A Resilient Suburbia? 1: Sunk Cost & Credit Markets

peak oil challenges suburbia, but what are the alternatives?

Many argue that suburbia was a terrible idea—a giant waste of land, capital, and culture. I largely agree. But there you have it: suburbia happened, with no refund available. It is a sunk cost—not only the millions of homes, but the vast infrastructure for transportation, employment, governance, and distribution that is fundamentally intertwined with the suburban model. Looking into a future of energy scarcity and economic challenge, it is time for the discussion to shift from “suburbia sucks” to “what are we going to do about it?” Is it possible to build a vibrant, sustainable, and self-sufficient civilization on the framework of existing suburban development? More importantly, is there any viable alternative? This four-part series will take a critical look at suburbia in an environment of peak oil, beginning with this post’s discussion of sunk costs and credit markets as they impact our options.

This series will consist of four separate posts: 1) this post, on sunk cost and credit, 2) a discussion of the suburbia’s economic prospects and the challenges of commuting and economic production after peak oil, 3) the potential and limitations of producing food, water, and energy in suburbia, and 4) the impact of decentralization, self-sufficiency, and lessons from history as they inform our “solutions” to suburbia.

In this first post, I will develop the argument that sunk cost and the current credit crisis prevent the development of any meaningful alternative to suburbia. Specifically, suburbia presents a Catch-22 situation where the theoretical viability of an alternative effectively destroys our ability to either leave suburbia or build that alternative. This is a crucial foundation to this exploration of suburbia: because there is no alternative that is both theoretically viable and realistically implementable, we must instead focus on adapting suburbia to a post-peak oil future.

For most readers, the threat posed to suburbia by peak oil and generalized resource scarcity is clear. I won’t detail the exhaustive arguments in support of this proposition, but briefly: peak oil threatens our ability to commute from suburbia and transport supplies to suburbia; suburban civilization is dependent on cheap energy to heat, cool, light, and purify water supplies; suburban America represents too large a population for any viable, unified version of America to continue if it truly “fails” without a suitable alternative. We certainly can abandon suburbia, but we must recognize that doing so also abandons any hope of a peaceful and prosperous future.

Suburbia in light of its alternatives: I think that we can all agree that suburbia is imperfect, perhaps even fatally flawed. What I propose is that the task, going forward, is not to determine whether suburbia is “bad,” but rather to evaluate our options informed by a realistic appraisal of the alternatives to suburbia. It’s fine to say that suburbia is too dependent on long, oil-powered food supply lines. What is the alternative? Can it accommodate the massive population of suburbia, or is it just a partial or stop-gap solition? It’s fine to say that suburban residents will soon be unable to commute to work, and that will render suburban living untenable. What is the alternative? In the initial phases of a debate, it is valuable to refine criticism, to point out flaws. We must now move past that. Most of us understand the flaws of suburbia, but we are now at the point where it is only productive to point out a flaw if we do so to argue why a specific, realistic, and implementable solution is preferable.

What are the alternatives? For my own purposes, I’ve divided the spectrum of choices into re-urbanization, re-ruralization, and clustering, but I’m interested to hear how others would categorize our choices. I will discuss each of these in a later post, but first it is necessary to outline the key hurdles facing any effort to shift to an alternative: the sunk cost of suburbia and the paucity of credit to finance such a shift. Building an alternative to suburbia will be a massively expensive endeavor--is it something we can actually afford?

Sunk cost is the economic concept that some costs, if they cannot be recovered once they have been incurred, have significant effects on our decision making. What is the sunk cost of Suburbia? Individual homes, for individual buyers, may not entirely represent “sunk cost” if they sell immediately, though the decline in prices over the past months does represent sunk cost. If everyone in suburbia wanted to leave, however, then the entire suburban project--tens of trillions of dollars--would represent a sunk cost.

In layman’s terms, if you bought your house for $200,000 but can only sell it today for $50,000, then your sunk cost is $150,000. Even if you didn’t have a mortgage, that would represent a significant disincentive to selling. If your mortgage is $185,000, and you have no savings to make up the difference, you are in an even more inflexible situation. However, from a societal standpoint, the sunk cost in suburbia is even greater than the sum of its home values. There is a tremendous amount of energy invested in these homes and in the infrastructure to support them. While suburbia may be highly energy-inefficient, at some point in the not too distant future (possibly today) it will no longer be possible to replicate that kind of surplus energy investment to create a sustainable alternative.

