Exit the 'Spurbs': Life Beyond the Real Estate Bubble

John F. Wasik's Future America Has Fewer Cars, More Walkable Cities and Cheaper Homes

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Business leaders and social observers agree that the Great Recession has been a reset event for the American economy.

The next question: What does a post-reset world look like?

According to journalist John F. Wasik, it'll be marked by the emptying of the exurbs (or "spurbs"); people returning to cities; and the rise of environmentally friendly, affordable and energy-efficient housing.

That's the world he describes in "The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream," a book that argues that the cultural origins of the real estate bubble can be traced back hundreds of years. (Remember Thomas Jefferson's agrarian ideal from high school history?) He also explores how people have been hammered by the recent collapse and spotlights architects of cutting-edge green housing.

Will it come to pass or is this just the latest take on GM's Futurama? Impossible to say, but Mr. Wasik has good instincts: He raised concerns about the housing bubble in 2002 as a columnist for Bloomberg, one of few as the media and marketing industries fueled the buying hype. ("Nobody wanted to hear this message," he says.)

"The real estate, banking and construction industries were marketing for generations the idea that homes were investments and you should leverage as much as you can to get the home of your dreams," he said in an interview. "The marketing has been relentless on that hot button."

The housing crash means marketers need to adjust to a new reality in which consumers just can't spend the way they once did, and won't for the foreseeable future. Marketers will need to figure out how to reach people "who've had their retirement funds clobbered."

"I'm fairly confident that this is going to damage the financial aspirations of an entire generation," he said. "There's only a small segment of baby boomers that has really saved and has really enjoyed the increase in prosperity over the last 20 to 30 years. The rest of them haven't saved much at all. They were hoping on tapping home equity to bail them out and they're going to be in a lot of trouble."

Mr. Wasik expects it could take a decade for housing prices to come back -- and in some cases, they might not.

"It's going to be a Walmart world," he said, adding that some marketers have figured this out. "At my local supermarket, not only am I seeing shelf stickers everywhere saying they've cut prices, but I'm getting tons of coupons." He also was hit up repeatedly at a department store by clerks pushing credit cards with plenty of coupon incentives.

But creative marketers still can thrive. Mr. Wasik points to financial services, where he anticipates demand for structured investments that can take risk out of peoples' retirement portfolios.

"I think there are some incredible opportunities right now," he said.

It's this financial insecurity, coupled with incentives for green building, that will encourage people to leave big, inefficient homes in the spurbs (often far away from jobs) and seek affordable, energy-efficient housing. And just as the postwar sprawl of suburbia fueled cultural changes and ancillary industries (durable goods, automobiles, advertising), Mr. Wasik expects this new green world will prompt a social reset.

"I think there will be a new 'green chic,'" he said. "It will be a new status symbol to have a home that produces power and a car you can plug in."

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James Arndorfer, a former Ad Age reporter, now works for MillerCoors.

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