Scenarios: Urban Optimism
We turn now toward more optimistic scenarios. These all involve substantial changes in our ways of life, but they don't involve major collapses or disorder. Indeed all three of these scenarios suggest that we would be better off with the changes they foresee. The first and most moderate optimistic scenario can be found in a book by Christopher Steiner. He foresees us moving towards greener, denser urban living. Technological innovations will enable a better, saner life, though at the cost of dismantling much of suburbia.
In Steiner’s book $20 Per Gallon:How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better, each chapter portrays the changes that might occur when gasoline reaches $6, $8, $10, up to $20 a gallon. Tying the changes to specific price levels gives Steiner a chance to discuss the many challenges that are likely as prices rise. Travel becomes expensive, airline companies collapse, big box stores die, nuclear energy reemerges, and people move into dense cities to escape increasingly expensive suburbs. Small towns become more self-reliant but obtain outside income through telecommuters. Food production becomes more local and the automobile much less important, airlines are only for the rich, and international travel and shipping are much reduced, bringing manufacturing back US.
Steiner trusts we will find ways to use nuclear energy safely, and to improve the electric grid, localize food production, replace petroleum based plastics, and so on. It is an optimistic picture. Notably absent, though, are the poor, the underprivileged, and those in third world nations who are not making it into the middle class. The potential for disorder is greater than Steiner foresees.
Steiner is high on cities. "The only thing real, the only thing proven to save us money and time and to stand the perseverance of market swings and real estate undulations, will be our cities' great neighborhoods and the infrastructure that supports them" and "on a macro scale there is one path to mitigating our runaway energy use: density" (120). I agree that density of connection is the key, but physical proximity is not the only kind of density. There can be other modes of connection and interaction.
What kind of city does Steiner envisage? Mostly Manhattan. He describes a future of mega-cities and small towns. His dichotomy between the bustling urban core and the small town seems to overlook both the partial centers that are likely to build up in suburbia, and the middle sized cities which may well be more sustainable than large ones. Steiner does not discuss smaller cities of 50,000 to 500,000.
He offers an extended treatment (starting on 122) of a South Korean industrial office hub that is being developed now, called New Songdo City, a mini Manhattan with high-rises surrounding a park.
"Our future, an urban one, will reflect many of the lessons gleaned from Songdo. Building on this scale with this kind of rapidity, of course, simply isn't possible in most cases. Our transformation from a civilization orbiting suburban sprawl to one concentrating in pockets of urban elegance will be slow, but relentless." (Here again we see the puzzling absence of the non-elegant people and their neighborhoods.)
New Songdo, however, is not new; it follows a familiar modernist pattern. A presentation video of a Songdo model shows tall buildings and streets, with a canal and a Central Park, and amenities such as a golf course, international school, malls, and a conference center. The city follows Le Corbusier’s classic modern prescriptions: tall buildings and separation of functions into residential, commercial, and office quarters, with lots of green space. Since the city has been planned by the modernist firm Kohn Pederson Fox, this is not surprising. Though it is more pedestrian friendly, there is nothing radical about the design except that it’s a bit more spacious than most Asian cities. Corporate people will feel right at home with its modernist layout and the amenities designed to make it a business hub to compete with Tokyo and Shanghai. Steiner’s city is the present, with technological fixes and more green consciousness.
The change Steiner sees coming that is most relevant to my topic is the end of suburbia, together with a change from individual vehicles to mass transit. "Many people will be looking to drive less or not at all. This movement will give rise to a massive shift of population as our fringe suburbs lose their value and our inner cities reinvent themselves again" (120). Steiner is right about the economic pressures that will face people in suburbia, but his treatment is too hasty — while he praises the ingenuity of entrepreneurs, he doesn't think enough about the ingenuity of people in suburbia who might want to hold onto their benefits by improving transit, creating local food and commercial centers, and upgrading their houses. He sees how the old railroad suburbs in the first ring around big cities can survive well because of their transit connections. He talks a great deal about cities putting in more mass transit, but he does not discuss how transit, more likely busses than rails, could be extended into suburbia or develop amid suburbs, along with varieties of shared vehicles, jitneys, and the like, such as already exist and link villages in poorer countries.
His picture is that suburbia decays rather than crystallizing into linked towns. It's likely, though, that while many of the far-flung mega-development suburbs might die slowly, much of current suburbia could begin to resemble what the New Urbanists prescribed. Suburbs can condense into denser towns linked by transit, and become more self-sufficient for jobs, food, and resources, while maintaining useful connections to the rest of the world.
(Continue to Scenarios: Mega-Technology)