As the example above illustrates, declining housing values make suburbia more inelastic. As prices go down, people are less able to move out of suburbia to an alternative. To the extent that rising energy prices make suburban house values decrease, they also act to make it more difficult for suburbanites to move to more energy-efficient locations.

Similarly, as credit markets remain tight, it is increasingly difficult to both afford a move to a more energy-efficient home. It is also increasingly difficult to finance the development of more energy-efficient projects (whether “new urbanism,” condos, light-rail systems, or energy-retrofits of existing suburban homes).

There is a feedback-loop between declining house values and tight credit markets. Declining home values and increasing foreclosure rates (one result of declining home values) undermine the viability of mortgage-backed securities (and send shockwaves into the credit default swap markets). This makes credit tighter, decreasing the pool of people able to buy homes, which leads to further home value declines, ad infinitum. This is the core of our current financial crisis.

The even more critical problem, however, arises when that feedback-loop process interacts with peak oil. In an environment of unlimited cheap energy and resources, the above cycle can eventually be “solved” through some combination of market forces and government intervention. However, if we accept that peak oil presents a challenge to suburbia, a Catch-22 situation arises. To the extent that suburbia retains its value over the long-term, we can afford to build an alternative to it that addresses the energy challenges facing suburbia. But if suburbia does maintain its value, where’s the motivation to do so? To the extent that energy challenges undermine the viability of suburbia, causing a desire to move to an alternative and a decline in the value of suburban homes, our ability to finance that alternative is destroyed.

That’s exactly the catch: to the extent that we need to end the suburban experiment, we aren’t financially able to do so. To the extent that early adopters “get out” soon and buy in to more sustainable alternatives, the vast majority who are left behind are increasingly stuck. For this reason, suburbia isn’t going anywhere—at least not in my lifetime. This is not to say that suburbia won’t undergo dramatic change. It will, but we're largely stuck with its basic fabric. The potential and great challenge of making something sustainable and life-affirming out of the fabric of suburbia will be the topic of the rest of this series.

Of course, events are largely unfolding as Jim Kunstler predicted they would, especially in the 2004 video End of Suburbia: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qHr8OzaloLM

My 2¢ worth, from 2006:

Net Oil Exports Revisited
Published Aug 21 2006 by GraphOilogy / Energy Bulletin
by Jeffrey J. Brown

A Proposed Triage Plan

I believe that vast expanses of American Suburbia are going to become virtually abandoned in the years ahead. Alan Drake has noted that a good deal of suburbia was so poorly constructed that a lot of it is biodegradable. Alan has outlined how we can go back to what we used to have: electric trolley cars connected to electric light rail lines.

CBS Sunday Morning, on 8/20/06, had a segment on "tiny houses." They profiled a home designer and builder who specialized in building very small functional homes of about 100 square feet. You can find more information on his website (see link below).

What this builder has realized, and what millions of Americans are just beginning to also realize, is that anything over 100 square feet or so per person is not a necessity; it is optional consumption, a want, instead of a need.

The US is not Switzerland, but Alan Drake has described how Swiss per capita oil consumption in the Second World War was about 0.25% of current US per capita oil consumption. They did it primarily by electrifying their transportation system.

I propose a sort of triage operation: "tiny" homes and multifamily housing along electric mass transit lines. In my opinion, it is the only way that we can preserve some semblance of a civilized society. The suburbs are, by and large, a lost cause.


My name is Jay Shafer and since 1997 I have been living in houses smaller than some people s closets. I call the first of my little hand built houses Tumbleweed. My decision to inhabit just 89 square feet arose from some concerns I had about the impact a larger house would have on the environment, and because I do not want to maintain a lot of unused or unusable space. My houses have met all of my domestic needs without demanding much in return. The simple, slower lifestyle my homes have afforded is a luxury for which I am continually grateful.

Today I saw a guy living out of his pick up truck. It has a cab roof and he parks it outside of the mini-storage unit he rents. So, for ca. $80 per month he can plug his truck into an exterior power outlet, keep his personal belongings sheltered next to him, stay warm and dry, and move on if he must.

