Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The future of the suburbs

I just have to quote James Kunstler on how the era of suburbia and sprawl has reached its final phase, in which they will be recycled for scrap. I sure hope he's right:

There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

I say this because American suburbia requires an infinite supply of cheap energy in order to function and we have now entered a permanent global energy crisis that will change the whole equation of daily life. Having poured a half-century of our national wealth into a living arrangement with no future — and linked our very identity with it — we have provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment that will make it difficult for us to let go, change our behavior, and make other arrangements....

The Happy Motoring era is over. No combination of "alt" fuels — solar, wind, nuclear, tar sands, oil-shale, offshore drilling, used French-fry oil — will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World.

The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not. Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital.

The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. In any case, the suburbs will lose value dramatically, both in terms of usefulness and financial investment. Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be "fixed" or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions. They were built badly in the wrong places. We will have to return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape — villages, towns, and cities, composed of walkable neighborhoods and business districts — and the successful ones will have to exist in relation to a productive agricultural hinterland, because petro-agriculture (as represented by the infamous 3000-mile Caesar salad) is also now coming to an end. Fortunately, we have many under-activated small towns and small cities in favorable locations near waterways. This will be increasingly important as transport of goods by water regains importance.

1 comment:

zachawry said...

It may very well be that "no combination of 'alt' fuels...will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World," and indeed that seems likely to be the case. However, there is still a possibility of a technological fix that will allow current levels of consumption without contributing to global warming. Who knows. It's nothing to assume will happen, but it's certainly a possibility. Some of the best minds in the world are working on alt energies, with a huge incentive for success, so it would seem irrational to count out the chances of a "Hail Mary" technology prematurely.

One gets the impression from the piece you quote, and from your own statement that you "hope he's right," that you would prefer the elimination of this part of our "culture" (suburbs, Walmart, etc.) rather than see it saved by some miracle energy technology. In that sense, it seems like you and Kunstler are making more of an aesthetic judgment about what parts of mass culture you have a personal distaste for than anything else.