Wednesday, August 13, 2008

"History's Gonna Change"

I'm sure we've all seen Back to the Future. Indeed, it's one of my favorite trilogies of all time. One of the reasons for that is it's treatment of the city through time.

For those of you who haven't seen the movies, the characters are time travelers whose situations keep getting them stranded in the wrong year. The range of the movies stretches from 1885-2015, with the Doc and Marty visiting 1885, 1955, 1985, 1985 Alternate, and 2015. All of the events take place in the fictional Hill Valley, California, a small town, presumably on the edge of a metropolitan area (at least by 1985).

If you look carefully at scenes from Hill Valley in 1955 ("they've really cleaned this place up"), you can see how vibrant the town square is. By 1985, they've paved over the square itself for parking and most of the businesses are run down. The bench on which Marty and Jennifer sit near the beginning of the film (#1) advertises that Zales is 'now in Twin Pines Mall'. In 1955, it was on the square. By 2015, however, Hill Valley's downtown is experiencing a renaissance. The shops are occupied, there is a little cutrification (Cafe 80s, the Antique Shop), but it appears vibrant. The square is now a reflecting pool for the Courthouse and houses an underground shopping mall.

It is certainly interesting to the town transform. We see the prototypical 1950s town square through the eyes of a child of the baby boomers. A kid growing up in the 1980s, who has no idea of what his town used to be. While his parents' generation hung out at Lou's Diner on the square and frequently walked or biked home, Marty's generation presumably hangs out at the Mall and have a much greater attachment to their cars (hence the drag races).

And even the costs of sprawl are noted. We discover after Marty makes it back to 1955 for the first time, that in 1985 Doc is living in his garage. If you read the newspapers framed on the walls, you'll note that Doctor Brown sold the Brown estate to developers, presumably to finance the Delorean. That explains why in 1985, Marty leaves the Doc's place, and steps right into the parking lot of a Burger King. The typical suburban strip is visible in the background.

But what is most interesting is the movies' prediction of the future, only 30 years distant from the movie-present, 2015 is drawing nearer. And it seems that the writers predicted gentrification and reurbanization. While I don't think we'll have flying cars within the next 7 years, it's not too far-fetched to see the continuing tide of revitalization in our urban areas (including small towns).

And that brings me to my question:
What does the future hold for America's Cities and Suburbs?

I recently commented on a post at Atlanta Fifty-Forward about increasing diversity in the suburban counties. Atlanta Fifty Forward is a forum about Atlanta's development over the next 50 years. It was started by the Atlanta Regional Commission to serve as a discussion of the issues facing the region. But the issues facing Atlanta are not unique to Atlanta. While I regard increasing diversity (in the suburbs or elsewhere) as a good thing, I sometimes wonder if it's too late for the suburbs. Anyway, I've included my comments on Atlanta Fifty-Forward below:

Kudos to Gwinnett for its diversity.

I have long valued living in the city for the diverse nature of the populace, and Gwinnett’s homogeneity is one of the reasons I wouldn’t have considered living there. I still won’t, but it looks like even cookie-cutter, sprawl-poster-child Gwinnett is on the right track.

Or is it?

In 1998, Tom Toles, cartoonist for the Buffalo News, drew this cartoon:

Titled “The Plan,” Mr. Toles editorializes it as “The Vast White Ring Conspiracy.” The six step plan is as follows:
1. Whites live in cities, saying “The growing glory of civilization.”
2. Minorities move into cities. They say “hello,” whites say “goodbye.”
3. Whites flee to suburbs, saying “Ah, this is better.”
4. Whites move into second-ring suburbs, saying “Cities are dead, this is better still.”
5. Minorities move into first-ring suburbs, saying “This is better — I guess.”
6. Whites move back into cities, noting that “It worked!”

And that seems to be precisely what’s happening. Recently it was reported that Atlanta is growing whiter. The article, published in Governing Magazine, shows that while the *City* of Atlanta is growing whiter as a percentage, the *Region* of Atlanta is growing less white. And Atlanta is leading the nation, with only Washington even close to a similar rate.

And let’s look at the suburbs. For the first time in decades, VMT is dropping. People are driving less, Gwinnett turned down MARTA in a 1-1 vote, quite a bit smaller of a margin than the 1990 3-1 no vote. With new urbanist developments sprouting across the country, the rolling hills of North Georgia’s suburbs are no exception.

Because while the suburbs are finally becoming diverse, they’re also becoming less popular. They’ve always been unsustainable, it’s just that before now, Americans didn’t care.

Loudoun County, Virginia is not dissimilar to Gwinnett. In the Washington Region, it is characterized by single-family estates and strip shopping centers. And, until recently, it was one of the nation’s fastest growing counties. But an article in yesterday’s Washington Post is very telling. In the first half of 2008, Loudoun’s number of foreclosures was only slightly less than the number of new houses approved.

The mortgage crisis, economic downturn, rising fuel prices, and (I believe) a dissatisfaction with the urban form of the suburb is leading to a change in where Americans want to live.

The question is, I suppose, is Mr. Toles 1998 prediction coming to pass?

In a similar vein, the Freakonomics Blog at the New York Times has a quorum up regarding the fate of the suburbs (Hilldale, you are my density). James Howard Kunstler opens the piece with his predictions for the end of life as we know it. Other writers are not so pessimistic about our future, with some writing just about demographic shifts and the like. Some predict a more urban suburbia with better transit.

What do you predict? What do you think the suburbs will look like in 40 years?


fpteditors said...

If we are lucky they will be organic farms.

fourthandeye said...

I enjoyed this post. I've reprinted a portion of it on my blog with credits to you. I found some good photos on flickr to complement the piece. Thanks, Paul