Posted by: wtfwjd? | May 19, 2008

Upheaval

Krugman today:

Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

Changing the geography of American metropolitan areas will be hard. For one thing, houses last a lot longer than cars. Long after today’s S.U.V.’s have become antique collectors’ items, millions of people will still be living in subdivisions built when gas was $1.50 or less a gallon.

This is something I’ve been meaning to write about. Unless something comes along to suddenly change the way we get our energy, we’re headed towards an upheaval in how and where we live. Gradual or sudden, I’m not sure, but do think it’s coming. In fact, it’s already started. Christopher B. Leinberger in The Atlantic:

Strange days are upon the residents of many a suburban cul-de-sac. Once-tidy yards have become overgrown, as the houses they front have gone vacant. Signs of physical and social disorder are spreading.

At Windy Ridge, a recently built starter-home development seven miles northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina, 81 of the community’s 132 small, vinyl-sided houses were in foreclosure as of late last year. Vandals have kicked in doors and stripped the copper wire from vacant houses; drug users and homeless people have furtively moved in. In December, after a stray bullet blasted through her son’s bedroom and into her own, Laurie Talbot, who’d moved to Windy Ridge from New York in 2005, told The Charlotte Observer, “I thought I’d bought a home in Pleasantville. I never imagined in my wildest dreams that stuff like this would happen.”

In the Franklin Reserve neighborhood of Elk Grove, California, south of Sacramento, the houses are nicer than those at Windy Ridge—many once sold for well over $500,000—but the phenomenon is the same. At the height of the boom, 10,000 new homes were built there in just four years. Now many are empty; renters of dubious character occupy others. Graffiti, broken windows, and other markers of decay have multiplied. Susan McDonald, president of the local residents’ association and an executive at a local bank, told the Associated Press, “There’s been gang activity. Things have really been changing, the last few years.”

In the first half of last year, residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies by 58 percent in suburban Lee County, Florida, where one in four houses stands empty. Charlotte’s crime rates have stayed flat overall in recent years—but from 2003 to 2006, in the 10 suburbs of the city that have experienced the highest foreclosure rates, crime rose 33 percent. Civic organizations in some suburbs have begun to mow the lawns around empty houses to keep up the appearance of stability. Police departments are mapping foreclosures in an effort to identify emerging criminal hot spots.

I’ve been saying this for close to 20 years, since I read Bruce Sterling’s cyberpunk novel Islands in the Net. It’s been a long time and my memory is fuzzy, but one minor aspect of the book concerned a near-future where gas had become so scarce that practically no one could afford to drive a car, at least not very often or very far. Everyone had moved back into cities and the far-flung suburbs had been left for anyone who couldn’t afford to live elsewhere: they had become slums. It was just a sci-fi novel, but it seemed like a very valid notion to me at the time, and I think we are starting to see the beginning of this. Not suggesting that Marin or Fairfield Counties will become slums anytime soon, but the more-remote suburbs of Atlanta, or parts of the Inland Empire…well, I think we’re starting to see the beginnings of it already.

And finally, James Kunstler:

In my opinion suburban environments have very poor prospects, in part because we will simply not have the wealth to retrofit them that we had when we built them in the first place. Some of the pieces are unretrofittable, namely the cul-de-sac housing pods. I believe that they will be the slums of the future. The New Urbanists have admirable methods for turning dead malls into mixed-use town centers, and a few have been done, but I’m sorry to say that I don’t believe that many of these places will achieve that positive outcome. The destiny of most suburban fabric is to become first slum, then salvage and then ruins. It will take a hundred years or more to clear the crap away. First, though, there is going to be a fantastic orgy of devaluation, default, foreclosure, repossession, bankruptcy — a huge fight over the tablescraps of the 20th century. People may not like pessimists, but I find phony optimism much more distasteful. The truth is, we are going to pay a steep price for the bad decisions we made over the past half century. Life is tragic. History won’t shed a tear for us. We’ll have to be brave and carry on in the face of all this difficulty, and try not to become a menace to ourselves and other peoples.

Q: How can city centers, large and small, be reinvigorated? Are there
effective models in the U.S. for doing this?

The coming hardships — which will include chronic oil market disruptions — will compel Americans to live differently. We will have to recondense our lives into walkable communities. Working on the non-car-oriented scale will help a lot. Once you get people back to that scale, many good things happen automatically, including the restoration of public space. By the way, it should go without saying that we desperately need a passenger rail system. Amtrak in its current form would embarrass the Bulgarians. It amazes me that we gave $14 Billion to the airlines last October without requiring them to invest part of it in passenger rail, to convert themselves into multimodal transportation companies, not just airlines. The total lack of debate on this at the time shows where are heads are at. In the larger sense, we face the project of severely downscaling virtually all American activities. We will have to restore local-and-regional networks of commercial relations (exactly what the WalMarts destroyed) in all their rich layers. We’re going to have to do agriculture differently, more locally, more carefully, perhaps more labor-intensively. Education, too, faces the need for massive downscaling and redistribuition of facilities. I’m inclined to believe that smaller cities and small towns will make out better than the big cities in the near term. Places like Detroit and St. Louis, et cetera, are pretty far gone. Anyway, I doubt the big cities of the coming century will be like the industrial metropoli of the previous era in character. They will shrink. Giant factories are things of the past. There will be more parity between big city and small town in terms of potential economic activity. I hasten to add that I believe the Sunbelt will suffer disproportionately in the coming era of hardship and austerity — just as it benefited disproportionately during the cheap oil fiesta of the past 50 years.

I think he’s exactly right, and I think it’s going to get pretty ugly out there before some kind of new order emerges.

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