We have the opportunity now to take some practical steps towards re-imagining the suburbs as places where work, shopping, living and agriculture all get just a little more neighborly.
By Jason Allen
Published November 02, 2010
I have been absorbing Jeff Vail's article about Rescuing Suburbia over at Energy Bulletin, and I thought I would weigh in with a few comments of my own.
Suburbia, as Jeff rightly points out, is here to stay. The thought of just walking away from acres of subdivisions a la St. Petersburg FL, or Flint MI may be ideologically appealing to many urbanists, but the economic impact of abandoning cities, neighborhood by neighborhood, would be nothing short of devastating.
That and the resources required to build more dense, walkable cities in the short term are going to be too scarce, and too badly needed for other things (i.e. food production).
So what to do? Sharon Astyk has been writing and blogging about the power of Victory Gardens for years now, and it just so happens that if you have way too much yard to mow conveniently with a people-powered reel mower, the next logical step is to plant gardens.
"But!" I hear you cry, "Nobody knows how to grow veggies any more. The knowledge just isn't there!"
Really? Is that why, just as the 'great recession' turned its ugliest, seed companies across North America were posting record orders, and often running out of stock?
For all of the mainstream media's almost total failure to address the coming challenges, I would venture that there exists among many people a deep and profound unease: a sense that things are bad, and are going to become increasingly so before they get better, if indeed they ever do. So people are gardening and turning to Farmers' Markets in record numbers.
One thing Jeff does address, however, when it comes to suburbia is the concept of telecommuting, and how we'll all be able to go to work virtually.
It is here that I disagree with him the most. If, as many peak oil writers believe, there is an economic crash (and if it isn't due to energy costs, it will be sovereign state default, or something like it), it's not going to be a case of how you get to your six-figure financial planner job in downtown Toronto.
It will be how you replace the income of a job that has been suddenly rendered superfluous.
As Jeff Rubin likes to say, suddenly entire generations who have never done work more strenuous than typing on a keyboard or serving a cappuccino are going to be figuring out what to pack in their metal lunchboxes, as production moves back onshore due to the skyrocketing costs of shipping goods from China.
And where, I hear you ask, will we put those jobs? More in a moment.
The other issue that comes to mind is that of transit. In the original Peak Oil Special Report on Raise the Hammer, one commenter mentioned that the reason the buses ran so infrequently in the suburbs was because nobody wanted to take them. $4.00 a litre oil will change that.
On a lark last weekend, I went to the HSR trip planner to check out how to get from my house to the most remote suburban area that I could ever see myself wanting to go to by transit - the hilariously-named Meadowlands shopping district in Ancaster.
I plugged in the addresses, expecting to see a three-transfer, 1.5 hour trip through purgatory. No dice. One bus passes about three blocks from my house and drops me in front of the Sobeys in Ancaster, 41 minutes later.
41 minutes may seem like a long time to a seasoned car driver, but as someone who takes a GO bus/train combination to work of an hour and 20 minutes each way, 41 minutes doesn't seem so bad.
Some of the basic infrastructure is there, it just needs the demand to support it. Demand, I'm fairly confident, will be coming soon.
In the meantime, what needs to be done? Well for one, our antiquated zoning system that rigidly defines industrial vs. commercial vs. residential is probably destined for the dustbin of urban planning history.
Now while nobody wants a Matt Jelly Special across the street from a nursing home, the time is going to come when some enterprising business person is going to see a half-empty strip mall and realize that a nice little garment factory, or cheese production facility would do just fine in there.
While some of the suburbanites may howl at first, those who have just been downsized from their job in the mutual fund industry may see it as a well-needed source of jobs that doesn't require a 45 minute commute by increasingly crowded bus.
While nobody is advocating a total abandoning of zoning requirements, the time has come to think seriously about the 'sanctity' of suburban zoning.
We have the opportunity now to take some practical steps towards re-imagining these neighborhoods as places where work, shopping, living and agriculture all get just a little more neighborly.
This article was first published on Jason's personal website.
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