How Are Developers Turning Away From Suburbia?

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A: The New Urbanism was phenomenally successful. But it's greatest success was simply retrieving lost principle and expertise in urban design from the dumpster of history. It is surely self-evident that a lot of places in America built up since the end of World War II ended up being dismal, soul-crushing human habitats. It was obvious exactly how it was making Americans miserable to live and work in these graded settings. Most people equipped with functioning human neurology know the difference between a satisfying environment and one that is punishing, sterile, and ugly. The New Urbanists have developed a clear way for people to get a better outcome in property development--including the redevelopment of existing town centers. As we move deeper into The Long Emergency, we're going to need this knowledge and principle even more, especially as the failure of suburbia becomes obvious.

A: Suburbia was able to operate under very special historical conditions. Especially, large supplies of super-cheap energy. Those conditions are now ending. The story of suburbia can be understood in terms of my new theory of history: things happen because they seem like a good idea at the time. World War I seemed like a good idea at the time various powers started it. Four years later, it seemed like an unmitigated disaster. Suburbia seemed like a good idea in 1950. Now we're faced with conditions that will make it look like the worst misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

There was never anything "right" with suburbia. It was a bad idea. Life is tragic. Sometimes societies make poor choices and then have to live with the consequences.

A: I don't know specifically how many places in the US have amended their zoning codes, but I know it's a lot. Many were influenced by the ideas and expertise of the New Urbanists. The town I lived in for over thirty years, Saratoga Springs, New York, went through such a code-reform process ten years ago. The result is a boom in downtown apartment projects, many of them pretty good. The picture is mixed elsewhere in the country.

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