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The St Louis Region Over The Next 50 Years

The last 50 years saw our region (and most regions nationally) flee the inner city, and eventually inner ring ‘streetcar’ suburbs for the newly developing auto-centric sprawl of suburbia. The coming 50 years will be radically different. The following are my thoughts on the changes we’ll see by the close of the first half of the 21st Century.

We already know that by 2050 the U.S. is expected to grow by a third, going from 300 million to 400 million. We have no reason to believe the desires and values of the 1950s will be the same in the 2050s, the 1950s were certainly different than the 1850s.

The decision makers in 1950 were likely born around 1900. The cities of their youth were a polluted places. Many cities in the first half of the 20th century could be as dark as night due to think smoke from coal fired furnaces. Cities were literally dirty places. All the jobs & retail were in the city so one had little choice but to go to the city.  That generation changed everything to get themselves away from the city center.
The American dream of the single family detached home surrounded by a lush lawn and two cars in the garage will cease to be the dream for most Americans by 2050. The further we get into the period of high energy costs the more people will realize the folly of hoping in the car to head 3 miles to a big box supermarket, or anywhere for that matter. Of course in the future that big box supermarket may not exist.

Agribusiness, I believe, will collapse as the cost to produce and ship food great distances will cripple their business plan. Food will become more local out of fiscal necessity.

As we transition from a world a cheap energy to one where energy is very costly much will change.  Wal-Mart too will collapse as they struggle to offer consumers cheap goods shipped from halfway around the world.  Their vast parking lots in suburbia will be increasingly empty, just like their shelves.

Alternatively I think by 2050 we’ll see the 200,000sf Wal-Mart Supercenter break up and be replaced with the Wal-Mart main street. One walkable street connected to adjacent residential and lined with a number of Wal-Mart specialty stores such as pharmacy, grocery, clothing, electronics and so on.    This won’t happen in some corn field but along an arterial currently lined with fast food shacks and cinder block & dryvit strip centers.   Municipalities will see this as the only way to create main street type retail to serve their residents.  It may be Wal-Mart or it might be whatever retailers come along after they crash & burn.
Rolling blackouts to deal with demand for electricity will shape generations being born now.  They will also be shaped by the high price of gas.  Just as the generation from 1900 looked with envy at the wealthy who had large homes in places just outside the city like Webster Groves the generation being born now but raised in car required sprawl will be envious of those with the option to walk a few blocks to work, or to get daily goods & services.  Indeed it will be the wealthy who will first place themselves in the new emerging urban enclaves.
Over the next half century manufacturing will return to the U.S. As transportation costs mount we will begin to see that the cheap item made in China or the head of lettuce grown in Southern California will be more costly than the same thing made or grown closer to home.

As a future Urban Planner this is an exciting time. The next decade or so will be rough but beyond that we’ll see the re-urbanization of the St Louis region and in regions across the country. I’m not suggesting the entire population of the region will live & work with the boundaries of the City of St Louis. What I am suggesting is that in addition to the city our inner-ring suburbs and a few after that will add population and will take on new forms to reflect the market demand for “walkable urbanism.” The single-family detached homes may remain but the commercial arterial roads, now littered with fast food joints, will get mixed-use urban form buildings.

The large vinyl-clad McMansions of suburbia may get reconfigured to house more than one single family.  Lawns will become vegetable gardens.  Those places farthest away from a main street and/or transit (ie: requiring a drive to get there) will be unwanted.   Children raised in these conditions will long for urbanism when they seek places on their own.
The municipality of Dardene Prairie in St Charles County is already taking the right steps to stay relevant.  They are in the process of creating a walkable downtown on vacant commercial land between existing cul-de-sac subdivisions.  When built out in say 20 years that will serve to connect now disconnected subdivisions.  Creve Coeur is also working on a downtown plan.  Much of what Urban Planners will be doing over the next few decades is retrofitting sprawl with mass transit and walkable urbanism.  These places won’t have 10+ story buildings for blocks but they will have 2-5 story buildings opening directly to the street.
Future road projects will not center on how much traffic volume can be accommodated but how to make stretches of road more hospitable to pedestrians and cyclists, the opposite of today’s big projects like I-64.

In 2050 I will turn 83 years old.  Thus I may only see the start of this transformation.  Hopefully I will play a role in the process from suburbia to urbanism.  In 2050 my great-niece will be 52 and her younger brother will be 46.  Their adult lives won’t be about driving everywhere.   They may never need a car.

The problem is that today’s leadership is stuck on fulfilling the dreams of their grandparents generation, only making it bigger and more sprawling.  The mounting energy crisis is going to test everyone’s idea of the ideal built environment.  Those municipalities that embrace the increasing demand for urbanism will fare better than those that don’t.  As a region our growth will depend upon the actions within tons of small municipalities on both sides of the river.  How we are perceived by those outside our region will become important as we try to get manufacturing jobs that return stateside.

The City of St Louis divorced itself from St Louis County in 1876 and in the coming decades that may prove to benefit the city.  If, in the coming decades, we rebuild much of our now-vacant areas in a dense urban model we can repopulate the city and attract great new jobs.   Not being part of a county will give the city the freedom to go its own direction while ignoring potential sprawl holdouts in the balance of the region.  Of course I’m afraid the pro-sprawl holdouts may still be in charge in city government.

As we face an uncertain future regarding energy I’m nonetheless optimistic about the future and the role I may play in shaping cities over the next 40 years or so.


