Imperial Rome: A Future American Suburbanism

In a century or two when the majority of our nation has aged sufficiently to have a history worthy of retrospection, a train ride 10 or 15 miles outside most northern cities or 20 or 30 miles outside most southern ones will reveal a landscape to thrill and of our own century's most ardent ruin-porn seekers.  Economists, researchers, architects, urbanists, and (most) politicians are telling us that our nation, along with much of the world, is urbanizing; particularly in the US, our population is shifting back to urban centers as people become aware of the benefits, services, and comforts of urban living.  Simultaneously, disillusionment with the living patterns of the past 70 years is taking hold, the catastrophic folly of which can be seen most recently in the traffic crisis caused by a dusting of snow in Atlanta.  Moments like this illustrate far too realistically and far too late that our sprawling, tendrilled suburbs are causing us more immediate harm than environmentalists would have us believe is related purely to maintaining massive grass lawns in the middle of deserts.   

But I digress, the purpose of this piece is not to lecture professorially on the patterns that will likely lead to suburban downfall - for this one may turn to books such as Alan Ehernhalt's "The Great Inversion" or Vishaan Chakrabarti's manifesto "A Country of Cities".  Rather, I'd like to picture what the post-suburban, post-car America of say 2150 may look like - one specific aspect of it, in fact.  

Every major American city today is ringed by modern suburbs.  By this I do not meant cities like Cambridge nor towns like Concord (forgive the Boston-centrality of these examples - they were the first that came to mind, but frankly, examples such as these are few and far between in this country).  Any urbanist - or even any Bostonian - will tell you that Cambridge is no more a suburb of Boston than Baltimore is a suburb of the District of Columbia, and Concord, with it's rich and varied architecture, healthy town center, and two train stations is essentially now just a very wealthy country town.  

No, the suburbs of which I write are largely the places which before the year 1920 or so barely existed, if at all.  These are the frequently annexed, though far-out areas of cities like Houston, Atlanta, Denver, and Los Angeles.  But also of Boston, New York, San Francisco, and Seattle.  The startling thing about our nation's epidemic of McMansions is that it is just that: an epidemic, by definition nationwide, unconscious of regions, states, or types of cities.  Even the healthiest, most urban, most successful of American cities can lay claim to hundreds and in some cases thousands of square miles of suburban subdivisions.  

What I foresee for the lands of these McMansions that are unable to keep up with times by either pioneering new forms of urbanism for themselves, or more meaningful, healthy relationships with their primary cities is something not too unlike a story that was told a long time ago.  Very frequently, a particular period of Roman history during Late Antiquity is passed over in the average history class. This is almost understandable because it is the period when nearly nothing happened in Rome.  Really, nothing happened.  The city, for all its monuments, pomp, and circumstance, was essentially a backwater.  From the time Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Empire to his new city at Constantinople, the decline of Rome began.  As the power of the Empire shifted east, and the western portion of it collapsed during numerous eastward Persian pushes, Rome stagnated, its development seen as irrelevant and its population dwindling.  For nearly 500 years, the once-great city languished as the various fora of legendary past emperors were reclaimed for grazing sheep and their walls repurposed as supports for the shanties of shepherds.  

From the second to sixth centuries, Rome's population fell from over 1,000,000 to about 30,000. That's 97%. Yes, 97%. 

Finally, as Papal rule took hold, Rome began a renaissance with the Church as its primary proprietor.  With high demand to begin the reconstruction of the city, particularly to build a host of new churches, need for materials was great, but the trade and infrastructure that the city had previously enjoyed was all but gone.  The solution was simple from a Papal point of view: strip the valuable materials from the massive and opulent fora of the pagan emperors who had deified themselves through colonnades, statuary, and temples.  To this day, one can notice that churches throughout Rome feature differently colored columns, a fact which is usually cleverly disguised by creating patterns with the colors.  In reality, this is because all the rose colored marble columns of the desired length had been taken from one forum, and so the architects moved on to the next where they found ones of the necessary height, albeit green.

We move much faster now than they did back in the 5th century.  The social and demographic change that might have occurred over 500 years then can take place over 20 now, and so, I see a future for much of suburban America that is similar the stripping of the old Rome to build the new one.  The only real difference being that the new Rome will be the great cities of the future.  The McMansions of New Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester County will find their unpopulated homes being plundered for their marble countertops to be reused in the sky-high luxury towers of Manhattan and Brooklyn (okay, and probably Queens).  These homes will come to be seen as structures where the whole is worth much less than the sum of its parts.  First the marble and chandeliers will go, followed by extravagant bathroom fixtures and extremely valuable copper piping.  Shortly thereafter, the fourth-generation descendants of today's hipsters will go rummaging through in attempts to pompously discern for themselves any surviving pieces of custom woodworking, casting, or any other such craft.  Finally, the practice of lumber-construction towers perfected and nearly every spare inch of Earth's forests protected by one environmentalist group or another, the homes will be stripped of their wood frames and the plots of land left to be reclaimed by the forests with which the suburbs were always meant to have a symbolically tenuous, though distant, relationship.  

This will not be the case for every place now deemed a suburb.  The close-in suburbs, particularly the older ones with transit connections to their cities will likely urbanize over the coming years and save themselves from disassemblage.  The next set out will experience massive losses in value and likely become home to the poor and immigrants who cannot afford to live in central cities, as is currently the relationship Paris has with many of the areas immediately surrounding it.  But it will be the far-flung exurbs or the distant reaches of today's sprawling suburbs that find themselves as stripped as the Forum of Flavian and returned to the nature from which they were carved.