Suburban America Destined for Greatness

Suburbia—currently the predominant form of American life—will probably remain the focal point of innovations in development….The suburbs of the 21st century will increasingly incorporate aspects of preindustrial villages. They will be more compact and self-sufficient, providing office space as well as a surging home-based workforce….Despite the coming population growth, most Americans will probably continue to resist being forced into density….  Joel Kotkin, The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050

Favorable demographics and an ethos as a “country of aspiration” give the United States the cultural adaptability and economic resilience to thrive well into the 21st century, according to futurist Joel Kotkin.

Kotkin places great weight on demographics as destiny in his account of what the next 100 million Americans will mean to America between now and 2050.  While other developed nations face an aging and declining population, America will manage fabulously because Americans are more likely to have children and more open to immigrants who also want children. 

But it is his vision of what our future cities will be like and where all those families with children will want to live that is most compelling. Kotkin sees continued growth in the suburbs because Americans of all ages prefer this style of living.  As more people are able to base their work in their homes, he anticipates more cohesive families and a lower environmental impact. Plus he sees suburbia developing the civic amenities and sense of place that Americans value.

He challenges the urbanist vision of people moving back into cities that excel as cultural and economic powerhouses. He argues that living at this density is just not appealing or economically feasible. Cities like New York, Chicago and San Francisco will become “luxury” cities where the rich can work and play, while cities with a more dynamic and sprawling approach like Atlanta, Houston and Los Angeles will thrive. And smaller towns that have an economic engine to draw people will become more desirable.

He forecasts suburbia will consist of multigenerational and diverse households where many more people can engage in productive work in their “electronic cottages”. Not that he dismisses the need to invest in sustaining an industrial base and updating the country’s infrastructure. Energy, environment, and educating a vast population for upward mobility all remain challenges that can make or break the country.

Often in my own work I admonish people to challenge their assumptions about the future. Whether Kotkin’s optimistic vision of America’s advantages bears out, he certainly offers great data and arguments for his case that Americans will continue to favor a suburban lifestyle. However, there is just as much that can go right or wrong in building out the US for the next 100 million people on Kotkin’s sprawling, low density model as can go wrong if we chose smart growth in a more humane version of megacities. Neither vision is a livable or sustainable future unless we work at making it so.