Revisiting ‘The End of Suburbia’

Back in January 2004 a documentary came out on the topic of peak oil. The title? The End of Suburbia. Produced in 2003 this film was out prior to Katrina (2005), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and President Bush’s realization at the 2006 State of the Union address that we are “addicted to oil” At the films release in January 2004 gas was barely past a national average of a buck and a half. Mainstream media and the general population ignored the warnings offered. Alarmists, they were labeled.

The plot was simple, most Americans live in suburbia (aka sprawl) and much of our economy depends on new construction and thus the continuation of sprawl. That continued sprawl only works when we have cheap energy. Again gas was at a buck fifty at the time. The warning signs were all present — the fact we’ve never produced (or consumed) more oil. You see Peak Oil is not about running out, it is about reaching that high point in the production bell curve. Four years later I think we are at or beyond that peak point.

The producers have edited the 78-minute film down to 52 minutes and placed it on YouTube for all to enjoy:


I’ve yet to see the follow-up film, Escape from Suburbia, but it is at the top of my Netflix queue. Here is the trailer:


High gas prices are only the beginning. Higher food prices are already starting. The longer we as a society hold onto suburbia as the idealized American dream of a house in the ‘country’ the worse the transition will be. The good news is all those big front yards without street trees will be great for growing food. Although depending upon how much oil based chemicals (fertilizer & weed killer) were used I’m not sure I’d want to eat it.

Media reports now frequently talk about walkability, the housing bust in suburbia, and how many baby boomers are moving to urban cores for a lifestyle they never had. Locally we saw the collapse of Pyramid Companies downtown but we’ve also seen reports on suburban home builders with too much land and too few customers. Several of these big production builders have closed their doors as well. If you live in one of these unfinished subdivisions don’t look for new neighbors anytime soon, the supply of lots is well beyond expected demand. Much of the land bought for development into residential sprawl will remain undeveloped and in time will be returned to agricultural uses. The leap frog development patterns we’ve seen for the last decade are permanently over. Finished. Done.

The next decade will be a tough one as we transition from an economy centered on cheap energy to one that functions amid high energy costs.  It is not going to be pretty or quick, it will be slow & messy.  The poor will be impacted but to be honest they have less to lose and are more accustomed to facing adversity.  It is the guy with the million dollar starter McMansion that stands to lose what he thought would be a sure fire retirement plan.  The upper middle class will have a hard time adjusting.  Many of the rest of us are already starting to adjust, but will we be ready?     If not get ready because we are entering the period that will be known as the end of suburbia.


Wal-Mart backs off the Shanks

A few days ago I did a post about Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, suing a former employee to recoup medical expenses.  The woman was injured in 2000 and left brain damaged and living in a nursing home.  Wal-Mart sued three years after she received a settlement from the party at fault.  This story has been all over the news of late.  Today I received the following from WalMartWatch:

After years of hounding Debbie Shank and her family, Wal-Mart says it will finally do the right thing.

Today, Wal-Mart agreed to allow the Shank family to keep the money they won from the trucking company responsible for Debbie’s injuries.

Finally, the Shank family can put their fight with Wal-Mart behind them and focus on taking care of Debbie.

This was all possible thanks to the tremendous support from people like you.

Jim Shank released the following statement today thanking you and the rest of Debbie’s supporters:

“I am grateful that Wal-Mart has seen their error and decided to rectify it. I just wish it hadn’t taken them so long, this never should have happened. I sincerely hope no other family ever has to go through this.

“My thanks go first and foremost to my lord and savior Jesus Christ for the strength to bear up under all this. Thanks also to the citizens of the United States – it wasn’t me who made this happen, it was the outcry of the people, and if there’s a lesson in this story it’s that ‘we the people’ still means something.”

You showed Wal-Mart that we will not sit back while the retail giant takes advantage of a working family in need.

And Wal-Mart showed that it will never do the right thing unless we stand up, express our outrage, and force it to make the moral choice. That’s why we need to continue to pressure Wal-Mart to do right by its 1.3 million American employees on issues like health care, discrimination, and working conditions.

For the Shank family, this is a bittersweet victory. Debbie’s injuries will last a lifetime, and the emotional toll of this ordeal won’t go away easily. But now they have one less obstacle to overcome — and you helped make that happen.

On behalf of the Shank family and all of us at Wal-Mart Watch, thank you for your support.


A Changed Man

Nearly dying and now going through intensive physical therapy causes one to stop and think about what is important. In the last few years here I’ve focused often on details. On one hand these details don’t seem as important too me and on the other they seem even more important. I’m alive — I should be happy right? But life is short and it is the little details that impact our quality of life. Simply breathing everyday just isn’t enough. I am going to be far more demanding of a quality environment than before. Every year in our region we spend hundreds of millions if not billions on new infrastructure and buildings — are we getting our money’s worth? Does this money add to improved public space or simply so much square footage of new retail? I see no reason to settle for anything less than high quality public spaces. Life is too short to be spent in strip centers, boring subdivisions and stuck in traffic.


The Next Slums

A reader sent me an excellent article that I want to share.  The basic premise is that due to a number of factors the subdivisions with single family home may well become the next slums:

For 60 years, Americans have pushed steadily into the suburbs, transforming the landscape and (until recently) leaving cities behind. But today the pendulum is swinging back toward urban living, and there are many reasons to believe this swing will continue. As it does, many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and ’70s—slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay. 

Read the full article