In this first scenario I put together a series of issues which the suburbs and cities are facing, around the common threat of shortages of energy and the possible breakage of long-distance networks. I try to imagine a city person and a suburban person discussing at a time when these issues are obvious enough that people begin to worry but haven't done much yet.
Thanks for finding the time to talk with me. I came out to see you because I am writing an article about energy problems. I'm curious what you think is changing in the suburbs these days. We hear gloom and doom forecasts about the end of suburban living, but when I look around here things don't seem to have altered much at all. You've been a leader in your town, you work in another suburb, your children are in school here -- what do you think?
I think that the apocalypse has been exaggerated -- at least so far. Suburban living has been a good choice for a long time. With real estate prices dropping while the costs of energy and gasoline are rising, the decision to move out here has become more difficult. But while the flow of people has slowed, it hasn't stopped. People can get cheaper houses, and they are willing to pay the energy and gas prices for the sake of the advantages they find here. There's more space, newer buildings, more privacy, better schools, some contact with nature, and so on. And some people still desire to get away from disagreeable sections or neighbors in the city.
Granted, but there are also people moving back into the city.
That's true; and you can get a condo in the city more cheaply than before. But you have to put up with the aggravations of city life. That's not a big problem for you; you work near home, have a good income. But others find the city oppressive.
We do have a convenient apartment, and I like the city; its density energizes me. The bustle and the surprise encounters inspire me. Besides, it's easier to live well there while using less energy.
Individually, you use less energy, but overall your city soaks up a vast amount. Plus it takes a lot of transportation to keep you all fed and provided for.
But suburban goods and food also have to come a long way, and when they get here you have to drive to get them. I can walk or take the subway. I don't see how your life out here will be sustainable in the long run. You're too spread out, given the way energy prices are likely to go. Everything here is single use: housing over there, commercial stuff gathered in a distant mall, jobs thirty miles away. You have to drive everywhere.
You're underestimating the changes out here. It looks the same as before, with cars driving in all directions and big spaces between separated uses of the land. But if you look carefully you can see changes beginning. More of us are working from home. There are more bicycles for short range trips, and our smaller streets may be safer for biking than most of yours. Here and there commercial property is being redeveloped in new ways. These changes might increase.
Still, you are so dependent on the automobile. I can live most of my life without needing to travel far; I don't own a car. Walking, transit, and an occasional car rental is all I need. Probably I should have a bicycle, but the streets are crowded. I walk to my neighborhood stores, and I take public transit to my job when I don't work from home. With people living closer together in the city, mass transit works, but out here you're spread in all directions and there would have to be such a web of transit lines that the investment will never be made.
You are right that given the way things are scattered out here there are too many destinations in too many directions to lay tracks. Some sort of individual transportation is not going to go away. But it will probably get more efficient and more electric as time goes on. There's quite a bit of carpooling already, and some vehicles purchased by groups. It's not quite the same as it was twenty years ago. We are hopeful that at least one or two light rail connections into our area will be built eventually and there's talk about bus rapid transit, more taxis, and jitneys, and some of the towns have shared Zipcars. More stores are delivering to people's homes. You're going to see more people ordering goods online and having them delivered, and that will hurt the malls and the big-box stores.
Don't forget that all that delivering requires fuel, oil.
True, but that could change over time with electric cars.
But what will generate the electricity for those future cars and trucks?
More sources than oil and coal, we hope. But the problem of generating electricity applies to both city and suburb.
You need more transport energy per person here, though. So people talk about trying to change the pattern of development so you'd have denser development around transit stations.
Those are good ideas, but the big investments involved haven't materialized. What changes we do have are the result of many many small investments rather than large programs.
You should be reading the New Urbanists and trying to rebuild the suburbs in a more dense way, with little town centers.
I admit that the suburbs are going to have to get denser and we are going to have to create more local centers. But it's not easy. There are financial constraints -- any one town can't control the whole pattern or afford whole-scale change. Also there are legal constraints in the old zoning codes.
You don't have any central authority with enough financial power to make big investments to change things. Doesn't that mean that you can't meet crises on your own?
If a huge crash program was needed, we couldn't finance it alone. On the other hand, steady small changes may add up in the long run, though no one of them changes the overall patterns dramatically.
But even incremental change gets choked off by your zoning codes. Why not just throw them out and start over?
It's hard to fight zoning regulations because people are worried about their house values. As real estate values stabilize and people stop expecting big rises, and as resource pressures increase, I think the regulations will get more flexible, and we will be able to do more mixed-use and create small centers even though the current codes would make that very difficult.
In the long run we might be able to junk the zoning codes and start over. When the time comes for that, we will have fewer rival groups jostling for power than you do in the city, so change may come quickly once some threshold is crossed. In the city there are more stakeholders tied to the current system.
Also, don't forget that we have a lot of commercial real estate that will be declining in value and becoming available for reuse in novel ways. That's where we are already seeing the first small changes. Public facilities like continuing education and city offices are appearing in the strip malls. Big-box stores that fail are being turned into other uses. It's not full scale mixed-use because we haven't seen much residential development in old commercial spaces. But that may come.
Except for a few solar add-ons, the houses out here look pretty much as they would have looked twenty years ago.
