That smart Doug Saunders published another good column today about suburbia: "The city Jane Jacobs never envisioned.” Jacobs (see photo) died last week, renowned for having promoted the revival of the inner city with its lively street life. It was she who notably challenged the older values that vilified inner cities and glorified the spacious communities on their perimeter. Indeed, Jacobs had won us over, making us appreciate real urban life again enough to spruce up its decaying slums.
But Saunders sees her triumph as fleeting. Great changes are going on. Last year, for the first time in history, more people were living in cities than in rural areas. And yet, they were not living in the environment that Jane Jacobs favored. The growth is mainly in suburbs.
“Half of Barcelona lives in the outskirts, as does almost half of Warsaw, three-quarters of Paris, most of Istanbul and the lion’s shares of Sao Paolo and Mexico City.”
These places are not necessarily the mythic affluent suburbia, as we tend to suppose. After World War II the perimeter of cities filled up with prosperous city-dwellers who fled outward to get large houses with lawns. These are no longer the main inhabitants of the far outskirts, for immigrants are increasingly settling there, but not necessarily integrating there. Thus the riots and car-burnings that have stunned France during recent months have occurred in the remote fringes of Paris, beyond the end of the transit system. There is where most urban people actually live, rather than in the pleasantly renewed, expensive inner cities that have become gentrified.
Saunders concludes by calling for some new visionary who will find ways of enhancing life in the growing outskirts, for he claims that “what we commonly call cities are no longer the places where people actually live, and they never will be again.”
Well, maybe not, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Saunders seems to be overlooking one impending change: peak oil. If this crisis occurs (and it would be foolish to deny the possibility) there will be an enormous shift in the situation. A recent film, The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream, suggests that the wasteful suburban use of energy for transportation and heating will suddenly become unsustainable. Within ten years, it seems likely that the world oil production will begin to decline, while the demand for it continues to increase. The people living in the outskirts will be unable to maintain their current standard of living. The film anticipates the suburbs will become the slums of the future. More than one family may live in each house, for example. In such circumstances, with any luck a new urbanization of certain corners will emerge in suburbia – dense new centres with small apartments where people will have to “buy local.”
Whether or not this will inevitably happen, it is a scenario that neither Saunders nor Jane Jacobs has apparently contemplated.