January 23, 2005

I was down on the Gulf Coast of Florida last Thursday, flapping my gums about the issues of the day in civic design against a background of the most stupendous hopelessness. Until twenty years ago, Fort Meyers was a backwater on the northwest edge of the Everglades. Today it is an object lesson in how a society commits suicide by land development.

The hyper-turbo phase of the cheap oil blow-out — roughly 1985 to now — has produced a final iteration of suburbia so gigantic in scale that the only visible entity is the space between things. The chain drug stores, and other tawdry objects, are set back so far from the immense highways that you can’t even see them from the road, let alone walk to them. The planning officials have evidently decided that it is beyond the competence of American architects and builders to produce buildings that are worth seeing, so now the “solution” is to just hide everything way off the road in the palmetto flats.

Don’t be deceived, though. This is not an aesthetic issue. This is about a society’s ability to create a plausible future for itself, truly a life-and-death issue. Judging from what you see on the ground there, Florida has given up on the future. They expect the world to remain forever as it was in 1999, with oil at ten dollars a barrel and a “new economy” delivering caravans of newly-minted Nasdaq millionaires to the real estate offices, and the Ford Expeditions endlessly rolling off the dealer lots.

When I’m in Florida, I see a living arrangement that is not going to survive even the first decade of the 21st century. I see a people so psychotically in thrall to easy motoring that they have zero chance of carrying on without it. I see an armature for daily life that will become dangerously useless, stranding and isolating hundreds of thousands of people who thought they were merely insulating themselves from trouble. That trouble will find them anyway, in the form of a growing class of desperate economic losers who will move through the suburban interstices in numbers that no law will be able to control.

Florida had a chance in the early 1990s to begin reforming the way it built out its towns and cities, to prepare for the changing circumstances of the post-cheap-oil future. The founders and best practitioners in the New Urbanist movement started there. They laid out a comprehensive vision of how communities could get off of the sprawl track and build compact, walkable, beautiful places that had a chance to endure in a future that worked differently. The New Urbanists were able to do some great projects here and there — Seaside, Winter Park, West Palm Beach, Mizner Park — but by and large the officialdom of planning ignored them and just kept mindlessly issuing approvals for ever more six lane highways, gated housing pods, big box “power centers,” and jive-plastic apartment complexes disconnected from anything. More than 99 percent of Florida’s recent development came in that form.

Now, it’s too late. We’re in the fourth quarter of the suburban sprawl fiesta bowl with less than two minutes left on the clock. Soon, there will be no development of any kind going on in Florida. The enabling mechanisms of cheap credit, cheap energy, and easy motoring will be things of the past. An impoverished American middle class will no longer be able to afford theme park vacations and the airlines that used to shuttle them down to Florida will be out-of-business. The new theme in 21st century America will be staying where you are and, unfortunately, a lot of places in America will not be worth staying in because of the choices their citizens made over the past two decades — but people will be stuck in them anyway.

Floridians thought they would live in a drive-in utopia forever. When that system fails, the younger generations will blame the old people who designed and administrated a world were you would hardly ever have to get out of your air-conditioned car to do anything.

The baby boomer generation will feel the wrath of the young. Forget about reforming social security. The time will come when a younger generation says, “Look what you assholes did to our world — now crawl off and die.”