IT'S A SPRAWL WORLD: The Minneapolis suburbs now extend west to St. Cloud and east into Wisconsin. Other Midwest metroplexes have seen similar growth. But gas has climbed to $6 a gallon, and residents of far-flung burgs are paying big-time for their lifestyle choice.
Where will we be living in 2020: city, country, or in between? The answer might depend on what the market wants — and what nature demands. Urban scholar Joel Kotkin is betting that the American love of elbow room will prevail. Suburbia, he argues in his book The Next Hundred Million: America in 2050, will keep booming, especially in the heartland, where he sees a population resurgence. That means more low-density, car-intensive communities. Another possibility: Energy and environmental pressures could drive people back to urban cores, reversing the flight to the burbs, predicts John Lund Kriken, author of City Building: Nine Planning Principles for the Twenty-First Century. For a lesson in 21st-century urbanization, he says, look to China: That country is building scores of compact, transit-oriented cities to protect open land. "There, it's not a lifestyle choice to live in dense cities," says Kriken. "It's a reaction to fundamental survival needs." He sees the United States going the same way. But it will be "hard to attain if we don't make our cities more attractive, or at least as attractive as suburbia."
Who's right may hinge on how successful we are at finding alternatives to the cheap gas that built the suburbs. One trend seems clear: Whether urban or rural, more of us will move in with our kids or make room for Mom and Dad. Already, the number of multigenerational households has hit levels unseen since the late 1950s. "For most people it's community and family that matters most," Kotkin says.