Suburbia Project

Suburbia Project: The Responses

Consider this the start of what we feel will be a critically important debate in coming years, as the energy foundation of a continent-wide - and rapidly globalizing - living arrangement begins to crumble.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 21, 2005

this article has been updated

It appears that very, very few people are asking tough questions about the future of suburbia. Most of the people who are thinking about it are stuck on smart growth and new urbanism as viable solutions. While I support the principles of smart growth and new urbanism, they're not going to be anywhere near enough on their own to get our society through the coming storm.

For one thing, they come several decades too late to transform much of our built environment into something more sustainable. In Ontario, for example, the area of land under cultivation dipped below the supply of "dependable" farmland during the 1990s and continues to lose out to sprawl, meaning more of our agriculture rests on marginal land that requires greater inputs of fossil fuel-based fertilizers and water and is more susceptible to failure.

Among those who have given the issue some thought and agreed to share their ideas with us, responses have ranged from the grim ("I think what we'll see is that the suburbs will become, to some extent, salvage yards") to the glib ("I think the answer is obvious: suburban infill. Think discovered spaces.") and much in between.

Read the Responses

James Howard Kunstler Kunstler was one of the first people I contacted, having recently finished reading his book The Long Emergency [Read the RTH review]. RTH emailed him asking how he thinks people can make the suburbs livable after the end of cheap energy.

As an adjunct to his response, Kunstler observed, "I don't think you can have a meaningful discussion about the future of suburbia without allowing for the possibility of substantial failure." (We subsequently expanded the original question from 'how' to 'whether and how'.)

Needless to say, Kunstler allows for the possibility of substantial failure. Kunstler's pessimism may yet turn out to be justified, but it seems to reflect a certain paucity of imagination from so insightful a thinker. It's also a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I had hoped Kunstler would turn his creative, incisive mind to the question of how people might try to leverage the existing stock of sprawl building to make it livable without cheap fuel. Instead, he surmised that "the suburbs will become, to some extent, salvage yards", and suggested I was caught in a "psychology of previous investment", unable to let go of an infrastructure into which we have poured so much collective wealth.

I wasn't asking him to think about how we might go on living today's sprawl lifestyle, but rather whether and how we might create a new lifestyle with the physical remains of sprawl, which aren't going away any time soon. This is a crucial distinction, and one that some recipients didn't understand at first: we're not advocating ways to continue building and living in sprawl, but seeking ideas on whether and how we might transform our existing sprawl built environment into something more sustainable without the benefit of abundant, cheap energy.

I don't think we're going to have the luxury of writing the suburbs off as a bad idea and wiping the slate clean, as we have written off bad ideas in the past. The mix of economic and technological factors that created the suburbs will probably not exist for much longer. However, the built environment itself will endure for long after it has outlasted the circumstances that gave rise to it. The houses are cheaply built, but they're not going to decay into forest by themselves, at least not for many decades.

It's not the psychological burden of suburbia that worries me, but the physical burden. The large-scale demolitions that would be required to eliminate the suburbs will no longer be possible without energy to operate the demolition machines. That leaves us with a quandary: the suburbs are badly suited for sustainable living, but they won't go away on their own.

Derrick Jensen also believes our sprawl civilization is doomed, but unlike Kunstler, he welcomes it and advocates direct citizen action to hasten its inevitable destruction. The noted philosopher and activist wrote, "I don't see declining oil extraction as a problem. I see it as a wonderful and necessary thing I wish would have happened a long time ago."

Jensen advocates "ripping up asphalt in vacant parking lots to convert them to neighborhood gardens, teaching people how to identify local edible plants, even in the city (especially in the city) so these people won't starve when the proverbial shit hits the fan and they can no longer head off to Albertson's for groceries."

He doesn't believe cities can ever be sustainable, because "all cities require the importation of resources" meaning they cannot supply their own needs internally. By contrast, Richard Register, author of Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature [read an excerpt on RTH], believes cities can function sustainably and enrich human life if they are designed according to ecological principles. In his response, he wrote:

Like gasses thrown into vast space by a supernova (gasoline exploding in car engines) the uniform film of suburbia and the metropolis has to condense into discrete points of high complexity and miniaturization, which means small cities and compact towns and villages with nature and agriculture woking its way back into what presently is a massive, disastrous design mistake fueled by weakness, laziness, greed on ego as well as gasoline.

