The Future of Suburbia

The end is near? Photo by It'sGreg
The end is near? Photo by It'sGreg

The End of Suburbia?

When I saw the title of pgrundy's recent hub "What Kind of Doomer Are You? Pick Your End of America Scenario" I had to laugh. I've been a doomer since I was a teenager in the booming 90's. Somehow the optimism of youth passed me by, though considering that the alternative to doomer in those days was "mall rat," I am okay with that. I've always hated shopping.

One of the authors that I read was James Howard Kunstler, author of several books, including The Geography of Nowhere and The Long Emergency. Kunstler believes that suburbia is "the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known" and that the end of the age of cheap oil will see the suburbs turn into slums.

I agree, unequivocally, that suburbia as it is presently understood represents a lifestyle that is not only unsustainable but doomed. However, I question his vision of the future of suburbia.

I think in some areas, it is likely to come to pass. However, in most of the country, I believe suburbia is here to stay, though radically changed from its current lifestyle.

Why Suburbia is Here To Stay

From a practical perspective, the suburbs are built, and it will be both cheaper and more environmentally sustainable to maintain them, rather than to tear them down and rebuild our infrastructure from scratch. Certainly, some of that is likely to occur, but I believe it will be insignificant.

More importantly, though many environmentalists applaud the efficiency of well-planned urban areas, urban areas still face the central problem of having to truck in the majority of their resources from outside. In a post-cheap oil world, that simply will not be possible on the scale necessary to support the kind of populations that currently exist in the cities. Green roofs, living walls, and similar practices would help improve the sustainability of urban areas, and living machines could in theory be adapted to produce food as well as waste water treatment, but these are still only stop-gap measures.

Suburbs, only the other hand, not only have land to spare, they have, in many areas, some of the best gosh-darned farmland in the world to spare. Come check out my hometown, Omaha, for an example. Twenty years ago, when I was a little girl, the city pretty much stopped at 132nd street. (Omaha is bounded on the east side by the Missouri River and Iowa, so it has nowhere to go but west). Today, it's out at 240th and counting. Those 100+ blocks were farmland 20 years ago, and some of the finest farmland in the world.

Now, because developers, on the whole, are morons, the land under those suburbs has been stripped and rearranged, so it's not what it once was, but we are still looking at miles and miles of good dirt currently occupied by nothing more productive than Kentucky bluegrass and the occasional sad shade tree.

Is a 1/4 acre lot enough to sustain your average family of four? Probably not (though the Dervaes family is doing its darndest to prove that statement wrong, and what's more, it's succeeding!), but it sure as heck will sustain a family of four better than the balcony of a city apartment.

Homegrown Revolution

The Future of Suburbia

For these reasons, the physical structure and layout of suburbia is unlikely to change significantly. However, the lifestyle of suburban residents is likely to see enormous changes.

I believe the future will see a significant relaxation of zoning regulations dealing with home-based agricultural and business enterprises in the suburbs.

The privacy fences separating many backyards will start to come down in order to maximize space for gardens, and suburbs may have community gardens and minifarms that extend for several blocks in the space between houses. Athletic fields and golf courses will start to be maintained by sheep instead of groundsmen driving gas-guzzling lawn mowers. (Pound for pound, sheep are one of the single most useful and efficient animals alive, producing meat, milk, and wool, among other products.)

In windy areas, wind energy generation combines well with gardening and even better with livestock grazing. Roof-tops can be used for green roofs to grow more food, solar energy, or both.

Residents with useful skills will start to set up shop in garages and spare rooms and conduct business from their homes.

A return to living in extended family units is likely over the long term, while the larger "McMansions" may end up housing multiple families.

In short, I believe the suburbs of the future, rather than continuing on their current unsustainable path or falling apart into miserable slums, will function in many regards more like small towns than bedroom communities: increasingly localized, self-sufficient and, and independent.

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Comments 10 comments

Ralph Deeds profile image

Ralph Deeds 7 years ago

Nice hub! In our suburb, north of Detroit, until recently they were tearing down perfectly good 3-4 bedroom 1,800--2,800 sq. ft houses and replacing them with McMansions with 2-story "great rooms," wine cellars, exercise rooms,entertainment centers, huge closets, 3-car garages, etc. When I go out in the morning to get my papers two or three huge SUVs roll by, each occupied by a driver only on his way to work or even kids on their way to our local high school, an easy walk or bike ride away. How long can this last? Our suburb does offer advantages--good schools (a nice elementary school 4 blocks from my house and a middle school not much farther) low crime, and quite a bit of community spirit. It would be nice if if we had access to mass transit to avoid a half-hour commute by car.

