Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Future of Suburbia

That smart published another good column today about suburbia: "The city never envisioned.” Jacobs (see photo) died last week, renowned for having promoted the revival of the 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 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 , as we tend to suppose. After World War II the perimeter of cities filled up with prosperous city-dwellers who fled outward to get with lawns. These are no longer the main inhabitants of the far outskirts, for 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 , 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: . 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 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.


Blogger Rex said...

May I quibble? In your statement suggesting "that the wasteful suburban use of energy for transportation and heating will suddenly become unsustainable," I would argue that our wasteful use of energy has always been unsustainable! Shouldn't the "will suddenly" refer only to our growing awareness of that reality?

7:55 AM  
Blogger tednichols said...

The idea of a finite amount of oil and energy was expounded during the Carter administration. The environmentalists were wrong then and they are wrong again. One should read Julian L. Simon (author of "The Ultimate Resource 2". Here is a comment on his writings:

Today, many of Julian Simon’s views on population and natural resources are so triumphant that they are almost mainstream. No one can rationally look at the evidence today and still claim, for example, that we are running out of food or energy. But those who did not know Julian or of his writings in the 1970s and early 1980s cannot fully appreciate how viciously he was attacked—from both the left and the right. Paul Ehrlich once snarled that Simon’s writings proved that "the one thing the earth will never run out of is imbeciles." A famous professor at the University of Wisconsin wrote, "Julian Simon could be dismissed as a simpleminded nut case, if his ideas weren’t so dangerous."

To this day I remain convinced that the endless ad hominem attacks were a result of the fact that—try as they would—Simon’s critics never once succeeded in puncturing holes in his data or his theories. What ultimately vindicated his theories was that the doomsayers’ predictions of global famine, $100 a barrel oil, nuclear winter, catastrophic depletion of the ozone layer, falling living standards, and so on were all discredited by events. For example, the year 2000 is almost upon us, and we can now see that the direction in which virtually every trend of human welfare has moved has been precisely the opposite of that predicted by Global 2000. By now Simon and Kahn’s contrarian conclusions in The Resourceful Earth look amazingly prescient.

The ultimate embarrassment for the Malthusians was when Paul Ehrlich bet Simon $1,000 in 1980 that five resources (of Ehrlich’s choosing) would be more expensive in 10 years. Ehrlich lost: 10 years later every one of the resources had declined in price by an average of 40 percent.

Julian Simon loved good news. And the good news of his life is that, today, the great bogeyman of our time, Malthusianism, has, like communism, been relegated to the dustbin of history with the only remaining believers to be found on the faculties of American universities. The tragedy is that it is the Paul Ehrlichs of the world who still write the textbooks that mislead our children with wrongheaded ideas. And it was Paul Ehrlich, not Julian Simon, who won the MacArthur Foundation’s "genius award."

7:02 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

It is interesting that we feel we need to take sides in this debate. It is a little like arguing about the existence of god. Either one believes or one does not. Perhaps the appropriate take on peak oil should be agnosticism. There is a huge realm of possibility between running short on oil, overcooking the earth, and so on, and markets and human ingenuity solving everything as we go soaring into the science fiction future.

Clearly one would do well to plan for a rainy day. Peak oil could be that rainy day. OTOH, retiring prematurely to the backwoods of Missouri with a kerosene lamp and an ax might be folly.

There have clearly been disruptions and economic changes to our various systems in the past. Those changes altered what our cities look like. There is no reason to think we are immune. History has not ended.

6:05 PM  
Blogger Rex said...

Of course, nobody really knows whether or not our present life-styles are sustainable or not. All any of us can do is whatever we consider to be best for our long-term interest & then wait&see what the consequences are! And I would argue that because we have no way of knowing in advance what those consequences will be, we all should try to be very cautious in what we do. Let's not try to change the whole system in one 'swell foop'! We couldn't even if we tried!
Let's instead each continue to make the little changes that we believe will make life better for everyone! & then if they don't seem to be improving all life, let's try something else until we find out what works for all life!

1:16 PM  

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