09/27/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Thoughts on the American Dream

This week at the Democratic National Convention, a labor-based group called Change to Win has been loudly trumpeting the need to "restore the American Dream".

The catch-phrase "American Dream" was apparently coined in 1931 by James Truslow Adams, who wrote that "life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement". It's worth noting that the original framing of the American Dream was on improved quality of life -- upward mobility, based on merit, capitalizing on open opportunity.

However, a few years earlier in 1928, Herbert Hoover uttered a slogan in his Presidential campaign that ultimately became the shorthand phrase to most people for the American Dream: "a chicken in every pot and a car in every garage." In other words, the American Dream got co-opted from a libertarian notion of vertical mobility to a government-led promise to entitlement of geographic mobility.

Quality of life became equated with quantity of individual transportation. Ever since, America has been increasingly defined by its love of cars, its car culture, and its reliance on cars for basic existence (shopping, commuting to work, etc.).

With the introduction of the novel concept of suburbs in the wake of World War II -- remember the hoopla surrounding Levittown? -- and the massive build-out of the Interstate Highway System beginning in the 1950's, America reached what Hoover promised, and much more: the average U.S. home now has not one but two cars in the garage. Indeed, there are now more cars owned by Americans than there are registered drivers in America.

Earlier this summer, 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, one cannot escape concluding that it is under severe threat.

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.

The boon of growth has now become our bane. No longer can people 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 at the state and federal level become underfunded.

In short, many Americans are now trapped living in a system of deteriorating fundamentals. It's no longer looking like the American Dream, but an American Nightmare. We got what we were promised by our leaders, but it's not as fun as we thought (or perhaps were told) it would be.

One 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 (it can't) happen quickly, but it's quite possible that America will slowly 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.

Perhaps the American Dream of increasing prosperity and quality of life will morph into something more akin to European standards. If so, it would be rich irony: recall that the founding Americans fled Europe to create a country based upon the basic notions of "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." It will be interesting to see if the traditional European principles of community can be reconciled with, or at least balanced by, the foundational American principles of freedom.

With increasing clamor for the good-old American Dream, before rushing to double-down on old and outdated notion of what we thought would be desirable (but ultimately hasn't been), we must first ask the question: exactly what is the Dream we Americans really want?