[The people in these huge houses are now advocating that the streets be repaved and curbs added so that they can rake their leaves into the street and have them picked up by the city. This will result in a big assessment to everyone in the neighborhood.]


robie2 profile image

robie2 7 years ago from Central New Jersey

Great read-- thanks. I absolutely agree that the American suburb is in for some big changes but I am even more of a doomster than you. I think that with so many foreclosures that we are about to see some suburbs, particularly ex-urbs become the new slums as the affluent move back to the cities and leave their mcMansions to squatters. I can picture whole families living in one greatroom and God knows most of those houses have enough bathrooms for 20 people. And if the price of gas goes up again, well then the process will just be accelerated. Thanks again and a big thumbs up:-)


Netters profile image

Netters 7 years ago from Land of Enchantment - NM

I agree with you. I think the whole country is in for a big change.


pgrundy 7 years ago

This is fabulous! I loved the video clip. It reminds me of our place. We live in a suburban neighborhood in one of the older homes leftover from when it was still countryside. We have a little over (or under, I can never remember) an acre, and we have been bit by bit adding fruit trees, vegetables, etc. Last summer I was able to fill the freezer with vegetables, and this year we plan to do more. I put in a couple of apple trees and they produced the first year--I couldn't believe it. This year I want to get some pears and cherries in. We also live in the middle of the fruit belt, so I bought peaches, blueberries, and strawberries in bulk and made jam and froze fruit. I canned applesauce and peaches. It sounds corny but it's cumulative--it builds and before you know it you start thinking differently about everything.

We put in a pellet stove last summer, but it uses a lot of electricity--still, even with that, it's WAY cheaper than our oil furnace. This year they changed the zoning regulations to allow wind turbines on properties like ours, so now we are looking at a way to get our hands on one to offset the electric usage. I started working at home in October and I can't imagine ever having a 'job' job again. When I add up what I'm saving in gas, snacks, wardrobe, and lunch alone it's a BIG chunk of change, so even making less, I'm doing better.

I think you may be onto something. I see a book in this for you. We are already headed the direction you describe. Great hub!  (PS--Thanks for the link--I'll reciprocate immediately!)


pgrundy 7 years ago

OK--I linked you in my hub in the section about Kunstler. You guys are Click and Clack of the Suburb theorists in my Doom hub. Thanks!


Elena. profile image

Elena. 7 years ago from Madrid

What an interesting read! Suburbia is a more "recent" concept and setup round here, and I can't see it imploding or changing too much just yet, but given time it may well take the same direction –especially as the concept is based in pretty much the same principles (oil at the top). Kudos, great article!

Ahem. I resent that you were a little girl twenty years ago. Ahem.


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Thanks for your comments, Ralph and Netters!

Elena, if it's any consolation, I was born aged about 40 in many regards. :)

robie, I think you (and Kunstler) are right that some of that is going to happen, especially in some parts of the American West, where there simply won't be enough water to sustain large populations. The Las Vegas suburbs are probably going to be hell on earth, for example: http://www.flickr.com/photos/rich_lem/173121450/ (Actually, I think they already are!)

But I think it's going to vary a lot from region to region. Climate change has the potential to mess everything up, of course, but leaving that aside for the moment, here in the Midwest there are fewer areas with Vegas's degree of sardines-in-a-can mentality and there's good land underfoot to boot, so I think the suburbs will survive in much better shape. Likewise in some parts of the Northwest and Northeast. These areas have always supported larger populations than the Southwest and I think they'll continue to do so, and that suburban homesteading, of sorts, will be a big part of that.


kerryg profile image

kerryg 7 years ago from USA Author

Thanks, Pam! I really enjoyed that hub, so I'm honored to be linked in it. :)

I've got nearly six acres in a suburban part of Omaha. Floodplain, which is why that's possible, but I figure I have a few years to work on the drainage issues. With a toddler, I haven't been able to do as much gardening as I'd like yet, but I'm planning to expand my vegetable garden this year, and start working seriously on the back 40 as well. It's a former farm field well into second stage succession, so I figure I can just go with that and start sticking in shrubs and fruit trees and things to build myself an edible forest garden. Honestly, I'm looking forward to it! I like mucking around in the dirt. :)


TurnipTornado profile image

TurnipTornado 7 years ago from Michigan

Very good. It took me a long time to re-embrace suburbs, but some of them are just full of potential. You've got some great ideas. I may link this hub from my blog if you don't mind.


starvagrant profile image

starvagrant 5 years ago from Missouri

Just got done reading the Long Emergency. It's good to see some ideas about how suburbs might approve, as that's fairly absent in the book.

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