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monsoon

Has America Squandered its post-War Wealth (WWII) on Suburbs?

Has America Squandered its post-War Wealth (WWII) on Suburbs?   65 members have voted

  1. 1. Has America Squandered its post-War Wealth (WWII) on Suburbs?

    • No - The suburbs represent the American Dream
      14
    • Yes - We have spend the fortune of several generations on low quality unsustainable development
      51

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30 posts in this topic

When the USA exited WWII, the country cemented it's position in the world as the leading economic military and super military power in the world, and even today 70+ years later it still holds that position. Hundreds of trillions of dollars of economic activity has taken place during this period an it has generated unmatched wealth for the United States. The purpose of this topic is to examine if this wealth was wasted in buiding what some called the American Dream and what others call a big mistake. American Suburban Development.

I won't argue for or against the suburbs in this thread. The fact is that we have them and we continue to build them and in some cities they represent almost 100% of new development. I made a 300 mile car trip this weekend (because it was the only reasonable way to get to my destination) through the Southeast, and I was struck by how many towns that I went through that were falling apart, how dirty and unkept the roads were, trash everywhere, crumbling infrastructure, and everyone shopping at the ugly mass produced big box store on the former city's edge. Likewise, as I entered into the vast suburbs surrounding most cities, I saw much of the same thing except that people had nicer cars and houses. In many cases there were abandoned big boxes that had been replaced by bigger abandoned big boxes even further out. In places where I stopped the local population seemed fairly oblivious to their conditions and how they might compare to rural areas in Western Europe, Japan, and even Canada. Many would still seem to think this USA is the best place to live in the world.

Given the years I have spent with UrbanPlanet this got me thinking as to why cities in Europe and Japan look so much better than here in the USA, and why for the most part their populations have a higher (sometimes much higher) standard of living that we do in the USA. (Better health care, higher disposable incomes, etc. ) The confusing thing about this is the USA's wealth should be providing the same to the citizens here, but that doesn't seem to be the case in this kind of comparison. So the question for this topic has the USA in the macro sense, wasted its wealth by building the American suburbs and we are now working hard just to maintain it? What do you think?

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I think even individually we are squandering our money on suburban living. The cost of owning and operating a private car is astronomical, to the point that I can't believe there is actual "market demand" or whatever for it. It would seem to me that instead most people are forced to own a car, (even those living in urban areas) since our mass transit systems are so poor.

On a national level, we have dumped the majority of our transportation budgets into funding the LEAST efficient transportation mode. This is not surprising, however, since it is the MOST CONVENIENT transportation mode, and we are a country with the mindset that everything must be convenient.

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I hesitated on answering this question.... while I live on a city's edge and have seen the endless miles of suburbia and witness what monsoon saw on almost a daily basis; I think this is a much deeper question.

Had our municipalities embraced strict urban and multi-mode transportation planning many decades ago, I think we could have healthier cities with denser suburban rings instead of subdivisions and strip malls everywhere. However, in the mid-twentieth century we let big business (Automobiles and Oil) drive decisions involving transit in this country as we got rid of urban/suburban street car lines and made a push towards the automobile. Think what our cities and older suburbs would be like today if the corporations had not been involved, and our public coffers not been depleted over the past 50 years to build acres upon acres of paved boulevards and super highways.

We are left with a mess to clean up now, and in many areas outside of the central city you see a depressed suburb and then a declining suburb with all the empty big boxes and distressed neighborhoods. But then right outside that you see new gleeming houses and bigger boxes. Let's not forget that there are still vast parcels closer to the central city usually undeveloped.

I think we should stop our suburban march outwards and focus on infill and alternative transportion modes to make our urban/suburban areas more efficient and substainable. If we don't we'll never be able to afford the upkeep much less the damage it is causing our environment.

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Let's not forget that there are still vast parcels closer to the central city usually undeveloped.

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I don't think we squandered our post-war wealth on suburbs. At the time, suburban life was what promulgated our society to the very top. Gas was cheap, land was cheap, and congestion wasn't that bad, yet. It made sense to live in the suburbs. We didn't really know about climate change and the suburbs were cleaner than the city.

I would say, given what we knew at the time, they made a good decision. Of course hindsight is 20/20 and it would have been better if they had simply used that money to develop urban cities that were less resource intensive with an emphasis on public green space, rather than private. But we can't change the past, so we just have to take what we have now and try to forge a new direction.

Should we still be flattening forests and farmland to build exurbs for cushy middle class families that want to live beyond their means 30 miles from downtown? No. Unfortunately the market isn't very good at taking long term changes into account and the $ is the determining factor in development rather than common sense.

I find myself more and more wanting to live in two places: Either in a very urban, pedestrian friendly, mass-transit oriented neighborhood, or in a rural area where I have lots of space to roam around by myself, plant large gardens, and tend to the land to make sure it is healthy. Suburbs provide an inconvenient mixture of both of those.

