The end of suburban affluence could inaugurate a civic renaissance, keeping people too busy building rich, diverse neighbourhoods to notice that their nominal "living standards" are in decline.
By Ryan McGreal
Published November 10, 2005
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 not going to turn into forest and badlands by themselves, at least not for many decades.
In my darker moments, I sometimes imagine tomorrow's ring of suburbia as a kind of no man's land that wary traders must cross to carry food and goods between cities and rural farming communities, beset by pirates and highwaymen plundering the shipments as they pass through. At the very least, if they cannot be reconstituted to function without cars, many suburbs will degenerate into slums and ghettoes.
At the same time, opportunities abound to transform the suburbs into healthy, vibrant, and life affirming communities. With commitment, imagination, and dedication, the residents and governments of today's sprawl areas can begin to wean their homes off dependence on cheap fossil fuels.
The end of cheap energy will particularly impact three major factors associated with sprawl land use: transportation, food production, and in-house energy use (lights, heating and cooling, appliances, etc.). This essay will concern the first factor, transportation, and I will attempt to address food production and energy use in subsequent essays.
Fortunately, solutions that encourage sustainability tend to be ecological - that is, they tend to relate to whole systems rather than isolated components. As a result, steps to address one of these problems tend to address the other problems as well. As Richard Register explains in his description of permaculture:
In building my own solar greenhouse in Berkeley, I was expecting food production and heat for the house, but to my surprise I also got peace and quiet. ... We are familiar with the vicious cycle, in which one bad thing begets another. This, in contrast, is the virtuous cycle, in which good things beget other good ones. Putting beneficial things into mutually-supportive relationships often has this delightful effect. (Richard Register, Ecocities: Building Cities in Balance with Nature, Berkeley Hills Books, 2002 pp. 118-9)
I define sprawl as land use in which building uses - homes, stores, offices, factories - are kept separate from each other and linked by arterial roads. Within each zone, particularly the residential zone, buildings are further segregated by price ranges, so that $200,000 houses are clustered together, $220,000 houses are clustered together, and so on.
Sprawl does not automatically mean low-density development, although this is generally the case. Clusters of townhouses or even residential apartment buildings that are far from other amenities are as much a part of sprawl as 3,000 square foot houses on quarter acre lots.
To address the transportation crisis that declining oil availability will bring, cities need to: repeal separation of uses, increase population density, and increase transportation options.
The only way to reduce transportation expenses is to move destinations closer together. The separation of uses will have to end, either officially by changing zoning regulations or unofficially by ignoring them. Then, people will have to find ways to make buildings function in ways they were not originally designed to do.
Suburban residents may construct additions or secondary buildings on their lawns, or run small commercial or light industrial businesses from their garages or living rooms.
Organizations like Threshold School may help to empower citizens to build their own communities. Threshold School runs a hands-on general building course that teaches framing, drywalling, plumbing, electrical, etc. Students then help to build affordable community housing.
As Threshold School President Andy Copp explains, "Livable architecture is built and designed by people...so the real question in my mind is how do you get the people back in the process (of building and designing)."
I saw this recently in the town of San Pedro, Belize, where live/work units are the norm and people run corner stores, restaurants, bicycle repair shops, and other businesses out of their homes. My son and I enjoyed barbecued sheep and chicken, rice and beans, and homemade salsa, which we ate sitting on our hosts' tiny front lawn.
Next door, a small facility manufactured tortillas. Instead of making them in a distant industrial factory and adding preservatives so they would survive the long trip through warehouses, transport trucks, and store shelves, these entrepreneurs made tortillas fresh in town and retailed them on location. The cashier was literally taking freshly cooked tortillas off the conveyer that ran out of the oven, weighing them on a kitchen scale, and selling them to the customers who were lined up in front.
Doubtless, some people will scoff at my suggestion that we take any cues from a poor, third-world country. This misses the point: anyone who defines first-world as "wealthy enough to hide the messy business of manufacturing and live in sanitized suburbs" is in for a nasty shock.
Similarly, those one storey strip plazas and industrial parks would benefit from upstairs apartments. Most have flat roofs, and it would not be unreasonable to retrofit them. Certainly, all new plazas should be built with residential space on the upper floors. This is, after all, the dominant urban building form of the past three thousand years. There's a reason why it persists across space and time: it works.
Another problem with most sprawl developments is the very low population density: there are literally too few people living with walking distance of any given destination for a business to be viable. Even as uses are brought together, the number of people living in a given area must increase.