That's deceiving, though. There's been a lot of changes inside, because of the price of energy. People are making small investments to improve their houses' efficiency. Living out here will always involve more energy than an apartment in the city. On the other hand if things got really tight, the energy required to feed and clothe us would be smaller than for you, given your big dense population.
Even if you can survive out here, is it worth the effort? In the city we have a mix of people of different classes and backgrounds, and there is a lot more chance to form new groups. Things are more creative. When I come out here to see you I find myself missing the excitement and energy level of the city.
When I go to the city I find myself feeling enclosed and oppressed and over-stimulated. Our slower wider pace gives me more space for innovation. I lived in the city for a long time when I was growing up, but I have never been a fan of dense city life.
You can't have liked the long commutes you used to do out here.
No, I didn't. They were a cost I paid for other things I wanted. Now I work from home more, and my office moved, so when I drive it's not as far. Also there isn't as much traffic as there used to be.
But you don't have the variety of people we have in the city.
We're not as uniform as city dwellers think we are. There's a lot of diversity hiding in these similar looking houses. I would bet that our neighborhoods have more diverse populations than some of your city areas. The main segregation out here is by income, more than by race or ethnicity.
If the pressures are increasing, in the city we have the density of different people and ideas to come up with ways to meet crises.
You are underestimating the creativity that can come about when suburban dwellers connect to one another through the Internet and other means. Also, I wonder whether your vaunted urban connectivity is really everything you claim it to be. When I'm in the city people seem to be ignoring one another intentionally. Out here we have a lot of common interests that force us to interact with one another and those interactions and the organization required are getting more frequent as the pressures increase. In the city someone else can always be presumed to be taking care of things. Out here we know it's us or nobody. It's true we don't have many meetings to organize our block or our development. But I doubt you have a lot of meetings organizing your block or your apartment house. The problems are similar and while you do have more physical proximity to jog you into creating new groups, our less dense population means each of our residents is facing more directly the problems we're talking about.
Yes, but in the city is that we have one government instead of twenty or thirty. Out here you have all these competing jurisdictions, so it's hard to get anything changed on a large scale.
It is hard for us to persuade the local governments to cooperate, but they are beginning to, especially about transportation and energy and waste treatment. It's slow, but they will have no choice if resources become more constrained.
So suburbia marches on?
It feels more like it is ambling along, looking over its shoulder; there's no overall plan but some worries.
You haven't changed the overall pattern.
So far, muddling through has worked. As transportation and electric power have gotten more expensive we've begun to change our patterns of consumption. We've been spared big disruptions. Probably in the long run things will begin to look very different, but so far they haven't. We're getting along.
You think the overall suburban pattern will eventually change?
The major change might be more local centers and workplaces so that less driving is needed. There's a tendency in that direction, but most businesses and commercial interests still think in terms of larger centers, maybe with telecommuting added. You can see, though, that the days of the big commercial malls are numbered as transportation costs keep increasing.
So you're muddling along but think that bigger changes will be needed down the road?
Yes, I think so. The worries don't go away but we keep trying to assuage them with multiple small steps in what seem to be the right directions.
So are people happy here?
At least no worse off than they were before. People who live in the city complain about us using too many resources for a lifestyle which they think is restricted and dull. But given the access to culture and information on the net, we're not as isolated as they think. Our resource use is going down. In another twenty years suburban life may be very different.
I do like the open space you have and the touches of nature. But you pay a high price for them. The dream has always been to own your own home. We have to depend on each other in the city; there are few fantasies of isolation like there are out here.
The individualism of the suburbs is under stress and it may have to give way, to some extent. We're learning how we depend on one another. In some ways that is more obvious here than in the city. In the long run our property owners will have to shoulder some social responsibilities. Someday we may find ourselves with a civic spirit like the old days of barn raising, where being a member of the community required participation in community-building events that demanded donations of time, services, and goods. That's one aspect of the old agricultural community that might return.
What worries me is that it might return as the rivalry of one local center to another. The old high school football rivalries may be hiding an older and more desperate kind of competition that could emerge again if resources become more scarce. How bad could it get?
A lot worse. Both you in the city and we in the suburbs are seeing how we depend upon far-away places for food and energy and goods. At the moment those networks are working, although their costs have been rising. We are both worried about what could happen if the networks become seriously stressed, slowed down, or broken. If that happens, I think your advantages in the city become liabilities. Big cities have more connections to faraway places than connections to suburban and agricultural areas nearby. And if those far connection get broken or restricted, you will have to build connections to us and to the farmers thirty miles further out. But I doubt the local area could support your big population with food, and certainly not with energy.
So you are worrying about dire possibilities.
Sure, just as you are. And I think you may be overestimating the chances of your city remaining peaceful and creative. Out here in the suburbs we have social divisions and we could have competition for resources, but being spread around we don't have as many flash points for conflict as in the city, if civic order were under stress. And if it comes to terrorists or other violent groups, it's easier for them to hide in the city and the city presents more tempting targets. We don't know what kind of issues or groups might sprout up, or what kind of resentments might flash, but we know that it's getting easier for groups and individuals to cause a lot of damage. People often moved out into the suburbs because they thought it was safer here, and it often was. In the future it's possible that cities will become less governable while the suburbs will be safer. Meanwhile, the threat of civic disorder may cause more centralization in the suburbs, with people banding together. And that's just the kind of change you have been arguing we should make anyhow.
(Continue to Scenarios: Slow Connections)