our stuff on wind and solar. We’ve compensated for this broken model by borrowing ever more fantastic amounts of money. In the process, we’ve also broken the normal and necessary functions of the banking system: price discovery, the time-value of money, and the signaling function of interest rates.
Even in the best of times, the ‘burbs were a sub-optimal setting for civilized life, a cartoon of country living amid an endless demolition derby. It combined the worst aspects of city and rural life. It was isolating, yet lacking connection with the natural world. There were bathrooms for every family member, but no rewarding public spaces. It was badly designed for the development of children over the age of eight, who needed to grow their sense of personal sovereignty but got chauffeured to everything by mom. Anxiety, boredom, and anomie were the results of all that, reinforced in law by the follies of extreme single-use zoning.
Like a lot of things in human history, suburbia seemed like a good idea at the time. It was sold mostly as an antidote to charmless, unsafe, deteriorating American industrial cities—conditions that worsened after the Second World War. This was a large country with a lot of open land outside the cities. We had the world’s biggest oil industry and made most of the world’s cars. The spacious houses with yards, patios, and pools were astounding luxuries that began to seem normal after a while, really an entitlement. And then the bottom fell out. The jobs and incomes moved to other countries, the middle class withered.
Everything in American life currently operating at the gigantic scale is going to wobble and fail—whether it’s a metroplex city, a sprawling suburb, a national chain-store company, a colossal state university, or an overgrown government. There is a general lack of appreciation for how severe the economic contraction will be. It is not just another low in the regular business cycle. It’s the collapse of a set of hypercomplex systems cascading into mutually reinforced failure. It’s happening because we’re out of the affordable fossil-fuel energy that these systems are based on. This is hard to grok because there seems to be plenty of petroleum left in the ground. Yes, there is. Only it costs too much to get it out of the ground.
The Covid-19 emergency has had unfortunate effects on the New Urbanism movement—with city life in such general disrepute that residents are fleeing—but the virus is a transient condition and the New Urbanism will come out of this with a renewed sense of mission. Both the big cities and the suburbs will not be able to cover their costs as we move forward in a future of capital and resource scarcity. Anyway you look at it, suburbia’s circulatory system, mass motoring, is coming to an end. But the places where the most disinvestment and decay has happened, America’s small cities and small towns, are heading for a renaissance, because success in that future is going to come down to the issue of scale.
One of the long-running virtues of the New Urbanism is its commitment to the human scale and the walkable neighborhood. That is exactly what the nation will need to bring the small cities and small towns back. It is also a dynamic that allows for the restoration of beauty in our everyday surroundings: the streets we walk down and the buildings that we pass along the way. All these places have the potential to become much better than Disney’s Main Street ever was, and then, of course, we won’t need Disney’s Main Street as a fetish to visit every few years to remind us what it’s like to care about being somewhere.
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. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.