Another version of teeny house, but on wheels.

Many of the tiny houses are on wheels ... and many can be parked in a standard parking space.

Really, the smallest of these actually can be parked in a standard parking place.

The smallest of the Tiny Houses obviously are not for everyone, but they are the right size for some people. And of course, that is an important part of a material/energy efficiency revolution ... rather than one-size-fits-all solutions, which always means material and energy use in excess to the needs of most users, solutions tailored to people's needs. For those who wish it, a very small living space can be extraordinarily frugal in terms of ongoing utility costs.

You had better look out. Some places like in Santa Cruz, California our county government lives off of the taxes of home owners. Living in a trailer is not allowed except in a registered mobile home park for which they tax several thousand dollars per year. For the house we are now negotiating to build, (1800 sq. ft, 167 m^3) we will be paying about $67,000 for government fees, permits, tests, and “mitigations”. If we reduced the house to 100 sq. ft, not allowed by county ordinances, our costs would only be reduced to about $45,000. Add to this a tax of $8000 per year on the new property value. My problem is socialism more than energy. My lifestyle, Honda Insight, solar electricity, carpool, etc cost very little. My government however is a economic hog.

"...we will be paying about $67,000 for government fees, permits, tests, and “mitigations”."

something tells me that this is not the entire story, are you building on a toxic dump site, in the middle of a fire prone forrest, in an earthquake or flood zone ?

In Mt. Shasta, Ca. it is $12,000-$15,000, which is not bad for a large house, but a deal breaker for a very small house. The town has some huge expenses in improving the sewer and storm drain systems.
In California, it is virtually impossible to raise property taxes, so new construction fees have to go up astronomically to pay for new infrastructure needs.

Why build when there are so many foreclosed houses on the market??

As I understand it, many of those foreclosed houses are not in very good nick.

Probably cheaper to build a new one, especially if you wanted to fit it with its own power generation, water source and sewage disposal, insulation and the like.

Tom, are you shooting for a LEED gold/platinum house (or the equivalent)? Super-insulated passive solar with PV, solar hot water, etc?

Definitely if you were going to buy that one, even if it went for a song, you'd need someplace to live while fixing it up ("fixing it up" possibly involving starting at the foundation). A Tiny House would do the trick there ... and in that situation, it seems highly unlikely that any local authority faced with that problem would object to someove parking a Tiny House in the yard while they were doing the fixer upper.

Your lifestyle requires roads, sewers, water, communications, hospitals, schools, public safety, to name a few. Have you priced those "socialized" services lately?

Yes, under the "taxpayer revolt" plan in California to starve governments at all levels of funds to provide public services, because failing to provide public services is for some reason supposed to be a good thing, there are obviously going to be governments trying to gain revenue any way they can, and under the housing bubble years, getting it out of new home construction is one recourse.

It may well be that entire states will have and cling to institutional impediments to establishing more resilient suburbs. If they do, they do so at their own economic peril.

Steinbeck wept!

Note that if an electric transport corridor runs through a suburb, that brings a large number of houses outside of walking range within electric bike range.

Indeed, if suburban house values continue to slump, as urban townhouse values in large numbers of cities slumped during the 1950's and 1960's, putting an electrified transport corridor through will be required to make the houses sale-able by making it possible to live in them without a car per person, which will open up houses to a substantially larger potential market.

The other thing that will happen, of course, just as with urban townhouses in the 50's and 60's, is a move toward multiple residence dwellings ... which may easily include a cluster of "tiny houses" in back lawn, complementing the garden plots in the front.

Note that if an electric transport corridor runs through a suburb, that brings a large number of houses outside of walking range within electric bike range.

Until it snows. Or are all 300+ million of us moving to coastal California? Or am I unaware of some newfangled way we'll all hibernate?

There will be plenty of cars around, there is no need to throw them away, in fact if rarely used they would last for ages.
When the weather is too bad you can drive in, perhaps carpooling, and ride a bike or electric bike at other times, and still save much of your use.

...and still save much of your use.

