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The End of Suburbia?
Alex Steffen, 12 Nov 04

We've written before about the need for smart growth and new models of urban development. But we haven't written much about the other side of the coin: the potential costs of not reforming our metropolitan regions.

As we approach Peak Oil and enter the Oil Endgame, it's becoming more and more clear just how unsustainable the North American suburb is, and how much it's going to cost to keep car-oriented, sprawling, discrete-use places functioning.

Some say it can't be done. A recent documentary, The End of Suburbia, asks:

The consequences of inaction in the face of this global crisis are enormous. What does Oil Peak mean for North America? As energy prices skyrocket in the coming years, how will the populations of suburbia react to the collapse of their dream? Are today's suburbs destined to become the slums of tomorrow? And what can be done NOW, individually and collectively, to avoid The End of Suburbia?

The common assumption is that cheap oil will last long enough to let us develop some other alternative automotive technology -- hydrogen cars, for instance. But what if the common assumption is wrong? What if we run out of oil before we come up with a replacement?

(thanks ChandraSutra)
PS: here's a nice flash presentation on the End of Oil.

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I agree that we need to find new models for urban development. But that isn't necessarily the only way to improve things.

Isn't it possible that suburban-centric or exurban-centric models of development might evolve into a something that *is* sustainable?

If so, maybe we should put some of our effort into *improving* suburbs/exurbs rather than assuming that new types of big cities are the only way to go.

After all, distributed computing (think suburbs) has been a big improvement over mainframes (think cities).

Finally, there are two areas that smart growthers rarely talk about, but should.

First, I've never heard smart growthers talk about urban crime and urban schools as roadblocks to new models of urban-centric development. If smart growth is to succeed, I suspect we must *start* by addressing those two issues head on.

Second, this is the age of terrorism, and I've never heard smart growthers talk about the importance of security in choosing new models for development. One *benefit* of sprawl: it sure seems less vulnerable to terrorism than concentrated urban development.

Posted by: Dave Greene (BaySense) on 12 Nov 04

Why make a flash presentation that is mostly words? It's better to just write it out in text.

But I agree with Dave - everybody just moving back into the cities simply isn't a viable solution. We'll fight and win some wars for oil, but the oil will start to run out anyway, so oil will become more expensive and other energy sources will become more viable. As we switch to the other energy sources, they'll become cheaper and we'll be able to keep the suburb model.

Probably in the transition period between oil and some new energy source, the economy will stagnate, but we'll manage. I just don't understand how we could run out of oil before we find a replacement energy source because there already are replacement energy sources available, they're just not used enough to benefit from the network effect to drive prices lower.

Posted by: salas on 13 Nov 04

Rather than massive influx into cities, we need to address the deficiencies in our surroundings, be they urban, rural or suburban. We can start by intelligent diagnosis of the difference between our neighborhoods as they are, and as we really want them to be. Then, it's just the hard, slow work of painstakingly bring what we want into being, one neighborhood at a time. When the scale needed to improve things is greater than the neighborhood, we'll have to work at that scale - but the effort needs to be widely distributed, bottom-up instead of top-down, and focused as much on the personal and neighborhood scale as possible. Large "master plans" don't work.

Posted by: David Foley on 13 Nov 04

If we had a good way of valuing the various costs of the elements of cities vs. suburbs, we could reduce them by charging people for what they use (internalizing the externalities, what a novel concept [not]).  We could start by charging the developers of subdivisions for the additional roadways and other infrastructure they require (not just local but the congestion on other major roads), instead of adding them to general taxes.  This would encourage infill development and minimize both ecological impact and overall cost.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 13 Nov 04

I think that distirbuted computing would be more like a megacity, rather than a suburb.

Posted by: eno on 13 Nov 04

No what if going to happen is a combo of alchohol and added exploration and drilling /extracting of oil localy will keep us in oil till h2/alchohole/biodesel/cng/ hythane/electric/whatever take over.

Already we produce 2/3rds of our own oil needs. With some heavt hnaded opening of more areas to explotation we can cut the 33% left over and with moving to 20 alch gas we can cut that 33% down to 22%. Combined with various other methods we can get to 100% if needed.

But we dont need to and dont want to as long as we can secore supplies outside our boarders as its far better to drain outside sources first keeping our own stocked up for later... just in case h2 takes a bit longer to relize then planned.

The burb will weather this just fine. If anything it will weather it alot better then many cities whos very existance depends on tons of money fuel and energy to keep them running at all.

Posted by: wintermane on 13 Nov 04

wintermane wrote:

Already we produce 2/3rds of our own oil needs.

What a fact-challenged statement.  US net imports are almost two times domestic production, and are growing while production is shrinking.

"Alcohol" is not going to help so long as it's part of our agricultural support programs; producing 1.2 BTU of ethanol from 1 BTU of fossil inputs (and subsidizing it to the tune of $1.90/gallon of ethanol, or ~$9.50 per gallon-equivalent of net energy produced) is wasteful to the point of criminality.  It would be much cheaper and more efficient to pay for electric vehicles and rent generator-trailers for people to take when they need to go out of town.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 14 Nov 04

Um dont blame me the numbers came from a gov oil study 2/3rd of the oil we use comes from home or so it said.

As for alch they are working on much more effective means of generating alch fuel and not all alch fuel requires fossil fuel inputs of that magnitude. In fact if you look at the study done in one of the other articles on this site.. erm the one titled mobility full you will see some forms such as straw to alch conversion seem to require fairly low inputs.

The main boon of alch in the long run is alch fuel cells already exist in small scale.

Posted by: wintermane on 14 Nov 04

As we switch to the other energy sources, they'll become cheaper and we'll be able to keep the suburb model.

Why would we want to keep the suburb model? Low-density development is inherently inefficient; suburbs are desolate places.

One *benefit* of sprawl: it sure seems less vulnerable to terrorism than concentrated urban development.

You're at vastly greater risk of dying in the suburbs from being hit by a car than of dying in a downtown office tower on some terrorist's hit list.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 15 Nov 04

I agree with Mars above. The suburbs are not good for people psychologically. The half-acre suburban yard does not exist to provide room for recreation (except for the children, sometimes), but for insulation from the neighbors.

Posted by: Ryan King on 21 Nov 04



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