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Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Required Reading

posted by on August 13 at 16:42 PM

James Kunstler’s contribution to a conversation at the NYT’s Freakonomics blog about the future of suburbia:

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

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.

Kunstler’s predictions for the future of big cities—like Chicago and New York, Slog’s favorite big cities—are equally bleak, however:

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.

Kunstler is the author of The Geography of Nowhere, a fascinating book about how we got into this mess—how we saddled ourselves with all those identical suburbs, big-box stores, six lane “roads” lined with fast-food outlets—in the first place.

RSS icon Comments

1

Kunstler was sharp in Geography of Nowhere and still insightful in Home from Nowhere, but he's fallen off his game recently as his truth-telling observations about spatial and social urban development patterns have morphed into an ill-formed agenda... That said, he's clearly on the right track regarding suburbia, but plainly wrong regarding the future of "Big Cities."

Posted by High-Rise | August 13, 2008 4:51 PM
2

I'm just glad I'm on a quarter of an acre in Baltimore. It's largely grass now, but I have great plans--vegetable garden, laundry lines, perhaps a chicken coop-but don't tell the Neighborhood Association.

I look at where my father lives in suburban Indianapolis and I just don't see how it's sustainable--no sidewalks, no bike trails, no public transportation. The town he lives just outside of used to be a self-sufficient little town before Indy grew. Now the downtown is restaurants and antique shops. And he lives way outside the town. Yikes.

Posted by Balt-O-Matt | August 13, 2008 4:57 PM
3

There's some interesting stuff on that blog post. Kunstler's contribution makes about the least sense to me

Posted by jonglix | August 13, 2008 4:57 PM
4

'smaller towns...are more appropriately scaled to the limited energy diet of the future'

I thought conventional wisdom was that large cities are more energy-efficient because of their density...anyone know more about this than me?

Posted by dbell | August 13, 2008 4:59 PM
5

Kunstler is not some kind of voice of reason on this issue, he is a fanatical anti-suburb hysteric. And a bitterman in general (as indicated by his comments about NYC and Chicago).

Anything he says is worthless. Most suburbs are here to stay, the people in them like them, and energy prices will likely lower over time.

Posted by jmr | August 13, 2008 5:03 PM
6

My ancestral village is quite suburban: houses and barns on large lots; the farmers commute to their fields. No sidewalks, and people drive to church, the post office, and the grocery store.

Posted by renault dauphine | August 13, 2008 5:10 PM
7

Yeah, agree with earlier commenters, particularly dbell. The notion that New Yorkers use less energy per capita than people living in small towns is laughable. Kunstler sounds like a nutjob.

Posted by minderbender | August 13, 2008 5:12 PM
8

jmr, I hope you're buying up SUVs so you can make a killing when the cheap gas returns. And I really hope you keep us posted how that works out for you.

Posted by elenchos | August 13, 2008 5:13 PM
9

And by "less" I mean "more." New York uses very little energy on a per capita basis, relative to almost anywhere else in the US. European cities use even less.

Posted by minderbender | August 13, 2008 5:14 PM
10

Fella makes a great case for a city like Spokane. Or, for that matter, any city located along Washington's railroads.

Posted by used to blog | August 13, 2008 5:16 PM
11

Kunstler has drunk the Kool-aid. He's completely off his rocker these days. What he describes happening is so far from reality it's not even recognizable. There are many more than three likely and simultaneous outcomes for suburbia, but most of them are not on his list. The idea that people will be moving to smaller towns is just laughably false; smaller towns are dying on the vine. Suburbs and exurbs are where the action is, in terms of growth and economic development, while the centers of large cities are becoming wealthy bedroom communities wholly dependent on their suburbs for life support. Kunstler couldn't be more wrong if he tried.

Posted by Fnarf | August 13, 2008 5:17 PM
12

@4,

Kunstler claims that much of contemporary urban density won't survive peak oil. It takes too much energy to heat and cool skyscrapers and any apartments above seven stories won't be accessible if elevators are offline. Although I'm still skeptical that there won't be any alternatives to oil and that a post-oil future will really be that bleak.

