The Coming Suburban Welfare State

Some have predicted that high energy costs, either due to decreasing supply of oil or costs associated with carbon emission mitigation, will soon push people out of their cars and onto public transportation.

But there’s something else happening: people are getting sick of spending time in transit at all, making city living increasingly attractive. We are now increasingly able to infill “scrap-time” during our days with useful activity, and location-based social networks make it possible to maximize personal connections as we move about. We are engineering our own serendipity to generate real value from every moment. Why would we squander that potential by spending time in transit of any kind?

In the future, I predict:

  • Air travel will be reserved for trips greater than 500 miles
  • Trains will be used for trips less than 500 miles
  • Bicycles, walking, and local transit will be used within cities
  • Any local trip longer than 20 minutes will be seen as burdensome
  • Cars will be seen as a luxury to be used for road-trips + utility hauling

And again, this will not happen due to fuel scarcity alone – it will happen because people demand it; and I’m not talking about you – but your kids and grandkids.

Regardless of what happens with fuel prices, we know that roads do fill to their available capacity. And then that’s it. Expansion does not help for long, because roads then fill to whatever capacity is available and development occurs until roads are too broken to use.

Roads are also increasingly expensive to build. A major construction project such as the popular-but-doomed Intercounty Connector in Maryland will cost over $2.6Bn to build. Is this a good long-term use of resources? Seems to me we’re throwing a bone to some 55 year-old commuters who have been annoyed with the state of the Washington Beltway since it was built, and this is the only solution they thought could fix it. Enough with the reductionist, idiotic causal thinking already: it’s a dumb idea. I don’t begrudge it, but in the long term, who cares?

The idea-driven creative industries that America has hung its hat on can only thrive in cities, where people can get together and trade ideas freely. Any barrier to that exchange lowers the potential net economic value. Put simply, all of this kind of creative work will happen in cities. Period. Because if we don’t do it in cities, we won’t be able to compete with our peers around the world who will be doing this work in cities.

So, what of the suburbs? In many European cities, the urban centers have been long reserved for the upper-class elites; poorer immigrants, often Turks and other Islamic communities, tend to inhabit the outer rings of the city – denying them crucial access to economic opportunity. This kind of social injustice is baked into many European cultures; in France, you are simply French or not French, and no amount of economic mobility will allow someone who is not of that world to sublimate into it.

This is not the case in America. We are all Americans, and even marginalized citizens are able to fully participate in all levels of our culture – though certainly there is social injustice that must be overcome.

Over the next 50-75 years, there will be a net gain of wealthier people in America’s cities and also a net gain of poorer people in our suburbs. This will be a natural byproduct of an increasing demand to be in cities, and an increasing (and aging) suburban housing stock coupled with roads that no longer function.

To fulfill our challenge as Americans, we must use these dual gradients in our cities – the inflow of the rich and the outflow of the poor – as an opportunity to maximize social justice. By avoiding flash-gentrification and fixing education as we go, we can in a span of 20-40 years (1-2 generations) offer millions of people a pathway into new opportunities that stem from real, sustainable economic growth; all the while realizing this is going to mean more color blindness all around – and that suburbs will generally be poorer than the cities.

In my home state of Maryland, the only foreseeable damper on this force is the federal government and the massive amount of money it injects into industries like cybersecurity and other behemoth agencies like the Social Security Agency.

Because these agencies and the companies that service them generally do not have to compete globally to survive, they can locate in the suburbs and employ people that live in the suburbs – and subsidize all of the inefficiency, waste and boredom that comes with that.

This is nothing but a giant make-work program and its benefactors are little more than sucklings on the federal government’s teat, which is spending money that will likely come straight out of your grandchildren’s standard of living. Right on.

Cybersecurity, for all its usefulness in possibly maybe not getting us blown up by wackos (bored wackos from the European Islamic suburbs, I’ll point out), is  nothing more than a tax on bad protocol design. For the most part it doesn’t create any new value. In the end, we’ve got suburban overpaid internet engineers fighting an imaginary, boundless war with disenfranchised suburban Islamic radicals. Who’s crazier?

Lastly, for all of you who think I’m wrong or resist these predictions because you personally “wouldn’t do that” or can produce one counterexample, I ask you: Are you over 35? If so, your visceral opinion may not matter much. I fail this test myself, but I believe my argument is logically sound and is based in the emerging attitudes of young people.

The future will be made by people younger than we, and based on everything I can see, we are on the cusp of a major realignment of attitudes and economics in America.

It won’t be too much longer til active, entrepreneurial creative professionals (black and white) in our cities look at the suburbs (black and white) and decry the entitlement culture of the suburban welfare state.

Becoming Indigenous

“When do we all become native to this place? When do we all become indigenous people?” – William McDonough

Ever wonder why America has such trouble with suburban sprawl, highway congestion, and keeping its urban centers viable? It’s a result of how we see “place” relative to other factors in society. We don’t respect it much; it is subservient to education and corporate employment.

