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Wednesday, Oct 01, 2014
Commentary

Is the South being polluted by hipsters?


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Should the Piedmont area of the Carolinas and Georgia have stayed a poor region of mill villages and farms? Should prosperity be a first-come-only-served condition? Do new houses represent prosperity in the Northeast but pollution in the South?

A new paper from the U.S. Geological Survery and comments its authors made to the Washington Post’s Darryl Fears suggest as much.

The study begins by noting that the “Southeast has experienced explosive growth over the past 60 years, with a rate of population increase nearly 40 percent larger than the rest of the United States,” and now has a population of 77 million, typically living and working in suburbs. Projecting those trends forward to 2060, it warns of a “megalopolis” stretching from Raleigh to Atlanta and beyond.

In other words, it uses mathematical simulations to suggest what baby boomers who grew up in the region — myself included — have expected ever since we were children watching filmstrips about the “megalopolis” sprawling from Boston to Washington, DC. We knew we’d get there someday.

But while locals may see a long-term rise in living standards (finally diminishing recession worries aside), the study tells the story in terms of loss. “The largest conversion is from agriculture to urban land use, in which the 95% range of projected losses (i.e. percentage of all agriculture lands that are converted to urban) is 11%-21% by 2060,” the study warns. “For grassland, the projected loss is 9%-17%.”

If homes replace cows, tobacco and peach trees, that’s a “loss” of agricultural or grasslands, not a gain of human habitation. “The future health of ecosystems” is central. Cities are bad. Suburbs are worse.

“The development will engulf land from North Carolina to Georgia, and possibly spread to Birmingham, Alabama, if we continue to develop urban areas in the Southeast the way we have for the past 60 years,” co-author Adam Terando, a research ecologist with the USGS and an adjunct professor at North Carolina State University, told Fears. In this vision, new houses, office parks and roads sound like an invading army or a cancer.

Like most anti-sprawl documents, the study is diffused with a distaste for automobiles and the roads that carry them. (Tracking expanding road networks is in fact central to its methodology.)

The irony is that the compounded prosperity of the postwar, and particularly post-civil rights, period has begun to produce not just the suburbs you find in the rest of the country but increasingly the same hipster density.

While most famously represented by the transformation of Asheville, North Carolina, from a manufacturing center to an artistic tourist spot, the trend has affected even more traditional cities.

Downtown Greenville, South Carolina, a collection of deserted storefronts when I was growing up in the 1960s and ’70s, is now a lively area of chic restaurants and new condos, many located in once-neglected historic buildings. (It even attracts tourists.)

Families with children still prefer the suburbs — and Southerners do have a deep-seated devotion to owning land — but walkable neighborhoods are catching on.

Anti-development attitudes aside, it’s extraordinarily unlikely that the trends from 2010 to 2060 will in fact resemble those from 1950 to 2010 — in the Southeast or anywhere else. (Self-driving cars, anyone?) But at least for now, the feared megalopolis still makes a good story.

Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics and public policy.

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