Several families may move into retrofitted apartments in one house together; those 3,000 square foot McMansions might each house two, three, or more families. This has already happened in many of the large, stately Victorian homes in older downtown neighbourhoods, and represents some of the most desirable rental properties.
So-called "granny flats", or mostly self-contained additions for extended family members, may come back into use as money for separate retirement communities dries up. Once popular, granny flats fell out of use in many communities because zoning changes discouraged or even forbade them.
Another advantage of suburban homes is the large, well-made, and high-ceilinged basements, which, unlike the basements of century houses, can be converted into apartments.
At the same time, adding upstairs housing to commercial plazas, which helps to bring different uses into close proximity, will also help to increase density.
In most of the world's great cities, a building height between two and five storeys seems to provide the best balance. It's dense enough to make the local economy viable, but the architecture is not overpowering and there's still room for abundant green space, parks, trees, and gardens. Five storeys also represents the upper limit on what can be considered a walkable height, saving the need for elevators.
Many people shy away from density, imagining a seething wall of humanity pressing in on all sides. In fact, density doesn't have to be this way. Without the land gluttony of driving infrastructure (highways, roads, driveways, parking lots, etc.), moderately dense cities can still enjoy abundant green space, even urban forests, and wide sidewalks with plenty of room for everyone.
By contrast, some suburban developments actually have lower population densities than some sustainable rural farm communities, despite much lower land productivity and the need to subsidize daily life with fossil fuel energy by driving everywhere.
The car dominates sprawl today. While it's theoretically possible to get around other ways, the built environment caters overwhelmingly to auto-mobility, which literally crowds out other possible modes by hogging land and spreading destinations far from each other. The suburbs of the future will have to de-emphasize the car and encourage other modes.
I recently spoke with Richard Gilbert, the energy policy expert Hamilton City Council recently hired to assess Hamilton's long-term planning strategy in the light of peak oil, and he pointed to a study from the 1980s that showed public transit can actually operate cost-effectively even where population density is low - as long as there are few or no cars.
This may bode well for the future of suburbia, assuming cities are willing to redirect resources from endless road construction into building transit capacity. Infill can crowd around transit stops, particularly if cities retrofit highways into transit corridors.
Tremendous amounts of land currently swallowed by cloverleaf highway interchanges could be freed up to build mixed home/shop/light industrial buildings around those transit stops, providing centres within walking distance of the surrounding sprawl houses.
One problem with sprawl is the curvilinear layout. Roads wind back and forth or loop off main arteries in crescents and courts. This is not problematic for drivers with cheap gasoline, but for pedestrians, winding streets can add tremendously to the distance between two points. One way around this is to provide pedestrian short-cuts that may cross residential yards.
This can be accomplished in a few ways. The most obvious way is simply trespassing across private property. The affected property owners could either resist this by erecting walls or embrace it by allowing rights of way, as property owners on the 800 km Bruce Trail through Southwestern Ontario do today. Another way would be for the local government to expropriate the land and make it a public path.
Most planners who are even thinking about the issue assume people will only walk about 0.75 kilometres, or the distance the average walker can cover in ten minutes. My personal experience is that this distance is heavily influenced by the availability of cars. A few years ago, my wife and I went car-free for six months (we're "car-lite" today), and our perception of walkable distance increased significantly when we no longer had the luxury of jumping into the car to go to the corner store.
At the same time, people have deeply ingrained expectations of convenience and mobility. Bicycles may be very helpful here, because they're clean (aside from their initial construction), human-powered, and dramatically extend the range that humans can travel. In fact, bicycles are arguably the most efficient transportation mode ever invented.
I use my bike as my main form of transportation, and I can effectively reach any destination within ten kilometres of my home in a timely manner, even though I'm not in particularly impressive physical condition.
The future may offer family quadricycles that can hold a family of five or six, as well as other, similar conveyances in lieu of cars. This would also provide a market for bicycle repair shops, which don't need a lot of room and could be located in the garages or sheds of suburban houses.
By the standards of conventional suburban zoning and building, all of this would represent a substantial failure. However, it might be enough to make the suburbs livable for people stuck living there. In fact, it would dramatically improve livability for some people, particularly those least able to navigate through sprawl as they find it today - children, the elderly, and poor families.
For everyone, young and old, rich and poor, it would encourage community development, improve public health, and reduce isolation and anomie. In fact, the end of suburban affluence could conceivably inaugurate a renaissance in civic engagement and community building, keeping people too busy building rich, diverse neighbourhoods to notice that their nominal "living standards" are in decline.
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