For the last 60 years, “success” has meant going to a “good” college or university, getting one or more degrees, and then securing a “good” job. And we have told our children that they need to get good grades and engage in an array extracurricular activities in order to get into those good schools. The logical conclusion is that our children should fear the inverse outcome: not getting the good grades, not going to a good school, and ultimately not securing the good job. So the message is one of struggle: the world requires you to conform to its standards — you, the aspiring student, are expected to make sacrifices in order to be rewarded. And those rewards are held up as the make-or-break difference between the “good life” and an average life as a postal clerk.

And so the deadening chain of sacrifice and compromise begins.


When a promising 16-year old student tells her guidance counselor that she wants to study marine biology, can she really mean it?

When she is answered that she should consider a list of 5 schools, 4 of which are scattered across the country, is this even helpful?

A young person is rarely able to comprehend the specific nature of their vocation, much less make a choice about where they want to live to pursue that alleged vocation. So, what this mechanism really represents is a great geographic randomizer that spews people around the country while racking up student loans, disconnecting people from their indigenous roots and fueling the education industry.

Once the degrees are completed, the job hunt begins. Graduates and corporations engage in bizarre mating rituals, each trying to convince the other that they are the ones who got the better end of their devil’s bargain. And so the newly-minted worker starts to do what the corporation asks. When an “opportunity” comes up in a new city, the worker is enticed to rip up their roots, divorcing them from whatever local connections they have — trading them in for a 10-year thank-you watch, a 4.5% raise and a moving allowance.

A transplanted worker can’t know a new place deeply. Their immediate needs are straightforward and purchased: a house to store their possessions, proximity to shopping, services, and restaurants. If they have or want children, they also want good schools. Of course, good schools are hard to come by, and that scarcity means that the houses with the best schools cost the most money, and so the compromise is made and the choice is made to settle in a place that they necessarily have no connection to. They like it. It’s nice. It solves their need. And they have no idea where they live.

And so they don’t (really, deeply) care about where they live. They don’t care when a new shopping center is built, destroying an ancient stand of trees and filling a stream with runoff. (Oh look, we’re getting an Anthropologie and a P.F. Chang’s — I hear the lettuce wraps are great.)

They don’t care when new roads are built to service the very subdivisions they inhabit, leading to more traffic.

They don’t care when public transportation projects continue to go unfunded, because public transportation would require a 30-year budget process (longer than the attention span than most itinerant residents) and significant urban density.

And they don’t care when the city-centers in their megalopolis rot due to white flight and a failure to invest in urban infrastructure.


  • People should aspire to grow where they are planted.
  • If they cannot grow where they are planted, they should at least plant themselves someplace they can grow.
  • What someone does for a living should not necessarily determine where they live.
  • Place is not fungible.

Why are so many successful people unhappy? And why are so many “less successful” people completely at peace?

People who have an opportunity to connect to place (to history, to extended family) are often the most at-peace and effective. Mike Rowe (of Discovery Channel’s Dirty Jobs) gave a surprisingly good talk at the EG conference about the meaning of work and what it means to perform the tasks that others in our society will not. In many senses, these are the people who have chosen to commit themselves to a place.

If You Want to be Green, Choose a Place to Love

If you really want to do good for your environment, it is not enough to commit yourself to unbleached paper towels and driving a Prius. In fact, both of those things represent environmental harm and disconnectedness. Paper towels? Spill less stuff, and use washable towels. A Prius? The energy required to build and dispose of its batteries is immense. An inexpensive high-mileage gasoline vehicle that you keep for years and barely use does much less harm than a Prius you drive 75 miles every day for 7 years.

The things that lead to the most efficient behaviors (commuting less, sharing resources, maximizing time efficiency) all derive directly from maximizing the relationship to the place where you live.

And so the ways you can make the most difference — and be the most green — have nothing to do with what you consume — they are derived from the design of your life. Is your life designed in such a way that you can become indigenous?

When you become indigenous to a place, you enable it in all kinds of new ways. Engagement is contagious and leads people to recognize themselves in others — and in you. Where before, kids were encouraged to follow their hearts by going to MIT (and thus launching the great chain of place-divorce), they realize they can follow their hearts by being a part of the schools (and culture) in their own backyard — which offer a rich, world-class experience. And so they stay. And they care about their cities, parks, and forests. And they go on to enrich their cultural institutions, entrepreneurial climate, and their urban centers. If you don’t think you have the kind of world-class culture you want to see in your backyard, start building it now by reaching out to others who want to see the same thing.

All of this leads to the most efficient use of resources in the place where you live. Isn’t that green?

How Do You Become Indigenous to Your Place?

Commit yourself to it. Attend events and meetups that you find interesting. Start events and meetups that you would like to see. Reach out to the bright minds in your own backyard. They are there, but they don’t know you are yet. Say hello. Work on ideas and projects that matter and have consequences. Start a business. Help someone. Be a mentor. Read history, and understand why your place is the way it is.

Place is not just another consumer choice. Place provides context for human interaction; it is the basis of our humanity. Only through connectedness to place do we enable the fullest range of human expression and of human being.

