By Dom Nozzi
In 1999, when I was a senior planner for Gainesville FL, a local developer claimed that “we cannot turn back the clock” and go back to an age – the tradition — where most all of us lived in town centers. That we cannot go back to a time when we were not car dependent.
But I don’t buy this.
We are not doomed to a future in which most Americans want suburbia. It is not human nature to forever desire spending ones life driving countless miles each day.
Should we throw up our hands and resign ourselves to this fate? (Or in the case of this developer, celebrate the fact that Americans will always want the new. The modern. The suburban.)
I don’t think so.
Would we passively give up if we were talking about, say, teen pregnancies, teen drug use, teen smoking, energy conservation, divorce, etc.? Is it impossible to “turn back the clock” by trying to change those unhealthy, unsustainable rates to historic levels? Can the past teach us nothing? Is new and modern always better?
Historically, we did not build our cities for the car, and did not have state and federal government heavily subsidizing car travel and sprawl. As Rick Bernhardt (former planning director for Gainesville and Orlando) once said, if you wave a bunch of money in people’s faces, a lot of people are naturally going to opt for suburbia.
The fortunate thing in all of this is that car dependency will inevitably “hit a brick wall,” in terms of how much we can afford. How much we can stand the congestion and deterioration of a quality of life.
And fortunately, there are already signs of such a paradigm shift all over the country.
The suburban lifestyle, which many of us long recognized was unsustainable, is now becoming predictably and unaffordably high in cost. The value of suburban homes is tanking. And the escalating price of a gallon of gas is rapidly and unavoidably making our gas hogging American cars a big financial headache.
Because of this change in suburban price signals, the demand (and therefore the value) of walkable, town center housing (the traditional and sustainable way for humans to live) is rapidly rising.
Many Americans are miraculously seeing the light. These former suburbs-loving people – who we were told will never desire “old-fashioned” living – are increasingly coming to appreciate more compact, higher-density, mixed use development. They are suddenly finding themselves desiring transportation choice – that is, being able to choose to walk or bicycle or use transit, rather than being forced to make all their trips by car.
Who would’ve thunk it?
One wonders what my Gainesville developer friend is thinking about his former certitude. Whether he is regretting taking actions that he took in the past — such as the development and promotion of a suburban lifestyle without a future.