Register agrees that a city that must import much of what it needs is "unnatural", but argues that cities could produce all or most of what their residents need sustainably by organizing around organic food production, building, using, re-using, and re-combining, and taking advantage of the various economies in energy flow-through and innovation that accrue to proximity and cooperation among people with complementary skills.

In Ecocities, Register describes what he calls "complexification/­miniaturization/­quickening", by which he means cities draw numerous small elements together, which combine and recombine into complex relationships that generate novel elements. He draws the analogy between city development and biological evolution, treating cities as large and very complex organisms.

Ted Trainer, a Professor in the school of Social Work at the University of New South Wales, also agrees that our current way of life is doomed. Trainer argues that sustainable suburbs and towns must be self-sufficient. "These settlements and the space close to them must produce most of the things their people need, from local labour, soils, skills and resources, dramatically reducing the need for travel, transport and trade."

Trainer places a similar emphasis on the need for a wide variety of small-scale production facilities, "including little farms, firms, fish tanks, ponds, forests, workshops, stores, bamboo clumps, herb patches", rather than the monoculture and comparative advantage that characterize globalized production. "There must be many neighbourhood workshops. Most food will come from home gardens, community gardens, small farms in and close to where we live, and especially from the commons, e.g., the orchards producing fruit and nuts."

Like Jensen and Register, Trainer suggests that a future without the destructiveness of the global, fossil-fuel based economy could be much more humane and fulfilling. "These neighbourhoods would be very leisure rich, reducing the demand for resource-expensive leisure activity. There would therefore be high levels of interaction, interdependence, mutual assistance and community. There would be much participation."

The most specific, detailed responses we received were from Al Cormier, Dan Chiras, and David Holmgren.

Al Cormier is the president and CEO of the Centre for Sustainable Transportation, based in Mississauga, Ontario. His response laid out a number of civic regulatory and service delivery changes intended to a) make non-car based transportation cheaper and more accessible, b) remove the subsidies and incentives for car-based transporation, and c) encourage building developments that reduce energy consumption and encourage accessibility without cars.

Cormier believes that the right regulatory environment, coupled with the incentive of high energy prices, will allow and encourage suburban residents to densify, mix uses, and achieve more efficient transportation. He also exploits spare road capacity, idle oil era buildings (e.g. service stations), and opportunities in public buildings that are currently used only part of the day.

Dan Chiras is the co-author, with Dave Wann, of Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Suburbs, one of a small handful of books that examine the prospects for suburban development. His essay offers plenty of great ideas for specific things suburban residents can do to make their environment more neighbourly and habitable.

His suggestions all turn on individual action, requiring not only that suburban residents become educated about their options, but also that they manage to find ways to cooperate with each other voluntarily and achieve consensus within individual neighbourhoods rather than squabbling over declining resources. This is problematic, and Chiras acknowledges as much when he writes, "If neighbors can be encouraged to work together, the sky's the limit. If they enter into a frightening me vs. them mentality, all hell could break loose."

David Holmgren is an Australian environmentalist and co-originator, with Bill Mollison, of the Permaculture concept. He had already written a detailed essay on retrofitting the suburbs before we contacted him, and he kindly agreed to let us reproduce it for this report. His essay focusses on applying the various Permaculture concepts to suburban development, outlining how sprawl dwellers can take steps toward obtaining fresh water, producing their own food, composting (and hence re-using) waste, reviving local barter, and so on.

Like Chiras, his suggestions apply to individual action more than government fiat. "The bottom line here is that we do not need to wait for policies to change. We can choose today to do this - to create our own small neighbourhoods."

Only one architecture firm responded to our call for submissions. Paris Rutherford, Vice President of Planning and Urban Design at New Urbanist architecture firm RTKL Associates, send us a copy of an existing essay identifying four "trends" that are challenging sprawl: consumer preference for Main Street style retail over enclosed malls, downtown reinvestment, home-buyers better educated about housing options, and growth pressure on suburbs from the vast influx of recent immigrants.