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I think one of the unspoken problems with suburbia is the quality of the construction. Suburbia exists because it is cheap. Cheap land, cheap taxes, and especially in the last 25 years, cheap construction. National home builders have figured out how to mass produce houses that barely meet the local building codes which are usually not that high a standard in the unincorporated places where new sub-divisions are located. These days it's common for a house to be covered in vinyl siding, lined with cheap wall to wall carpet, and other low end building materials. These homes look good for 5-10 years when at that point they require a substantial investment to replace the cheap materials used to build them. This is especially a problem in so called "starter neighborhoods". The end result is that over time, and in most cases, these neighborhoods are abandoned by their original owners and these places become rental property and/or homes for the poor and elderly and a crime problem develops.

A side issue is all of this cheap construction ends up in the land fills when replaced.

I would contend that because of the poor bland construction there is little interest in gentrification as there is no architectural significance worth preserving in these neighborhoods where every 5th house is the same. The long term cost on American society is very high because if our money had been spent on high quality neighborhoods in the first place, then these places would be thriving neighborhoods far into the future instead of dying places. Because these places end up being disposable neighborhoods, it is squandered wealth as we continue to build new disposable neighborhoods to replace those that have been abandoned.

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^The saddest part is that most people see these cheaply built, vinyl sided, overpriced houses as glamorous and wonderful. Give me an early 1900's house with cool gables that is multi-story any day over these new sprawling messes...

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Vinyl Siding has to of been the worst thing to every happen to houses. I would much rather have a house with the old shingle siding. I owned one house with that vinyl crap, but never again. I have real hardwood floors in my new home and would take that over the best carpeting any day. Don't make the mistake of getting Pergo flooring, that stuff looks too fake and cheap.

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Vinyl Siding has to of been the worst thing to every happen to houses. I would much rather have a house with the old shingle siding. I owned one house with that vinyl crap, but never again. I have real hardwood floors in my new home and would take that over the best carpeting any day. Don't make the mistake of getting Pergo flooring, that stuff looks too fake and cheap.

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I grew up in a log house with all wood floors on the main level. Log houses are nearly indestructible.

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I have to agree about the poor materials used nowadays. Like Snowguy, I was raised in a log home that was built in 1939. While not the most airtight thing on the planet, here in 2007, its still largely original, only the heating system having been replaced and AC added. Shoot, the original roof is still on it.

I don't hate vinlyl, but I could see peoples oblections too it. There is long lasting vinyl available. The stuff on my aunt's house is over 25 years old and still looks new.

As for suburbs, I don't think America squandered its prosperity. I think people's income went up after WWII, and their dreams expanded as well. America is a big country, and we love our space. I think that's what drove the rush to the suburbs. Its not good or bad. it just is.

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A lot of people have this idea that before WWII, everyone lived in harmony with the environment by living in small, dense apartment buildings with mass transit everywhere. Before WWII, the country was still very rural. Most people lived on farms or in smaller towns throughout the country. My grandparents followed this rush into the cities after the war to get good jobs. They moved from the country to Minneapolis where my grandfather got a job and then they moved to the suburbs as soon as they could.

They didn't want urban life. They wanted rural life, but rural areas didn't provide the jobs that the city did. They went from a small 1 bedroom apartment in a house close to downtown Minneapolis to a 3 bedroom ranch style house in the 'burbs. It was prosperity for them. There weren't worries about oil embargoes or global warming or congested freeways. With hindsight, it's so easy to say "what the hell were they thinking?" Well, they had the means to live the "American dream" and they did. And they deserved it. They grew up in a different America and they built the America that we recognize today.

That said, it's time to move forward again. We have to move into a more sustainable future and endless suburbanization is not a good way to do that.

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Another to mention as well, that WWII era cities were filled with polluting factories and weren't always the most desirable settings for people to live. Now, as manufacturing is in decline and most older inner city factories have moved to the countryside, inner city areas are now much more appealing places to revitalize and inhabit. I think for many single or childless professionals, retirees, and even some families this new "sense of place" inner cores have will be appealing.

Suburbia as it is now may not be substainable, but will not go away overnight. As circumstances change, we will have to adapt to the new reality. Isn't that pretty much what civilization/humanity has done since the dawn of time?

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A lot of people have this idea that before WWII, everyone lived in harmony with the environment by living in small, dense apartment buildings with mass transit everywhere. Before WWII, the country was still very rural. Most people lived on farms or in smaller towns throughout the country. My grandparents followed this rush into the cities after the war to get good jobs. They moved from the country to Minneapolis where my grandfather got a job and then they moved to the suburbs as soon as they could.