The practical issue is that while this is true, the truth of it is quite unhelpful. Most of the expense of having a car at all is paid out whether one drives it much or not. If one drives few enough miles that a bike can make a serious dent in the car usage, one is probably not driving the car enough to make it pay, i.e. it will rust out before it wears out. And yet getting rid of the car is not an option for most people. In most parts of the USA, there are either long icy winters, or else a goodly number of days when it's not very smart to be outside riding any kind of bike in the full, roasting glare of the blazing summer sun. This last issue is, of course, why there were no really large cities in the South until after air conditioning - which doesn't work on bikes - came into fairly wide use. (Go to any large Southern metropolis, and observe how risibly tiny the pre-World-War-II downtown actually is.)

...if rarely used they would last for ages.

Um...not exactly, or at least nowhere near universally. In any area that has winter, there will be some use of road salt. In any area close by the seacoast, there will be salt in the air. Combine either of these with a moist climate, and cars will not last for ages. There's that pesky thing called "rust". Cars can last for ages in desert climates that have no real winter, although there are still lots of plastic and rubber bits that deteriorate and cost money to maintain regardless of whether one drives much.

What the cost of owning a car is is so much dependent on the vagueries of the tax system, insurance etc that it is difficult to comment unless you live in that particular country or county.

No one solution would fit everyone, and alternatives vary.
I don't think it is realistic to look at the worst of every situation - sooner or later you have to start working out what compromises you can make, and making the best of things.
For instance, you comment that it gets too hot in the summer to ride a bike in some regions.
Well, most people go to work in the morning, and come home in the evening, when the sun is not at it's peak, and an electric bike would mean that you would not need to pedal and get sweaty.

If that is where you live, if a car ride can't be afforded, you just have to figure out something - perhaps car pooling.
Alternatively it might be necessary to take digs during the week close to your place of work.

Or you might have to somehow get the money for a full EV, and perhaps make people pay for lifts.

In any case, where it is essential present standards of comfort and convenience can certainly be compromised.

I have a 21 year old farm truck that I bought used 10 years ago. It stays outside under no cover 12 months a year in the Mid-Atlantic region of the US. While I only use it ~500 miles/yr, it runs like a top with little to no rust and I expect to be using it for another 5+ years. It especially comes in handy during snow storms, so it sees more than its share of salt.

Velomobiles are all weather biking vehicles, with optional electric-boost hubs.

See an interesting video of an outing.

Notice that the velomobiles are basically trikes with a shell. We have a tandem trike and find that riding in the snow is only a problem after it gets 3 or 4 inches deep. If roadways are plowed, as they are here in Wisconsin, then using a trike in the winter is pretty doable. Road ice is fairly manageble with a trike. However, IMHO, I think trikes and velomobiles are just too dangerous for most winter riding because of motor vehicles. I could easily survive (and I'm a senior citizen) with a trike for most daily transportation needs if motor vehicles were not such a problem for my safety. I believe that it will take a real catastrophe before bikes and trikes are excepted as legitmate vehicles on the roadways - I don't see any type of rational transition. And yet, the vast majority of people could easily bike 20 or 30 miles a day and find new joy in life.

Exactly - just plowing is not enough. Without proper de-icing - i.e., usually, road salt - which is getting to be a serious issue in some Wisconsin cities, it's unsafe, without the protection of a car, to be anywhere near cars that may cut loose and slide at any random moment. And the unsafe zone can readily include the sidewalk.

In Madison (the capital) city policy is not to plow unless there is a large snow, and not to de-ice except on major streets. No doubt this is more congenial to the slimy vermin infesting the lakes, but it does make it extremely hazardous even to walk. Not only are there the sliding cars, but one simply cannot get very far without needing to try to walk cross the slick sheet of glare ice that, in winter, passes for a street. Studded tires even on a normal bicycle do work under some conditions, but they don't solve the problem of the sliding cars.

, it's unsafe, without the protection of a car, to be anywhere near cars that may cut loose and slide at any random moment.

And also unsafe to be anywhere near cars that may cut loose and slide at any random moment if trapped within a car.

the vast majority of people could easily bike 20 or 30 miles a day and find new joy in life.

I have no doubt that such will be the case, and obesity, heart disease, hypertension, etc will lessen from the exercise.

