The Cul-de-Sac Syndrome: Turning Around the Unsustainable American Dream by John F. Wasik

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Posted 2010-01-16

People PlacesBook Notes by John December

"What about redesigning communities on a human scale to reduce vehicle and resource use?" (p. 143).
John Wasik's book disentangles the delusions that brought on the syndrome of its title. Drawing on his experiences as a young boy in an early shopping plaza and his adulthood in journalism writing about consumer and financial issues, Wasik's slim book packs a strong punch: he reveals the foolishness inherent in policies that have brought on the "spurbs" (his name for suburban areas untouched by walkable, bikeable, or transit-oriented features). Overall, this book examines the origins, trajectory, and future for housing and suggests a sustainable strategy to ameliorate current problems.

The book centers around what the author calls the cul-de-sac syndrome. The cul-de-sac syndrome is this: home buyers, developers, elected officials, bankers, and real estate agents gambled on home price appreciation enabled by cheap oil, cheap suburban land, subsidies for large mortgages, and a marketing methodology that is no less than a Ponzi scheme. He traces the false economics of "the home as an investment" (p. 19) in chapter 1. The investment zeal brought on by high returns for early house buyers resulted in development patterns marked by clusters of houses built with "almost no central core, little in terms of local or regional master planning, no mass transportation, and few established services or infrastructure" (p. 23). Wasik traces the underpinnings this property mania to centuries past. For example, René Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle simply "claimed" the drainage area of the Mississippi River in 1682 for France (p. 31)--a real "steal" as they say in real estate circles! Thomas Jefferson "sanctified" home ownership and put the nation $15 million in debt with the Louisiana Purchase.

By the early 21st century, debt addiction and the delusions of control by owning property came to a head. Wasik shows how Robert Shiller's early recognition of the housing bubble by 2002 went unheeded and led to the "Cul-de-Sac Nation" (p. 55). In this twisted mindset, a supposedly "green" home consumes massive energy, materials, and resources (pp. 90-91) and the general goal seems to be to encourage as much consumption as possible--more land, bigger houses, more resources. Parties involved--real estate agents, bankers, sellers, suppliers, developers--have been so focused on maximizing consumption that efforts to make smaller, modular houses face fierce opposition and "inbred biases" (p. 105). Builders "are loath to build smaller, less profitable production homes" (p. 109). The mania is so strong, Wasik asks the question, "What about redesigning communities on a human scale to reduce vehicle and resource use?" (p. 143). This very question cuts to the heart of the problems with the Cul-de-Sac syndrome and the pathetic efforts to sustain it with government bailouts, subsidies, and tax-payer funded supports. In the end, it is this question which speaks most loudly in Wasik's book.

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2024-05-14 · John December · Terms ©