Timothy Egan posted a typically incisive report for the Times today: a dispatch from the withering insta-burbs of California’s San Joaquin Valley, where the foreclosure rates remain high and huge complexes of unoccupied McMansions and culs de sac are quickly going feral.
The ironies abound, as Egan notes. During the bubble-boom, developers enjoyed literal field days here, plowing over some of the nation’s richest farmland because its long-term value could not compete with the instantaneous returns that could be reaped through subdividing, paving, building, selling and flipping. In the fever-dream mindset of the mid-’00s, the painstaking annual yield of a strawberry field or vineyard looked poky and antique compared to the riches of a gonzo speculative real estate market. The “libertarian” vision of urban planning (i.e., don’t) held sway, with few measures taken to protect productive agricultural land from conversion into exquisitely unproductive tract housing.
Here in Portland, we engage in headache-inducing cooperative politics to try to slow the erosion of the agricultural base close to the metropolitan area. One result, as I reported for Good Magazine recently, is the extraordinary (and now trendy) bounty of locally grown food available in the city. One thing that distinguishes Portland from most mid-sized American burgs is the fact that an inner-city dweller can drive 20 minutes and arrive at a small farm.
The cultural and political ramifications of this characteristic, which owes to a whole welter of land-use reforms in the ’60s and ’70s, are many and deep. In Egan’s piece, he touches briefly on the oft-overlooked economic result:
…look at the cities with stable and recovering home markets. On this coast, San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and San Diego come to mind. All of these cities have fairly strict development codes…The developers’ favorite role models, the laissez faire free-for-alls—Las Vegas, the Phoenix metro area, South Florida, this valley—are the most troubled, the suburban slums.
In the ’90s and ’00s, as Portlanders pursued their wonky controlled-growth agenda, they had to listen to social commentators extolling the futuristic dynamism of the exurbs and the highway system, as though we were still in the 1920s and Le Corbusier represented the cutting edge of urbanist thought. Quaint little farms along the edge of the city and dense neighborhoods within represented the past—always a bad thing—while metastatic places like Loudon County represented the Future! Efforts to curb sprawl, save farms or encourage density amounted to social engineering and other bad, bad things—and were hopelessly retrograde, too.
Well, perhaps the jury is still out. As Tim Egan’s little story suggests, the truth could be that exurbs don’t last, but strawberry fields are forever.