Recently, the Wall Street Journal ran a story that raised the heretical question: is the American dream of suburbanism being killed by high gas prices? Increasingly, the answer seems, yes.
Eastern philosophies teach us that our strengths are also our weaknesses. In the case of the U.S., our abundance of land led to a pervasive trend of sprawl in the last half of the 20th Century. We fled cities and towns to massive homes on big tracts in subdivisions, premised on the convenience afforded by independent vehicles on running on low-cost roads and gasoline.
For the past fifty years, the U.S. enjoyed and took advantage of this abundance, but now the boon of growth has now become our bane. No longer can citizens and businesses rely upon cheap fuel, and as gasoline purchases fall, so too will the quality and/or affordability of the road infrastructures as Departments of Transportation become underfunded. In short, many Americans are now trapped living in a system of deteriorating fundamentals.
The pathway out of the conundrum may lie in the concept of New Urbanism -- a smart-growth philosophy based heavily on transit-oriented development (TOD). TOD implies mixed-use clusters of green buildings, highly-walkable communities, nested around mass transportation nodes. TOD seems increasingly inevitable as a response to the new realities of the 21st Century.
It won't happen quickly, simply because of the massive infrastructural investments and shifts in individual preferences and behaviors required. But I speculate that America will slowly but surely over the next few decades begin to look more European: cities and towns with refocused density, linked by mass transit corridors (e.g., rail), allowing the rural countryside to re-emerge in its glory between the developed areas.
In parallel, the trend of globalization may have reached its apogee, with a reversion to more localized commerce for goods with meaningful transportation cost. Between this and the declining dollar, the prospects for a resurgence in U.S. production of goods are promising. So, there may well be a silver lining to what seems like a dark cloud to many today.
All told, Americans will need a new dream for the 21st Century, one that no longer entails living in a big house on a cul-de-sac or gated "community" five miles from town -- the landscape that has given us an isolated society brilliantly profiled by Robert Putnam in his landmark work Bowling Alone. It is up to us, together, to create a new dream that is more compelling than this obsolete one, while far better addressing the significant energy, environmental and economic challenges that the U.S. so clearly faces today.