They didn't want urban life. They wanted rural life, but rural areas didn't provide the jobs that the city did. They went from a small 1 bedroom apartment in a house close to downtown Minneapolis to a 3 bedroom ranch style house in the 'burbs. It was prosperity for them. There weren't worries about oil embargoes or global warming or congested freeways. With hindsight, it's so easy to say "what the hell were they thinking?" Well, they had the means to live the "American dream" and they did. And they deserved it. They grew up in a different America and they built the America that we recognize today.

That said, it's time to move forward again. We have to move into a more sustainable future and endless suburbanization is not a good way to do that.

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Excellent points.

It's also prudent to point out how many people in the Baby Boomer generation grew up in cities and fled for the burbs in the 70s and 80s. Their kids were likely raised in the suburbs, and will perhaps, like their parents, flee the lands of their upbringing for greener pastures, so to speak, in cities. That's what I did anyway.

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But what makes you think that simply forcing people to live in more dense housing is going to change anything? In the US, for better or worse, we let our lives, needs, and wishes dictate our environment. Big box retail, cheap houses, and private transportation didn't come first and then people embraced it - it developed because for the general population that's what people want. People in the US value their privacy - and independence - much more than almost anywhere else on the planet. You are not going to get people to give up private automobiles and yards and one-stop shopping. Why would they inconvenience themselves for something they don't necessarily see value in?

While I like the urban environment, I think that responsibility-wise that we, as a people, need to start refocusing on how to improve what we have. Make our suburbs better. All these things developed out of needs - so let's acknowledge and meet those needs, but find smarter ways of addressing them. Lets start finding ways to revitalize those dead suburbs. Find better ways of dealing with retail structures and smart approaches to transportation. Kind of a see the possibilities in our suburbs kind of thing.

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But what makes you think that simply forcing people to live in more dense housing is going to change anything? ....

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For all of suburbia's imperfections, suburbs in some ways are the reason our country has been so prosperous since WWII. The availability of reasonably priced housing, along with mortgage programs, has allowed average and below average income earners to own something tangible. Before the suburbs, these people either could live in a rented apartment in the city or live in a very rural area with no job or education prospects. Ownership increases the family's net worth and living in a close proximity to jobs and universities allows for personal and professional growth. Additionally, suburbs are conducive to raising a family. I imagine the baby boom generation wouldn't have "boomed" without 3 bedrooms and a nice yard for the kids to run around in.

Suburbia today is out of control. It is a totally different animal than what the baby boom generation experienced. The suburbs created during the 40s and 50s were right on the edge of the city with small houses on small lots, today those areas are generally considered urban or "inner ring" suburbs. I live in one of those neighborhoods. I don't have a problem with suburbs per se, my problem lies in the fact that we keep building out, taking up more land, when there are so many neighborhoods within the cities in more desirable locations with respect to jobs and amenities that need to be revitalized.

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I'd like to throw in just a short response to say that whatever damage has been done by the suburbs is not irreparable, for better or for worse that kind of development has been what the prevailing tides have necessitated in this country for the last half-century or so. There were positive ideals behind a lot of that development; some of them have been realized, some have fallen short, and certainly many more negative consequences have arisen that were unforeseen.

I recently read a letter in the New Yorker, I believe, in response to a piece that lamented the fact that the New York of the writer's youth no longer existed. The letter pointed out that the old New York that everyone holds so nostalgic in their minds, the one with a thriving middle class, was in fact a kind of historical anomaly. Western cities have always historically been places of extreme economic contrasts. It's certainly sad to be moving back in the direction of that kind of polarization, but it's important to keep in mind that when people felt the need to escape from the modern city, that desire was informed by the reality of harsh conditions. It's easy to forget the kind of atrocious living conditions that urban settings have fostered throughout history

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Though it is irrelevant to the topic at hand, the suburbs were a creation of post WWII America. i.e. it was the baby boomers parents who moved to the suburbs starting in the late 40s and it hasn't stopped since.

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^You are correct of course. I should have been more specific and said that suburbs that were built around access provided by the automobile.

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I think squandered is a good word. I realize the generation that built the suburbs is still alive and people are still moving there so please don

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But what makes you think that simply forcing people to live in more dense housing is going to change anything? In the US, for better or worse, we let our lives, needs, and wishes dictate our environment. Big box retail, cheap houses, and private transportation didn't come first and then people embraced it - it developed because for the general population that's what people want. People in the US value their privacy - and independence - much more than almost anywhere else on the planet. You are not going to get people to give up private automobiles and yards and one-stop shopping. Why would they inconvenience themselves for something they don't necessarily see value in?

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Furthermore I think people living in exurbs are realizing it's solitary and boring. They don't make meaningful contact with other people. They live in their private plot of land behind fences in their backyards. Public places are often not within walking distance and so many people don't have much social interaction. They exist almost entirely in their fortresses of solitude homes and their steel box cars, office buildings, or big box stores. What kind of life is that?

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You know, I never found myself defending the suburbs as much as I am now.

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