Treehuger had an article: It's More Dangerous NOT to ride a bike. The nickel tour is that while you may be at greater risk of accidents on a bike, the health benefits of pedaling outweigh the accident risk by 4 to 1.

Why would snow prevent someone from riding an e-bike for, say, three miles? You are confusing short term reactions and long term adaptation. Since, objectively, snow is no impediment to riding a bike, that means that the general idea that it represents some massive obstacle is a projection based on experience of people who drive cars for transport and only use bikes for recreation, if at all.

My lithium battery doesn't like to get wet so yes precipitation will prevent me from e-biking three miles in the snow. Not that we have snow in Tucson. If I bicycle 300 days a year, so what I take the car in bad weather.

I find it hard to believe that a weatherproof battery container is a technological impossibility.

I was biking 14 miles to work last December, which was a bit much, but I don't see how 3 miles would be much of a challenge.

A waterproof container that can be openned and closed for charging and cheap. I'm out of bicycling mode because my battery blew up last week and I minimized the risks. If you want to go bicycling with wet brakes it isn't any of my business.

If you want to go bicycling with wet brakes it isn't any of my business.

That's even less of a worry for any half serious commuter bike than snow.

The only thing that worries me here in Northeast Ohio is freezing rain. For freezing rain, I'll catch the bus most of the way to work, and bike that last half mile, even though its slower than riding all the way.

I keep my lithium ion batteries dry so I can ride 365 days a year in Chicago regardless of the weather.

I stopped driving because I don't need to. I've built a bike that can go 45 mph, a bike that can go 200 miles on a charge and a bike that can pull 1000 lbs of cargo on a homebuilt trailer. There are plenty of ways for us to move forward and prosper in a low energy world.

"Why would snow prevent someone from riding an e-bike for, say, three miles?"

the snow is 1 foot deep ? but what would prevent someone from walking those 3 miles ?

At least in this part of Ohio, the sidewalk snowplow takes a lot longer to show up than the road snowplow, and three miles is further than the sidewalk snowplow goes in most directions. Once the deep snow hits, it really is much easier to get around by bike than walking, even for things that are within walking distance for most of the year.

If the snow is a mere one foot deep, what conceivable obstacle would that be for cycling? Its not like anyone in their right mind would use a "road" bike for commuting on the actual roads in Northeast Ohio. The snow slows you down a bit, but for short distances, its just a matter of allowing five extra minutes.

Westexas -

I think these tiny houses are a great idea but I've seen a fair amount of resistance to small houses and cabins from building departments even in relatively rural areas. Even a very rural town / county in my area of NY requires a minimum of 1400 sq ft for a house - a standard that I think is beyond ridiculous for this area. But you know we have to have everyone join in to prop up the "values" of the McMansion crowd - got to keep those prices up around $300,000...

I'm sure as economic and energy conditions become more tenuous in the future there may be more and more of a blind eye turned toward the building codes... but the ridiculous requirements are not making it easy for people who want to change ahead of the curve to actually do it.

For now our options are rent or go massively in debt for an overvalued energy pig of a house... So we rent.

That requirement is one reason it is common to put the Tiny Houses on trailers ... it is not uncommon to have an exception for mobile houses.

However, depending on the locality, some places that have a minimum size rule also have exceptions for things like sheds and detached garages where there are some Tiny Houses that slip under the bar.

In any event, if the constraint that stands between a suburb and economic viability is a zoning restriction, rather than a material constraint, that is an opportunity for some locality somewhere to experiment with changing the rule, and reap the benefit of being an early mover.

Mother Earth News had an article or two on Microhouses
back in 1995.

However, we already have a bunch of microhouses in disguise. The bedrooms (and some other rooms as well) of newer McMansions are larger than a microhouse, so they can be converted to apartments with shared communal areas.

