Death of the Suburbs


By Zach Schepis

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Many of you reading this are a byproduct of a suburban-bred upbringing. White picket fences, houses stacked in perfect rows upon the hillsides, and a two car garage–all comprise the picturesque portrait of the American nuclear family that we’ve grown to accept since its birth in the ‘50s.

These middle-class terrariums have a shelf life, however, that none of us knew to plan for.

Enter James Howard Kunstler. While others have turned their backs on these economic problems Kunstler has become an outspoken activist who seeks to raise awareness about the impending changes imminent in the “American Way of Life.”

In addition to writing for Rolling Stone, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Kunstler published five nonfiction works chronicling the decline in oil production and resulting collapse of industrial society. He has lectured at the TED Conference and the American Institute of Architects, along with delivering speeches at prestigious universities.

BTR sits down with Kunstler to discuss what our country’s future landscape might look like.

How would you describe your experience growing up in the Long Island suburbs?

I actually wrote about it in my first book. I lived there very briefly between the ages of five and eight and then I moved to Manhattan. Nonetheless, I experienced it. One of the things about that way of life is that it tends to be fairly agreeable.

At that age you’re not interfacing very much with the world. The older you get, the more natural it becomes to open the rest of the spectrum and learn how to operate in society. You need to learn how to spend money, go to libraries, how to get across town without assistance.

Children should be developing their own sense of personal sovereignty. They are in charge of themselves, and if you stifle that it will affect how people develop.

In what ways could the suburbs be looked at as a “false promise” for the middle class American family?

It was meant to represent country living and the cartoon of a house, but it wasn’t. It was a cartoon of country living. That might have satisfied a nation of TV addicts, but it missed the deeper and more genuine social and neurological needs of human beings.

Another reason why the suburbs were a failed promise is because it was a broken economic promise to begin with. It was a living arrangement with no future; it was transitory and sold to the American public as a permanent new disposition. It’s now approaching the difficult place where its usefulness will unravel and the economic value will fail. This will be a huge problem as this way of life becomes useless and burdensome–as it takes place more and more in a decaying setting with a disintegrating infrastructure.

How does the New Urbanism movement fit into this greater picture?

To start it recognized the extraordinary deficiencies. It began in the 1980s as a response to the visible catastrophe on the landscape. They understood the principle that in suburbia “entropy is made visible.” Obviously this isn’t the healthiest state of things. The New Urbanists realized that it was a dead end and actually proposed ideas for remedy.

They wanted a return to abandoned principals and town design that had been done before they were abandoned in the 20th century. There was also a pretty coherent set of principles for returning to sound urban design. Unfortunately, the public generally ignored them.

In what ways do you imagine the suburban landscape changing? Do you foresee them moving away from being isolated single-class communities?

No, I see the suburbs as they stand in three states: slums, ruins, and salvage yards. I think most of these aren’t going to be retrofitted for everyday life in a successful way, and it would represent an enormous squandering of capital. It wasn’t constructed well in the first place, and definitely has a poor prospect for resilience.

That being said, a lot of the materials that went into the construction of these suburbs have salvage value. They represent high energy materials that we’ll have trouble making again, [like] steel high beams, concrete bricks. Hopefully these usual constituents of construction will be salvaged if we are intelligent. A lot of it will be left to ruins.

What kind of time frame are we talking about here?

I’m talking about a much longer time frame, not the immediate decade. If we’re looking into the immediate future, I think we’ll see these suburbs becoming disordered and hard to use. They’ll lose value, and people will be confused about why it happened and what to do. There might be reinvestment, or rather mis-investment, in trying to pop it up, but as a whole I believe it will be unsuccessful.

Do you foresee any exceptions to this?

Here’s a counter–we have a lot of traditional towns and cities that have a perfectly suitable urban fabric and even better, fundamental designs of streets and blocks that will probably be re-inhabited. It’s not going to be as big as what happened in the ’50s; the design will definitely be on a smaller scale.

Power production, size of the buildings, the sewer systems–we’re battling to salvage the systems that are running, and many are as old as a hundred years old. The electric grid is notoriously decaying and there’s no plan to save or rebuild it. I think the cities will be smaller. The smaller cities and towns will be the ones that are most successful.

What do they [the diminishing of suburbs and cities] face in common?

They’re definitely both facing energy scarcity and capital scarcity, along with available money for reinvestment. There’s a very close tie between our energy supply and the ability to form capital and accumulate wealth.

We’ve been shucking and jiving the system for a decade; we’re just playing games with ourselves. We have these innovative financial instruments that are really just swindles. There are serious problems with the capital formation but the stock market continues to climb and fools us.

So how will we face the implications of this impending energy scarcity?

I think the first thing that can be observed about suburbia in this regard is that it suffers from self-evident transportation problems. And the deeper we get into the post-cheap oil economy, well, the deeper those problems become. We’re in an era of wishful thinking, and we don’t want to believe it.

One wish might be that we’ll somehow transform the motor car system from gas and oil to electricity. But that probably won’t happen. Sure we can make the cars, but can we really scale up the production of affordable electric cars? If motoring were to become an elitist activity it could generate massive political resentment.

You’d think the public might already be harboring some resentment for these people in power.

There’s a consensus among all the people who really matter in running this society. The political, business and media sectors, even academia–they’re not evil people spreading lies, they’re just mutually reinforcing wishes by people who would like to think we can continue living the way we do. It won’t work that way.