Suburbia Project

Sprawl is Dead. Long Live the Suburbs!

For better or worse, sprawl suburbs are here to stay. Either we come up with ways to make them livable or we're going to be in big trouble.

By Ryan McGreal
Published October 21, 2005

It seems clear that the cheap energy heyday that characterized the 20th century is nearly over. Our economy runs on cheap, abundant fossil fuels, from our global private transportation system to our global food production system. It doesn't look like any combination of non-petroleum energy sources will be able to match oil's abundance, portability, and versatility, so the global nature of our economy seems destined to break down into a patchwork of regional and local systems that will be much less cross-compatible.

In the face of this, serious questions emerge about whether we can continue to live in a physical environment designed for cars on the assumption of ever-growing energy supplies. What will the end of cheap energy do to our built environment, which is entirely dependent for its ongoing viability on the very universality that seems destined to fail? What will people do with the suburbs when they can no longer follow the logic of sprawl, which is: drive to the office park, drive to the retail warehouse, drive to the subdivision?

The vast majority of houses existing today are classic sprawl: low-density buildings, segregated by use, and connected by roads and highways. Most cities have massive rings of sprawl development around run-down cores. Some newer cities are all sprawl, even in their "centres".

Even if 100 percent of new homes were built according to New Urbanist principles, North America would still be left with a multi-trillion dollar legacy of sprawl. As it is, very little new development is being constructed in anything like a compact, sustainable manner.

In any case, much of the so-called smart growth developments are so watered down by restrictive zoning regulations and influence from developers that they amount to little more than a slightly compressed version of the status quo - segregated clusters of townhouses instead of McMansions.

As much as we at Raise the Hammer dislike sprawl, we are equally suspicious of both mega-projects and large-scale demolitions - euphemistically called renewal by overheated planners. In any case, a corrolary of peak oil production is that less energy will be available for large capital projects as well as maintenance of the existing framework.

For better or worse, sprawl suburbs are here to stay. Either we come up with ways to make them livable or we're going to be in big trouble.

The Questions

In search of an answer, we asked a number of architects, planners, and theorists, for ideas and insights on how the suburbs might be salvaged after the end of cheap oil. To keep the ideas plausible, we established some general guidelines, based on our understanding of the circumstances cities will face in the coming years:

  1. No mass-demolitions or mega-projects. We're assuming the energy won't be available for wholesale redevelopment, so any plans will have to be implemented using existing infrastructure.

  2. No huge cash infusions. All signs point to cities becoming increasingly cash-strapped as infrastructure ages and the economy contracts due to energy scarcity.

  3. Play on suburbia's strengths. For all its problems, suburbia does have some advantages: abundant (albeit fragmentary) green space, wide streets, big (albeit flimsy) houses. Any workable solution should exploit these advantages to ameliorate suburbia's excesses and derangements.

Please read on to the responses.

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. Ryan wrote a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. His articles have also been published in The Walrus, HuffPost and Behind the Numbers. He maintains a personal website, has been known to share passing thoughts on Twitter and Facebook, and posts the occasional cat photo on Instagram.


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