Jun 232011

Charles Marohn of the New Urban Network has written a five part article with the thesis that suburbia is unsustainable and has developed from government’s belief that continued growth is inevitable. Financing suburban development with additional infrastructure cost ultimately leads to maintenance costs that can’t be sustained.

“In the great American experiment of suburbanization following World War II, we redirected our county’s extensive resources into a living arrangement unseen at any point in human history. We abandoned thousands of years of history, knowledge and tradition in building cities and towns in order to try this new — and completely untested — approach…With the automobile offering the promise of mobility for all, it was seemingly within our grasp for each American family to one day live the life of European royalty, complete with a country estate outfitted with all the modern trappings. America’s ascendancy and absolutely financial domination worldwide made this dream appear possible. We likely never stopped to think it through.”

The maintenance of the suburban ideal requires continued growth.

“If cities are not raising enough revenue to repair and replace their infrastructure, the system cannot sustain itself.”

Following WWII, “We redirected our capital and productive capacities to building suburban America and created the greatest economic advancement the world had ever seen. It was a very painful transition, especially for our major cities.”

He goes on to make this important point: “Our national economy is “all in” on the suburban experiment. We cannot sustain the trajectory we are on, but we’ve gone too far down the path to turn back. None of our dominant political ideologies can solve this problem. In fact, there is no solution.”

If we try to relate this all to Lummi Island we see that our island, in the first half of the century was more or less sustainable. Following WWII and into the twenty-first century the island became a suburb of Bellingham/Ferndale. The ferry crisis has given us a heads up on what other suburbs around the country will learn later—that a suburb is not a convenient place to live. it’s too far from work, too far from school, too far from medical help and too far from supplies.

Cheap gasoline and the private passenger auto gave people the opportunity to live hours from work. Simultaneously, housing became our primary industry and the number one investment of most people. We could live where we wanted and make money doing it through appreciation of real estate. Now with housing values dropping (the writer in this link argues that they will drop 90-95% ) a house is no longer an investment—just a place to live.

So, how does that affect the island? Long term, and probably short term as well, (based on anecdotal reports of people who are planning to leave) the demographic of islanders will change. It is not a suitable place for a daily commuter to live. (Right now, a couple commuting to separate locations each in a car will pay $400+ a month in ferry fees in addition to gas and maintenance on their autos. At a 25% tax rate you’d have to earn around $7000 as a couple to pay your ferry fares). That’s a significant premium to pay for the privilege of living on an island/suburb.

If the ferry schedule is significantly reduced this will add to the stress level of commuters and others who currently enjoy our virtual bridge. Retirees, weekenders, telecommuters, farmers and others not required to leave the island frequently will continue to be comfortable here.

According to Mr. Marohn, the country is going to experience a big shakeup as suburbanites discover that the suburbs no longer work for them and governments likewise recognize that the infrastructure to support suburbs costs more than they can afford.

At that point, suburbia’s belief that they are entitled to service won’t make any difference.


  4 Responses to “Suburb or Island?”

  1. One could extend the argument to include now nonviable cities as well. There is absolutely no historical imperative for Las Vegas, for example. Detroit seems to be almost dead. I lived in Buffalo at the end of the Erie Canal — once the railroad came, that city died a slow death. How about Lowell MA once the center of the US textile industry? Turn off the water faucet and So Cal, Arizona and large parts of the SW are no longer viable.

  2. Lummi Island’s population has always fluctuated, whether considering Coast Salish people (lived on the island only seasonally), through fish-dependent cannery operations, then Canadian-tourist dependence and fruit/egg production in the 1920s to 30s, through dips (Canadians stopped coming in WWII years because they were prohibited from carrying more than $10 to $25 over the border) during the 40s – late 70s to early 80s). Then the boom-boom years (~1985 – 2007) brought BIG increases in population and all our accoutrements. I imagine that the population will again dip in the near future, at least until housing drops enough in cost to offset transportation costs and hassles, again luring people with lower income to the island. Of course, that could be very wrong, if Canadians (and Chinese with mega-bucks who are now emigrating, allegedly many to Vancouver BC) decide to ‘invest’ in Lummi Island property. Fortunately there’s still not much ‘here’ here (as the wealthy and urban world counts such things) so perhaps we’ll be spared that path.

  3. “In fact, there is no solution.” I kind of like this part. It sort of eliminates all the stress and continual racking ones brain to figure out how to solve all the problems we face. Whew!! There IS no solution!!!! It is kind of like the comfort we all took back in the Cold War days, knowing that all our friends and families, as well as all the Soviet families all faced “Mutually Assured Destruction”, from our incredible nuclear weapons aimed at each other. As long as we are all going down together, it really isn’t worth losing any sleep over. There’s not a dang thing we can do about it. I’ll just grow a few veggies, think about how to make my remaining days as comfy as I can, and watch it all come crumbling down. Que Sera Sera.

  4. I like Ed’s attitude on this..”..grow a few veggies, think about how to make my remaining days as comfy as I can, and…”
    I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on sustainable Lummi this last year, growing veggies (without much success), trying to help where I can, and hope for my grandchildrens sake that were all full of crap.
    The doom and gloomers seem to have the edge these days. The real estate collapse isn’t much different than colony collapse, is it?
    My brother bought a tract house in California’s central valley some years back. He still owes more than he paid for it. Zillow shows homes in Modesto are now only worth 25-33% of their value from the highs of 2007. My brother walked away from the house in Rippon (a small ag area) recently because the value was less than 1/5 it’s 2007 price, and moved in with my mom. That story is being repeated all over our nation.
    Lummi Is. is being caught up in the general conditions of the day. Our ferry situation will only accelerate the population shift of worker bees to mainland living situations, leaving us old farts on Social Security to do the chores.
    If our national colony collapses, along with my little 401k, SS, Medicare and the rest, then I suspect I’ll be looking for another cave to crawl into.
    Yes, Ed has it right. Grow some veggies, and make things as comfy as you can.
    Even in colony collapse, some of the bees survive, right? Might as well be me, the kids, grandkids and Diane.
    Now, where did I put that book on being a better farmer?

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