Suburbs: what people in 1975 thought 1988 would look like

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I’ve detected a little buzz on the various blogs that I peruse on a daily basis over Freakonomics latest quorum: What Is the Future of Suburbia?

It’s a subject that interests me intensely given that I spent my childhood and early adulthood firmly planted in suburban, then exurban Philadelphia before giving it all up for the concrete backyards, ajoining houses and noise levels of the areas just south of Center City.  I’ve basically had one foot in each world since my freshman year in high school when I commuted daily on three different transit lines and a 4 block walk from suburban Delaware County to VERY urban North Philadelphia.

In the summers, I continued that commute to my delivery job in Center City and in college I had the good fortune to live in the small city of The People’s Republic of Cambridge, MA.  After college, I basically got a missionary’s view of life in the exurbs of Chester County, PA.  That is, until rampant development came along and turned the corn field across the street into an office park, put traffic lights where stop signs were, Toll Bros. housing where another corn field was and one of those faux-Main Street looking shopping centers (complete with WalMart) down the road in Exton.

So I’ve seen it all.  I’ve watched, firsthand, as Philadelphia revitalized itself from Center City outwards in the 90s and early 00’s.  I’ve seen as my old, inner-ring suburban home town has struggled to maintain the cleanliness and safety that so many residents had taken for granted for so many years.  And I was right in the middle as a wave of sprawl washed right over me in Chester County farm country.  It’s a life spent watching the good and bad and learning what can be done well if we plan for it and what can turn out very badly if we fail to plan.

My hope is that someday, the corn field will reclaim that housing and that office park.  The traffic light will be removed and that the faux-town square might actually become a real town square – a village or community.

I’ve got about 50 years left on this earth.  I wonder what which of the Freakonomics scenarios will play out?

For more on this topic, Matt Yglesias and Atrios have written about it extensively and both weigh in again.  Greater, Greater Washington also provides some perspective from its Beltway suburbs.

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