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The End of Business as Usual: The Death of Suburban Life

By Rebecca Butler
January 31, 2009

On Tuesday October 29th, 1929 American Markets collapsed and 30 billion dollars vanished into thin air. On Sunday September 14th, 2008 the huge American financial services firm, Lehman Brothers, announced bankruptcy. Of course neither of these events happened suddenly, they were months, years, decades in the making. Most of us are familiar with the social fallout of the great depression. Images from America still haunt us: suicidal business men, migrant workers travelling through dust storms, young hoboes hopping trains, mile long bread lines and hundreds of thousands of homeless. The truth is nobody knows what the fallout of the current depression will be.

The images that may well become synonymous with the global economic crisis are cities made up of hundreds of camping tents and small mobile homes, picnic tables, outdoor fires and American flags. Many former home owners have had to resort to tent cities in and around formerly booming suburbs in places like Southern California, Nevada and Washington State. These cities generally have no sanitation, running water or security and they are home to vastly diverse populations. From the chronically poor to middle class families who owned homes last year. Sure - they took out mortgages they could never afford to pay back. It was a gamble on the viability of constantly rising property value, and they lost. But the late 90s and early 2000s were a time of financial arrogance. Since everyone stood to get rich, financial agencies were practically forcing people to take out huge loans. In fact, people were given mortgages greater than the value of their homes; in essence they were being paid to buy houses.

Are we seeing the beginning of the end of the post WWII suburban era in America? While sales of suburban homes are still on the rise (and who can resist all the great deals out there?), over the past few years a shift has begun. Downtown condo complexes are going up in cities all over the world as the wealthy see the writing on the wall and move investments and operations to downtown centres. Among modern economists and planning academics the view that today’s suburbs are tomorrow’s slums is not uncommon. While James Howard Kunstler has a reputation for colourful dramatic language, his portraits of our collective urban futures ring true. He puts it like this: “The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums and as ruins.” It’s becoming increasingly clear that the global economic crisis may seal this fate.

Take, for example, Max Rameau the ‘agent’ moving Miami’s homeless into vacant foreclosed homes in the suburbs. Rameau “match[es] homeless people with people-less homes.”[1] An idiom that makes a whole lot of sense considering that in Dade county alone over 25,000 people are on a waiting list for affordable housing. While Rameau is the most vocal about this process there is evidence that it is happening all over America. Kunstler’s predictions may be coming true faster and more thoroughly than anyone thought possible.

For planners the ramifications are numerous. We must heed this further evidence that suburban development is unsustainable. Kunstler believes that citizens, cities and planners will irrationally fight for suburbia despite the fact that all logical signs instruct us to leave it behind. If this is true we geographers, planners and other urban thinkers must use what power we have to convince people that there are better ways to live and more sustainable ways to develop.

To read more about Max Rameau in Miami click here