American Suburbia and Its Demise


This article was published by Newsletter, issue #16, 2006-02-10.

If a path to the better there be, it begins with a full look at the worst.
-Thomas Hardy, 1887

Thus begins an alarming and excellent documentary, "The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream", which examines the origins and growth of suburbia in the United States. The film makes clear the extent to which this environmentally nonsensical way of life relies entirely upon reliable and affordable hydrocarbon-based energy sources (oil and natural gas), and how that lifestyle will be disrupted as the world's supply of petroleum declines, at the same time that the remnants are in greater demand, by the United States and other countries, especially China. As energy analyst and writer James Howard Kunstler points out, the Earth does not in fact have "a creamy nougat center of oil" — contrary to what may be assumed by the drivers of gas-guzzling cars in America.

U.S. politicians frequently remind us that home ownership is "the American dream". But these homes are typically not located within walking or biking distance of our workplaces, because most houses and apartments in the cities have been demolished to make way for corporate buildings, and to comply with increasingly homogenous zoning laws. As a result, homes and businesses have become much more dispersed, and people are typically forced to commute long distances, every workday. Compounding the problem, current mass transit options are of little value, being limited in coverage.

This unfortunate segregation got its biggest push during the 1920s, when mass motoring enabled the creation of the "automobile suburbs". After World War II, American farmlands were turned into subdivisions, and war veterans were given a suburb package, which lead to a housing boom — more than one million new homes per year. For the first time ever, the American middle class could afford a home away from the dirty city. But it was a false promise, because it was a "cartoon of country living", with a lawn that was an industrial artifact, along with awful traffic jams.

At the same time, the major auto manufacturers had the political muscle to promote cars as the future of mass transit. They bought up light rail systems only to destroy them, and replaced those energy-efficient systems with freeways. Moreover, Federal transportation programs heavily subsidized interstate highways, creating virtually continuous cities. In turn, this lowering of the population density made light rail uneconomic, thereby reducing the chances of reversing the trend.

Consequently, we have made ourselves extremely vulnerable to any disruptions in the supply of cheap petroleum used for heating our individual suburban structures, and for driving our cars to our work sites. In addition, we rely upon gasoline and diesel fuel to bring our food and other essential goods to nearby stores, epitomized by the "3000-mile Caesar salad", for which massive quantities of fossil fuels are burned just to transport produce from other continents — produce that oftentimes could be grown locally instead. But that's just for transportation. Growing those foods conventionally requires fertilizer (made from natural gas) and pesticides (from petroleum). We now consume a shocking 10 cal of hydrocarbon energy for every 1 cal of food that we eat, not counting transportation and cooking

When the current stream of oil and natural gas consumed by Americans, slows to a trickle, just how ugly could it get in the United States, as people scramble to abandon the suburbs, which would become the slums of the future? How will we get to work? Even if we could get there, how will those industries operate when natural gas is too expensive to burn for electricity? On the home front, are we willing to have multiple families living in our McMansions? How much food can we grow in our turf-covered backyards?

"The End of Suburbia" does, however, examine the potential advantages to these massive upheavals in America. More than likely, we will be forced back to more sensible civic organization. We will be obliged to develop local networks of economic interdependency, on a smaller and more ecologically responsible scale. We will have to rebuild the small businesses decimated by Wal-Mart and the other "big box" stores. Far more people will be employed creating local energy and food solutions.

There will be a resurgence of "new urbanism", a reform movement in civic planning and design started in the late 1980s by architects who realized that suburbanization is doomed, having been designed by traffic engineers. This profound shift would allow a return to more walkable communities, utilizing the classic mixed-use grid system, which works in Europe. We Americans could begin rebuilding our social and economic networks, which are pointedly absent from our suburbs.

Unfortunately, these reforms could not be made to existing suburbs, which are too dispersed, and cannot be adequately retrofitted. We could convert our oversized arterial lanes for mass transit, but where will we get the funding, material resources, and political will to do all that? Moreover, as energy resources dwindle, we will have less ability to invest in the future. Few Americans show interest in addressing the problems now, while we might still have a chance. It is projected that small communities will become lifeboats, as people learn to survive without the massive power grid.

The longer we wait, the more difficult and painful will be the inevitable upheavals, as our petroleum-based systems grind to a halt. Let us hope it leads not to suburban chaos, but to urban renaissance. We might not avoid getting a full look at the worst. But let us choose now to find a path to the better, while there is still time.

Copyright © 2006 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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