@5,

You're that certain, eh? Enjoy fantasy land.

Posted by keshmeshi | August 13, 2008 5:18 PM
13

I was agreeing with jmr up to the point about energy prices falling. But energy prices don't have to fall to prevent suburbs from becoming slums, let alone ruins. People like them (and they can have them).

http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/archives/individual/2008_08/014284.php

I wish Kunstler were a little less bonkers.

Posted by Nat | August 13, 2008 5:21 PM
14

Fnarf knocks it out of the park.

Wishful thinking based on a preordained set of conclusions does not equal actual policy analysis. Federal Way, Lynnwood, and Bellevue need not lose any sleep over Mr. Kunstler's work.

That said, it definitely is a great time to buy a used SUV - kind of like the period after the OPEC oil crisis in the early/mid 1970's was a great time to pick up a Plymouth Superbird or some other muscle car for a song. (Of course, that same car goes for upwards of a quarter million dollars now, but...)

Posted by Mr. X | August 13, 2008 5:23 PM
15

@12: By what mechanism are the elevators going to be brought permanently offline? Elevators are the most energy-efficient form of public transportation in human history. It's not like they run on gasoline, either.

Posted by Nat | August 13, 2008 5:23 PM
16

@8, I don't think the future 30 years down the road consists of either (1) gas-powered SUVs or (2) no SUVs at all. People like cars and SUVs, until we have teleportation cars will be a prominent and valuable part of the transportation landscape, and people will figure out a way to power them if gas starts running out (which it won't for a long, long time) or becomes too expensive.

Posted by jmr | August 13, 2008 5:24 PM
17

Who needs suburbs when you can buy a house in Detroit for $1

Posted by jmr | August 13, 2008 5:29 PM
18

I read Geography of Nowhere long ago, I thought it was flacid and a bit gauzy then, and he seems be really off his nut now...

@15... while elevators might vaguely be considered 'transportation' more to the point of genuine movement across the landscape (or cityscape) the most efficient mode of transportation in history is...

the bicycle

(ducking now)

Posted by hmmm | August 13, 2008 5:33 PM
19

@16

"Energy prices will go down because people like using energy!" Brilliant. And here I thought the reason energy prices were high was precisely because so many people liked using it. Whatever. When I see people crying because they bet their future on cheap energy, I makes me giggle.

Posted by elenchos | August 13, 2008 5:35 PM
20

Even if we cranked out plug-in hybrids from now until 2020, we'd only have a million vehicles.

We need to convert the existing vehicles too.

Posted by Will in Seattle | August 13, 2008 5:38 PM
21

The SUV question is an interesting one. People are selling them and buying more efficient vehicles in droves right now -- which is economically insane. There's no possible way to buy enough efficiency to make up for the huge loss you're taking on the vehicle itself. If you're buying a car now, you can save an incredible amount of dough on an SUV, far more than you'll pay in extra gas unless you drive 150 miles a day or something. People are throwing away $5k, $10k, or more, just to save $500 or $1,000 a year on gas.

Posted by Fnarf | August 13, 2008 5:40 PM
22

@19, it's more brilliant than you'd like to think. For instance, if oil prices look like they're going to stay above a certain level, then the massive shale deposits in the center of the country become an economically viable (and massive) source of energy. At the same time, the price would spur development in bringing down the cost of extracting oil from said shale.

Brilliant!

Posted by jmr | August 13, 2008 5:47 PM
23

@21, watch what you say. If you see someone from Toyota Prius Marketing knocking on your door tonight... don't answer, and call the police.

Posted by jmr | August 13, 2008 5:49 PM
24

jmr, please tell me you not getting your investment advice from Penn & Teller. You know they're comedians, right?

