Sunday, March 30, 2008

The End of Suburbia: Oil depletion and the collapse of the American dream

"Are today's suburbs destined to become the slums of tomorrow?"

I came across this flick sometime in 2007 while wrapping up my undergraduate degree in Tennessee, bought it off the internet, and showed it to a couple dozen people as an activity in a student club - the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC). The story goes: since WWII, North Americans have invested most their cash and new infrastructure in the land of suburbia and created a peaceful, affordable, family living environment. However, the whole system is predicated on cheap, abundant oil - a situation that won't last forever and many forecast won't even last that much longer. Beyond the dire straits presented, a solution is offered in the form of New Urbanism - a theory of urban planning based on the re-building of walkable neighborhoods with local retailers and work-places located closer to home.

As a product of suburbia - the suburb of Hendersonville, TN, 20 miles outside of Nashville - the message of the film bowled a turkey for me. I grew up liking the suburbs, but I fear it's because that's all I knew. The houses were all spacious and familiar; my car was my baby and its breast milk a sweet crude; so a 5 mile drive to the nearest grocery store was a luxury. But it didn't take me long into college to realize that I had lost my appetite for the suburbs in question. Like my first experience with tequila, I'd consumed too much and the taste soon became revolting. I haven't been able to stomach suburbia since. And I'm relieved. I'm actually sitting on a plane as I type this, flying back to my hometown for a day-and-a-half family birthday bonanza and I can feel the dry heaves coming on strong. I remember the houses in my neighborhood look so similar, I hope I can pick out the right front door. You could imagine the conversations: "I don't remember having any brothers and sisters. Oh, I see. Ah, you put your couch in that corner? Cool. Ours is over there. No, no, I like your setup better. No, I really do. You can see the TV better. Where'd you get that painting? TJ Maxx? Yeah, I think I've heard of it... this weather's really something."

Anyway, one of the pundits of New Urbanism makes his mark on this film. James Kunstler's his name, and he's just credible enough to have an impact and just bizarre enough to make you smirk. He calls suburbia in North America "the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world." I've seen his lecture on, which is much of the same stuff: most everything in suburbia is not worth saving when it comes down to it. The guy's got a flare for the dramatic, but I fear he's a bit short on answers. He believes the apocalypse can be avoided by changes in architecture and urban planning. I think so too, if the changes were implemented 50 years ago. I think we've gone all in at this point, and cute new neighborhoods won’t be enough to save the rest of our souls.

There's a great joke in the movie - suburban neighborhoods are always named after the things they replaced. Deer Creek, Quail Run, etc. The ones in my hometown are solid too, but are generally more descriptive of the landscape or just simply incoherent - Country Hills, Wyncrest, River Chase, Blue Ridge, Master's Glenn. Subdivision street names can be a riot, too. I've envied pirate-themed neighborhoods - with roads like Pirate Pass and Blackbeard Ave.

Although I do love the idea of New Urbanism, I must be realistic. Suburban people are isolationists, they don't want to be New and they definitely don’t want to be Urban. They're stubborn, and quite capable of squashing the Demon Change. They like the life they lead, and they have every right to. They want their rugrats to grow up in a safe environment like I grew up in, to go to solid schools, and be free from fear. It's in many of our best interests to solve as much of the energy problems behind the scenes as we can. There are too many suburbanites in America to bother changing minds. We just need to be sure to tell them what to buy, and ensure the right product is in the showroom and we can teach them where to plug the thing in.

For fun: random subdivision name generator

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