This is consistent with what McMaster Univerisity Professor Richard Harris explained in his interview with Trevor Shaw in this issue: "Builders respond to consumers. Most consumers respond to market forces (ie. prices), and not to ethical principles."

Within these constraints, the RTKL essay does a good job of arguing in defense of New Urbanist principles in community design, but it fails to acknowledge energy issues as a potential problem. Certainly, Rutherford's recommendations are a step in the right direction, but they ultimately represent conventional thinking about what is likely to be a major discontinuity in this continent's economic development.

A few other people responded briefly to our requests. Their responses follow.

David Sucher, author of City Comforts: How to Build an Urban Village, believes the answer is as simple as infill. "I think the answer is obvious: suburban infill. Think discovered spaces. [his emphasis]" This seems to suggest Sucher is not terribly concerned about declining fossil fuel energy availability, which he also indicated a couple of years ago on his blog.

Steve Raney, a transportation consultant in California, has already come up with a similar project - how to create efficient, livable suburbs - and he wrote his clever essay, Efficient Suburbs 2020 Vision, as a retrospective narrated by a suburban resident in 2020.

Joel Hirschhorn, author of Sprawl Kills [read the RTH review], wrote:

I see the need for creating new mixed-use communities in suburban locations that are higher density, use less land, greatly reduce automobile dependency, encourage routine physical activity in a pedestrian friendly environment (lots of greenspace); the checklist in my book is designed to help people find such places. Of course, to get more of these places we must address sprawl politics that distort the marketplace in favor of continuing sprawl. Second, we need smart growth style revitalization of older, inner ring suburbs and cities to provide housing for the many who really do want to live in very urban places, especially aging baby boomers and singles.

I responded:

I agree with your assessment on what needs to be done for new housing development as well as older downtown suburbs. However, my question is whether and how can we retrofit the low-density sprawl that's already here into sustainable neighbourhoods without massive infusions of cheap energy for demolitions and mega-projects.

He, in turn, responded:

That question of retrofitting existing sprawl areas has no good answer. You really can't expect to make them mixed-use, walkable and less car-dependent; we're stuck with them, but better to have already built sprawl available for those who want that option than to keep building new ones and few alternatives for all the people who don't want sprawl.

So there you have it: a range of responses from grim fatalism to blithe dismissal, and plenty between. A project like this can only scratch the surface of the fate of our gargantuan endowment of sprawl development. Consider it an introduction: the start of what we feel will be a critically important debate in coming years, as the energy foundation of a continent-wide - and rapidly globalizing - living arrangement begins to crumble. Over the next few months, we hope to publish more essays that continue the discussion.

We would like to thank and credit these few thinkers, as well as others not represented here, for attempting to grapple with the issues at all. Their ideas and dedication will become ever more important as city after city faces choices on how to proceed: into decay and degeneration; into jealousy and siege mentality; or into a bright future of sustainable living.

Update, 2012-03-15 A quote from one respondent has been removed at the respondent's request.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By adrian (registered) | Posted None at

I have not had a chance to read all of the included articles and essays, but I read this summary article and found it very interesting. I'm not convinced that we face a sudden apocalypse of natural resource disappearance, and it's worth wondering too why a country such as Canada with such huge oil reserves ought to have such high energy prices. That said, there are certainly some advantages to dealing with the reality of our energy usage by being forced to pay for it, and I agree that reducing sprawl is one of them. I also like that you have taken a realistic approach regarding sprawl, you're right, it's here and now we need to deal with it. Demolishing peoples' homes is not the answer. I think what we need is a uniquely Canadian approach to this issue. We can learn from European countries - someone mentioned Holland - but we need to recognize not just differences in our cultures, but also other differences: yes, bikes are popular in Holland, but they don't have winters like we do. I don't know if anyone else here has tried to ride a bike in snow, but I have, and I can tell you it is neither enjoyable nor efficient. I look forward to reading these articles in the future, keep up the great work.

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