@21

Which people, Fnarf? I know that silly Judith Warner at the New York Times was blathering about getting rid of her Range Rover and Explorer and getting a Prius, or maybe one of those cute Mini Coopers, but she's loaded. Is it a documented fact that any normal people are selling their trucks at a huge loss? I was more thinking of the car dealers whose inventory is marked down.

Posted by elenchos | August 13, 2008 6:02 PM
25

Not sure what Kunstler's thinking is regarding urban density and peak oil. Yes, a lot of modern high rise construction is predicated on cheap energy. But the world's big cities came into being long before the big oil companies.

Posted by Bruce Garrett | August 13, 2008 6:03 PM
26

Elenchos, those marked-down SUVs on the lots are an opportunity -- you're seeing the market in action. They're marked down by an amount equal to many, many years of increased gas. And every article I've read about high gas prices has included at least one anecdote about a couple who "just couldn't stand it any more" and took their Yukon down to the dealer to trade in on an economy car, only to be shocked, tearful, angry at how little the dealer was offering for it. Most of them are going to end up with swollen payments much larger than the savings they're going to realize.

Posted by Fnarf | August 13, 2008 6:12 PM
27

Suburb is the new ghetto.

Posted by Trevor | August 13, 2008 6:28 PM
28

@24, I have no idea what Penn & Teller have said about energy, but I did sell all my stocks related to products allegedly enlarging certain portions of male anatomy after seeing their exposé on the topic.

(whew, tough getting that by the spam filter)

Posted by jmr | August 13, 2008 6:31 PM
29

COMMENT DELETED: Off-Topic/Spam

We'd rather not moderate your comments, but off-topic, gratuitously inflammatory, threatening, or otherwise inappropriate remarks may be removed, and repeat offenders may be banned from commenting. We never censor comments based on ideology. Thanks to all who add to the conversation on Slog.

Posted by Self-Hating Hipster | August 13, 2008 6:35 PM
30

@26

Guess I've failed to find any such example.

Posted by elenchos | August 13, 2008 6:44 PM
31

Suburbs and exurbs aren't going anywhere anytime soon. Neither are SUVs (for the most part, anyway). John McCain is running neck and neck with Obama. That shows you how little the typical American mindset has changed or will change.

Posted by laterite | August 13, 2008 7:18 PM
32

The question was what the suburbs will look like in 40 years. Most of the buildings they put out there are designed for 25 years, which means the suburbs will need a lot of maintenance if they are going to remain. Which means we are going to have to really want to keep them around in spite of the spiraling cost.

Posted by elenchos | August 13, 2008 7:23 PM
33

I love living in Bellevue myself. I thought I would miss living in Seattle, but every year I miss it less. I bike to work, to yoga, the grocery store, even my family in North Bend on the weekend, and stay mostly on trails. In Seattle I'd be fighting traffic. It's a 10 mile ride to Seattle, so that's not even tough. I'm debating ditching the car altogether, but I'm not sure how I would go snowboarding. Probably just switch to a plugin hybrid in 2010. I do agree that the age of the SUV is waning.

Posted by djsauvage | August 13, 2008 8:13 PM
34

I dunno. We've had the local small market (with the best prices) go out of business in the last year and the bar/restaurant in the neighborhood. Both said they couldn't afford the costs involved. There was also a home that burned three doors down from me and they just buldozed the wreckage cause there are many houses for sale already. Its now a flat vacant lot perfect for a community garden. They could flatten all the homes that don't sell. He may be on to something.

Posted by Jersey | August 13, 2008 9:26 PM
35

Kunstler is a goofball who is not to be taken seriously. Sorry to say it, but suburbs will be around in one form or another for quite some time. Eventually, coal-to-liquids, and nuclear power plants are going to provide us all the electricity we need to power our plug-in electric cars and light our houses. It's not gonna happen next year, or even in ten years, but it will happen.

