What Is the Future of Suburbia?

“The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins.”

There are many ways of describing the fiasco of suburbia, but these days I refer to it as the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world.

I say this because American suburbia requires an infinite supply of cheap energy in order to function and we have now entered a permanent global energy crisis that will change the whole equation of daily life. Having poured a half-century of our national wealth into a living arrangement with no future — and linked our very identity with it — we have provoked a powerful psychology of previous investment that will make it difficult for us to let go, change our behavior, and make other arrangements.

Compounding the problem is the fact that we ditched our manufacturing economy for a suburban sprawl building economy (a.k.a. “the housing bubble”), meaning we came to base our economy on building even more stuff with no future. This is a hell of a problem, since it is at once economic, socio-political, and circumstantial.

Here’s what I think will happen: First, we are in great danger of mounting a futile campaign to sustain the unsustainable, that is, of defending suburbia at all costs.
In fact, it is already underway. One symptom of this is that the only subject under discussion about our energy predicament is how can we keep running all our cars by other means. Even the leading environmentalists talk of little else. We don’t get it. The Happy Motoring era is over. No combination of “alt” fuels — solar, wind, nuclear, tar sands, oil-shale, offshore drilling, used French-fry oil — will allow us to keep running the interstate highway system, Wal-Marts, and Walt Disney World.

The automobile will be a diminishing presence in our lives, whether we like it or not. Further proof of our obdurate cluelessness in these matters is the absence of any public discussion about restoring the passenger railroad system — even as the airline industry is also visibly dying. The campaign to sustain suburbia and all its entitlements will result in a tragic squandering of our dwindling resources and capital.

The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. In any case, the suburbs will lose value dramatically, both in terms of usefulness and financial investment. Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be “fixed” or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions. They were built badly in the wrong places. We will have to return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape — villages, towns, and cities, composed of walkable neighborhoods and business districts — and the successful ones will have to exist in relation to a productive agricultural hinterland, because petro-agriculture (as represented by the infamous 3000-mile Caesar salad) is also now coming to an end. Fortunately, we have many under-activated small towns and small cities in favorable locations near waterways. This will be increasingly important as transport of goods by water regains importance.

We face an epochal demographic shift, but not the one that is commonly expected: from suburbs to big cities. Rather, we are in for a reversal of the 200-year-long trend of people moving from the farms and small towns to the big cities. People will be moving to the smaller towns and smaller cities because they are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future. I believe our big cities will contract substantially — even if they densify back around their old cores and waterfronts. They are products, largely, of the 20th-century cheap energy fiesta and they will be starved in the decades ahead.

One popular current fantasy I hear often is that apartment towers are the “greenest” mode of human habitation. On the contrary, we will discover that the skyscraper is an obsolete building type, and that cities overburdened with them will suffer a huge liability — Manhattan and Chicago being the primary examples. Cities composed mostly of suburban-type fabric — Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, et al — will also depreciate sharply. The process of urban contraction is likely to be complicated by ethnic tensions and social disorder.

As petro-agriculture implodes, we’ll have to raise our food differently, closer to home, and at a finer and smaller scale. This new agricultural landscape will be inhabited differently, since farming will require more human attention. The places that are not able to grow enough food locally are not likely to make it. Phoenix and Las Vegas will be shadows of what they are now, if they exist at all.

These days, an awful lot of people — the production builders, the realtors — are waiting for the “bottom” in the real-estate industry with hopes that the suburban house-building orgy will resume. They are waiting in vain. The project of suburbia is over. We will build no more of it. Now we’re stuck with what’s there. Sometimes whole societies make unfortunate decisions or go down tragic pathways. Suburbia was ours.

James Kunstler, the author of The Long Emergency: Surviving the Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century,

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