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New Urbanists: No Economic Recovery Without Smart Growth

3:30 PM EDT on October 6, 2011

What happened to the United States over the past several years is most commonly described as a recession. By the technical definition of the word we’re two years into a recovery. But it sure doesn’t seem that way.

Meanwhile, a growing chorus of intellectual leaders says the country is experiencing something different than a normal cyclical fluctuation: the end of an epoch.

Leading urban thinkers, from Richard Florida to James Howard Kunstler, believe we have reached the limits of our fossil-fueled, double-mortgaged, McMansion-based economy. Relief won’t come, they say, until America begins confronting the systemic problems that produced the meltdown, including inefficient and unsustainable public infrastructure investments and housing development.

“What were seeing right now is an inability to look at how we live and how it relates to our problems, and financial problems,” said Kunstler Tuesday during a speaking engagement with the Congress for the New Urbanism. “Production homebuilders, mortgage lenders, real estate agents, they are all sitting back now waiting for the, quote, bottom of the housing market to come with the expectation that things will go back to the way they were in 2005.”

But despite massive government expenditures to restart the old economic engine driven by suburban homebuilding, recovery is elusive, Kunstler said. The author of “The Geography of Nowhere” and “The Long Emergency” argues that suburbanization has been a multi-decade American experiment, and a failed one.

Kunstler is joined in that perspective by Charles Marohn, the director of non-profit group Strong Towns. A new report from Strong Towns places blame for the lagging economy directly on policies that favor low-density housing, fossil-fuel dependence and publicly-subsidized overbuilt infrastructure.

In its new booklet Curbside Chat, Strong Towns asserts that since the 1970s, the suburban growth that powered America’s economy operated much like a Ponzi scheme. In towns across the country, politicians traded the short-term payoffs of sprawling development — namely increased taxes — for long-term maintenance obligations that are just now coming due. And they’re coming up short.

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