The Densification of Society

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The Densification of Society

Since the end of World War II, the vision of the American Dream that has motivated three generations of consumers has included a house in the suburbs surrounded by a large yard and a white picket fence. 

For millions of Baby Boomers in particular, suburbia represented an idyllic place where the schools were better, the houses were bigger, the neighbors were farther away, the air was cleaner, and the grass truly was greener than in the crowded city.

But now, that version of the American Dream is under attack from a chorus of media critics, academics, government regulators, and even the UN.  The central argument of the proponents of densification — the theory that people should live closely together in mega-cities — is that the suburbs are harmful to the economy and the environment. 

The most visible critic of suburbia is Fortune magazine writer Leigh Gallagher.  In her new book, The End of the Suburbs:  Where the American Dream is Moving, Gallagher asserts that the suburbs are not sustainable for several reasons.1

Where the American Dream is Moving

For example, she contends that high fuel costs make long commutes by car from suburban homes to city jobs too expensive to afford; she quotes critic James Howard Kunstler's claim that because of "peak oil," suburban residents will go bankrupt trying to pay spiraling prices for a supposedly dwindling supply of gasoline. 

In addition, Gallagher points to research that shows that the youngest generation of consumers in the workforce — the Millennials — are less likely to own cars than their parents. 

Also, Gallagher cites research showing that Americans are now marrying later and having fewer children, and uses this as another reason why the demand for suburban homes will drop.  She predicts that by 2025, most suburban households will have no children.

For all these reasons, according to Gallagher, in 2011 the suburban population grew slower than the urban population.  That's the first time in a century that the suburban growth rate was slower.

The publication of Gallagher's book has been welcomed by a vocal group of urban planners and academics who have been promoting an agenda of densification.  Their argument boils down to the idea that compressing the country's population into cities would be more efficient due to economies of scale...

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