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Accelerating Socio-Cultural Shifts

New Urbanism is rapidly accelerating to a pace that promises to transform many of the cultural norms that have been in place for a half-century. Since the 1950s, when urbanism gave way to the rise of suburban communities, there has been an outward rush to open spaces, larger homes, and more acreage, facilitated by President Eisenhower’s vision of a national highway system. Along with cheap oil, this movement was also fueled by burgeoning post-war personal independence and the belief that the American Dream was defined by home ownership; suburbs flourished as cities floundered.

This is changing. James Kunstler’s book, The Long Emergency (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2005) has become somewhat prophetic in its depiction of a declining suburban culture as people grapple with growing cost associated with transportation, land, and housing, along with the social disconnection that comes with five acre home sites and Stepford neighborhoods. This was just as evident in Kunstler’s 1993 book, The Geography of Nowhere (Simon and Schuster, 1993) which also predicted the ultimate failure of the suburban movement due to cost, connectivity and convenience challenges.

Whether the current slow but promising economic recovery will impact the urban resurgence is yet to be determined. Trend data indicates that more young people are gravitating to urban landscapes offering vibrant social, vocational, and recreational environments. But so are older citizens who are weary of driving an average of 15,000 miles annually just to get around the extended suburban landscape. If this trend continues, it must energize an entirely new vision for government services. Even in the current economy, rebuilding downtown or semi-urban landscapes is moving rapidly and is transforming many urban centers as more people return from the countryside. This ‘centripetal’ social force is bringing populations back toward urban centers and, in my view, will accelerate in a fluctuating pattern linked to the costs related to living further from work, services, friends, school, etc. If the cost of gasoline escalates, the movement away from suburbs will accelerate.

There are serious questions regarding municipal government’s readiness for this migration. Are service centers properly located? Are there adequate roads and parking facilities? Is public transportation sufficient for the potential in-migration? How will public safety be impacted? If we hope to avoid the landscape depicted in the 1982 Ridley Scott science fiction movie Blade Runner, an entirely new vision for planning must evolve. The first question is, ‘Do we believe that, as transportation and living costs rise, there will be a steady stream of people congregating in the urban environment?’ And if that is true, do we also calculate that the suburban landscape will transform due to loss of population while the urban environment is being transformed by a huge inflow of people needing housing, entertainment, recreation, services, and safety? Both environments must be considered NOW. Given the converging variables that will impact these environments, both will have serious challenges. Are we prepared?

The suburban world is losing its luster. While close-knit neighborhoods still provide a measure of connectivity, costs are still rising and the time associated with driving everywhere is higher than ever. People are recognizing the value of more compact, mixed-use communities that foster relationships, reduce cost and preserve time. The trend will accelerate and offers new opportunities for business and government reform. What are you doing in your community to strategically think about this impending future?

With over three decades working in and with federal, state and local government, John Luthy understands public agencies.  Known for his real world, straight talking style, he is a leading futurist specializing in city, county, state, and federal long-range thinking and planning. John is the author of Operations Planning: A Guide for Public Officials and Managers in Troubled Times, and The Strategic Planning Guide, both published by the International City/ County Management Association (ICMA). An innovative and dynamic presenter, John is frequently asked to speak and consult on how to prepare public organizations and communities for emerging challenges (public futures at http://www.futurescorp.com).

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