Posted by CA | August 13, 2008 10:03 PM
36

Fnarf nailed it @11. Look at suburbs like Bellevue, Redmond and (increasingly) Kirkland. They have their own downtowns, they have developed their own economic bases, they're attracting more industry than Seattle. Many Eastside people seldom cross the bridges, except for a Mariners game, a festival, or when guests visit.

It's likely we'll see more suburbs become less and less dependent on the big cities they surround.

Posted by rjh | August 13, 2008 10:15 PM
37

Kunstler's analysis assumes that nothing will be able to fill the void left by cheap oil quickly enough to prevent total economic collapse. Nuclear and solar are theoretically viable, but the capital requirements to get them up and running are enormous, and time may already be running out. Given the current economy and the spiraling price of oil, it would take an extraordinary, unprecedented effort to rebuild the energy infrastructure around non-oil sources. And this isn't about your damn SUVs or your wicked incandescent bulbs, it's about trucks and tractors, farms located 3,000 miles from the hungry mouths, and huge, expensive manufacturing centers on the other side of world from anyone who needs their products.

Posted by Furcifer | August 14, 2008 3:16 AM
38

@36

Bellevue doesn't really count as a suburb anymore. With a population of over 100k, it's really a small city. Monroe, on the other hand...

I really liked Kunstler when I first got interested in urban planning. I agree that he's just become shrill at this point. I still recommend Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere to anyone interested in urban planning and the history of suburbia.

Posted by NaFun | August 14, 2008 6:09 AM
39

JHK was interesting when he delivered bitchy critiques of architecture and suburbs, but then he realized how much money he could make as a professional peak oil Prophet of Doom.

He's the peak oil version of fundy preacher, spending the past several years predicting that the eco-Rapture and the end of civilization is just a few months away while complaining that shadowy forces on Wall Street are somehow delaying the inevitable.

The news has been just bad enough (credit crisis, high oil prices) to keep his congregations coming back for more, but they never seem to notice he's a broken record at this point...

Posted by JA3 | August 14, 2008 6:29 AM
40

fnarf -- Your estimates of the difference between a gas guzzler and an economical sedan are conservative. The difference between 15 mpg and 25 mpg over a typical 15,000 mile driving year is 400 gallons, or $1600 a year. I have filled up next to Suburbans who put $100 in their tank, which is $2500 a year. Unless $4 gas is purely temporary, the payback period for $5K is only about 3 years.

Posted by Saturn driver | August 14, 2008 9:20 AM
41

I have happy news to report! My Hoveround wheelchair can get me to our local Lowes and Walmart - and back home again.

Though I'd feel a bit safer on parts of the trip if I was accompanied by a large pit-bull. My little Sheltie service dog doesn't do much to scare away bad-guys...

The stores I'd really like to frequent are past a major highway interchange - much too scary to tackle in a wheelchair...

But it's nice to know I can get *somewhere* without the van!

Posted by Ayden | August 14, 2008 9:21 AM
42

the suburbs will not fail for three reasons:

1. the upper-middle class can choose to live wherever they like

2. there are enough people in the suburbs (with enough voting power) that they can demand the changes (public transportation, infrastructure, etc...) necessary

3. the cities, at present, are not being built in a way that will allow the lower-middle class and below to integrate

Posted by infrequent | August 14, 2008 10:15 AM
43

"2. there are enough people in the suburbs (with enough voting power) that they can demand the changes (public transportation, infrastructure, etc...) necessary"

This is spot on. No president or congressional majority will ever get elected by advocating that we let the lights go out in suburbia.

Posted by CA | August 14, 2008 10:48 AM
44

This must have been an easy column to write. All suburbs? Really? All of them? When there are so many regional variations? And variations within those regions? No worries, no one will remember this column just like no one is likely to buy that used copy of "Dow 30,000 by 2008".

This is like how people were saying that the American city will die and everyone will live in the suburbs back in the 80s. Look at what a craphole NYC is, no one with means will ever *want* to live there again! (Trump's buildings excepted, I guess.)

Posted by eric sic | August 14, 2008 12:53 PM

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