The Curse of Suburbia

07Jul08

In the past couple of weeks, I coincidentally came across some related pieces about a major shaping force of the relatively affluent population groups in the world today: suburban living. With the recent oil price hike, it turns out that the trend is becoming less popular in the United States and other developed nations (although obviously still widespread and immensely scaled), whereas the trend has recently emerged and is booming on a massive scale in China, where the size of the middle class is growing at an astounding rate.

As an article titled “The car becomes the burden of suburbia” in the Mail & Guardian confirms, in the United States, car sales are plummeting to two-decade lows, house sales are dwindling, public bus and train use is suddenly on the rise, and all in all, suburban living is reportedly proving less and less popular. Some doomsayers are even predicting that inner cities and suburbs are soon to reverse their roles: inner cities will be rejuvenated and become the habitat of choice, whereas suburbs will become the new slums for the poor. Fears fueling this haunting prediction are worsened by the fact that many US homes are currently being abandoned due to foreclosure problems, caused by the credit crunch [See “Contractors are kept busy maintaining abandoned homes“, New York Times].

The Mail & Guardian article focuses specifically on Greater Los Angeles, where in the past, continued demand for suburbs gave rise to massive urban sprawl. Seeing it for yourself leaves you both in shock and awe: have a look at the Santa Clarita Valley, for example, on Google Earth, between the mountains just North of Los Angeles (another oft-cited example is the San Fernando Valley). These scenes really reinforce the mocking 1962 song, “Little boxes on the hillside, made of ticky-tacky…“, evidently ahead of its time.

Then I came across the alarming cover story of the Feb. 25, 2008 issue of TIME Magazine in a physical copy, which explores the migration of millions of newly affluent Chinese to freshly built suburbs around its major cities (there are now 49 cities in China with a population of 1 million or more). The article focuses on a family living in New Sonjiang, one of 10 new suburban “satellite cities” built around Shanghai, which are expected to attract 5 million new inhabitants in the next 10 years and creating far-reaching sprawl in the process. Car sales in China attest to the rise of suburbs: they are growing by 26% per year. Whereas the Chinese are thrilled by the new amenities offered by suburbs that they simply could not have had in China’s cities, such as cleaner air, spacious lots and a healthier environment altogether for children, the Chinese didn’t lay out these places on their own: Chinese planners were reportedly spotted while on special visits to suburbs in Arizona and California, where they showed great approval of what they saw, took notes profusely, and then took the ideas home [Be sure to watch the photo & audio essay accompanying the TIME story].

Can the Earth sustain a new Chinese middle class, bereft of the perils of communism, possibly 700 million strong in the not-too-distant future? Only time will tell, but since suburbs are inherently unsustainable, and since this is where so many of these citizens will settle, the case for Earth’s resources are looking grim.

In the cities where I have been, notably London, Paris and Hong Kong, I learned to appreciate the immense value that dense residential centres coupled with proper public transportation adds, as I’m sure everyone else has if they came from the suburbs or from the developing world to visit such cities. In my case, I came from South Africa, which meant that a place like London presented in paradigm shift in the view of public transportation. Even in the light of this shift, I found Paris’s public transport better than that of London, but neither of the two are anywhere near as good as that of Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s public transportation scintillates a sense of aesthetics, sophistication, modern design, adequacy, and above all, effiency. The mass transit railway (MTR) system is so efficient, it takes you the same time to go into the station, get onto a train, travel and get out of the next station whether 10 or ten thousand people where using the particular leg, due to proper design and strategic redundancy which elimates any bottlenecks.

Alas, those of us living in a suburb, especially those who have not been to the major cities of the developed world, take the need for a car for granted. In most suburbs, even in the developed world, it simply isn’t practical to try and cope without a car. It’s needed for everything from commuting to work, to buying groceries, to visiting the doctor (or so we believe is necessary to attain a certain quality of life and level of comfort). This has a massive impact on our carbon footprint, yet those in major cities in the First World most often have no need for a car whatsoever. First of all, there’s a supermarket, a coffee shop, a computer store, a restaurant, on every corner - litterally - doing away with the need to travel far for basic needs. Second of all, a train or bus or tram station will always be within walking distance, allowing you to travel quickly and conveniently to address more specialized needs, such as visiting a doctor or a specific attraction, or to commute to work.

Since suburbs have gone global, and even in South Africa we are indeed living in a suburb akin to those in the US, I’m sure many people take suburbs for granted, something that simultaneously spawned out of necessity all over the world. True? Not quite. Whereas suburbs have various advantages that should probably have driven the adoption of something similar all over the world at some stage, the modern suburb was hatched in post-World War II United States, riding the crest of the cheap oil wave. You can read about some of this in the Mail & Guardian article, although the phenomenom is often described in a variety of places:

Since the 1950s and the building of the pioneering car-orientated suburb of Levittown in Long Island, the American city has been designed for the convenience of the car as much as its human inhabitants. People live kilometres away from jobs, shops or entertainment. If you take away cars, the entire suburban way of life collapses. To some, that development is long overdue.

“Suburbia has been unsustainable since its creation,” said Chris Fauchere, a Denver-based filmmaker who is producing a new documentary on the issue called The Great Squeeze. “It was created around cheap oil. People thought it would flow easily from the earth forever.”

What will the world’s relatively affluent population demand in the future in terms of housing? I don’t know, but it’s no simple choice. Suburbs obviously offer pleasant advantages, notably low-density, spacious living, but high-density city living in the developed world is still an experience that makes you feel really efficient and impressed if you hail from a suburb. I’m by no means pretending to know something on the subject of housing, but it seems like suburbs are almost a scaled-up, compacted version of country living, bringing you closer to the city and into a tight community while trying to preserve some of rural advantages. City planning is something that has always been very interesting to me, and I’m very excited to watch how the phenomenom unfolds in the coming years, in light of changes in behavioural patterns as well as environmental concerns.

UPDATE:  This Slashdot story is most likely hogwash, but the discussion it has led to is quite interesting, and it touches on the topic of this post many times.


Did you know?

In 2010, there will be 4200km of new highways in and around Shanghai, China that didn't exist in 2000. Varese, a town in Northern Italy, runs on 100% renewable power. The town uses a mix of wind, solar and small-scale hydropower. The town has reaped benefits from the energy network through added jobs, and an additional 350,000 euros [US $514,000] in revenues that are handed over to the council each year.

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