As we enter into a new economic cycle (I’ll stop short of calling it a new era), it is clear that economic activity based on flows and cycles is going to receive more attention than old school approaches of resource-rape and infinite expansion through leverage and buried externalities. For businesses based on closed cycles to maximize profits, they need to limit transportation of inputs and wastes, and that points towards fundamentally local and regional businesses. Local production and consumption is an inescapable imperative of the emerging business cycle.

If you have children, teach them about the place where they live. Talk about the future in ways that help them understand how (and why) they might make a life where you live now, without locking them down or sounding creepy — just make it a viable option. Start thinking about your family home as a family seat, not just a house that you buy or sell as an investment. If you’re not living in a home you would want to pass on to your children (or which they would not want), consider making that final move to a place that you may keep for a long time.

For some, keeping the same residence (be it apartment or house) is not always an option, or sensible. So if you can’t connect to a particular piece of real-estate, what can you do to connect yourself to a city?

In either case, you can’t become indigenous to a place without a multi-generational mindset.

The Constraint of Place

Anyone who does anything creative will tell you that constraints actually improve your work. All of this talk about becoming indigenous and attaching multiple generations to a place can sound confining and perhaps even suffocating — or worse yet anti-American (think about why that is for a minute). But, as a constraint it may actually be freeing.

Isn’t it central to our capitalist-consumer culture that each generation should be free to make its own choices about where to live and why? Why should our children be burdened by our choice of house and where to live? Isn’t it only a burden if it isn’t a very good choice?

But what if a constraint to place was something that actually enabled creativity? What if the choice of one generation was a reasonable choice for the next? If you were going to keep a home in your family for 10 generations, what kind of home would that be? Why don’t you live in it now?

This is not to say that it’s not acceptable to move if you need to move, or to even enjoy multiple places. A 19th-century worldview, of wintering in one place and summering in another, can make a lot of sense, assuming you fully connect to both places. Become indigenous to two places rather than a consumer (and destroyer) of many.

Conferences represent some of the worst excess and abuse (and neglect) of place. Why travel to a multitude of destinations to stay in hotels, eat bad meals, and talk to people who are only marginally better than the people you would find in your own backyard (if you’d only take the time to locate and develop them). Yes, conferences represent the only forum to connect with certain people, and it will be a while before the activity in your backyard can be as rich, etc.  Blah. If you fully engage with the people in your own backyard, your appetite to travel to conferences will be substantially lessened.

The Future Is Local

I am not the first to suggest that the economy of the future will have a big local component. Certainly that is true. However, we’re not just talking about switching to buying local garlic, squash, and milk here. Just as you can’t take and pile “new media” ways of doing business onto the newspaper industry, we can’t expect to reorient our economy to local production cycles without also adopting very different sets of behaviors.

I believe that new communications and organizing tools will cause these fundamental transformations:

  • Restaurants will morph into dinner parties and gatherings
  • Reverence for MIT, Harvard and Wharton will morph into localized study groups and self-education
  • Desire for more possessions will morph into “conspicuous asceticism”
  • Cars will be stigmatized as a mode of transport and, among those who care, valued as design objects only
  • National/Global Conferences will be seen as carbon-tacky and time inefficient (a day lost traveling in each direction? why?)
  • 7-14 day Vacations will become less common than poly-local living (these are the 2-3 places I want to live in)
  • Hotels will fall out of favor relative to house-swapping and “couchsurfing”
  • Cities will receive continued (and renewed) attention as McMansion-laden suburbs deteriorate and are stigmatized
  • Homeschooling will emerge among progressive communities (not just the religious right) as a way of avoiding the dysfunctional public school system
  • Public Schools will see new levels of engagement from their communities, as people are better able to communicate and organize outside of traditional PTA-like structures
  • Food will be a focus of local living, with community supported agriculture and Internet enabled food-swaps
  • Coworking will continue to develop as a way for people to connect and collaborate locally
  • Local Conferences will flourish as people build critical mass around shared interests using network tools
  • Mass produced consumer goods will see a lessening of popularity relative to artisan-produced goods with local connections
  • Consumption will give way to communion, and participation in cycles of use
  • Tools like iTunes U and Google Books will enable a lifetime of personal learning and one-on-one sharing

I believe we are already seeing the effects of most of these forces — some more than others. But this is not hippie pie-in-the-sky, smoking-weed-in-the-commune stuff. Notice all of this is free of ideology and any trace of the culture wars. These are facts and a simple observation and meditation on what’s happening in society already today.

And notice that each and every one of these forces is rooted first in a connection to place. These things are only enabled when you combine current people-connecting technologies (networking tools) with a specific location. Once these new ways of being start to supplant the old structures (which is going to happen, no matter how you feel about it) they are going to be hard to reverse because they represent fundamentally more stable ways of being.

Once people do finally become indigenous to their place, why and when would that stop?

Thank you to my son Thomas for providing the illustration for the very reasonable price of $4.