Jeff has done all of us a favor bringing up the issue no one really wants to think about and his attempt to search for concrete options to deal with the "greatest misallocation of resources in the history of mankind" as James K says. Some thoughts: (1)Put a temporary moratorium on platts for new suburban development everywhere, especially outside towns and townships.(2) If a suburb has a retail or business core which has a definable possible future, concentrate density there by zoning change to a mixed use model and in effect try to make this core into a type of "town." The obvious purpose is to encourage living here and discourage living outside the core town.
(3)Force the developers to pay for the infrastructure of their out of town developments...... and have just the inhabitants pay all of the infrastructure costs...in perpetuity. Roads, schools, police and fire..you name it. No help from the state,the county or the nearby town. (4) imagine a scenario where the state or local government or county or fed buy the properties beyond a certain radius and lease or sell the property and drop or eliminate taxes if it becomes productive agricultural land(5) If there are roads needing maintenance, maintain the inner town core. Let the rest revert to gravel.(6) Develop a business model perhaps similar to Habitat for Humanity where the discarded suburban dwellings can be recycled and moved to a central location where the components can be used for the mixed use residential areas in the town core. I could imagine a scenario where the former owners might retain some form of title with the town to perhaps lease the property as garden space, in some small way cushioning their loss. (7) Change building codes to force new construction to be easily recyclable. For example stud walls would be assembled with metal connectors which could be unscrewed or unbolted instead of nailed with coated nails which are almost impossible to remove. I am a builder who has built this way for 25 years. Ditto the interior walls etc. This would allow recovery of undamaged components and make cleanup so much easier. Use only building materials that have recycling potential. Pipes both drain and feed could be assembled with connectors instead of permanent solder and ABS glue. Use metal roofs and not shingles and certainly asphalt shingles should be banned for a myriad of reasons. At some point in the not too distant future the permanent costs of low density sprawl will be fabulously unaffordable for the inhabitants and the community. Somebody needs to say it. Anyone now living in such areas should get out ASAP if they can. Imagine Detroit on a national scale.

Part of the problem is that the line between city and suburb is somewhat blurred. There are the older inner suburbs that are just as urban as the cities that they adjoin. There are middle suburbs that are just bedroom communities, and then there are the exurban far out clusters of McMansions stuck out the middle of a cornfield.

I suspect we are already seeing some of the devaluation of the exurbs - where we are that's where we have most of the foreclosure activity, and some homes may foreclose more than once before the value gets low enough. But ultimately the homes need to be maintained.

On the housing bubble blogs that I read, I hear stories of homes that have been foreclosed and abandoned. Some have been stripped of copper plumbing and appliances, which them virtually unsalable. In some cases, the foreclosed owners intentionally damage the homes before they leave.

I think you'll see a clustering of value around transit, in areas that are either sufficiently dense or sufficiently sparse to become increasingly self-sufficient. You'll see a clustering of value around suburban job centers in viable sectors of the economy (think about how viable inexpensive housing developments that exist right outside every military base will be). I think the stories of the true abandonment and stripping are real in a very few places--parts of Cleveland, for example. But, based on my very non scientific survey of the suburban environments I've visited recently, I don't see anything of the sort. My impression is that in 95%+ of suburbia, values have declined, but there is no trend toward abandonment. I do think that eventually we run into maintenance issues, and that this may lead to spotty abandonment so that families can cluster two or three to a single large home, but mostly I think people will stay where they are. The ability to move elsewhere is compromised by the very non-viability of suburbia, so they're stuck. Just as the "early adopters" to new urbanism or sustainable communities can get out before they get stuck, I think we're seeing a simlar trend with those to "early adopt" foreclosure and abandonemnt--the banks are still interested in taking these properties, but at some point that may change (either through legislation or business reality).

Jeffvail: I read yesterday that paulson and his tribe have some stipulations if you take a mortgage bailout from his banking and mortgage thugs: You get your mortgage converted to a recourse loan. Now the loan is secured by the person, not the dwelling. You will owe that debt in perpetuity even if you default.No one but no one should ever agree to such terms. If they offer you a recourse loan.....Jingle mail and.....WALK!

Look to the street pattern. Grids are older, denser, more walkable and bikable. Winding streets and cul-de-sacs are newer, and less friendly to bikes and feet. The old grid neighborhoods, even if they are not in the core city will do just fine.

A key point is that survivability of Suburbia depends heavily on the age of development.

I live in a suburb developed in the 1840s and it is superbly adapted to a post-Peak Oil world (having been developed pre-Oil).

Largely true of pre-WW II Suburbia as well (Well built homes as well).

1950s were still largely on grids and build quality was only starting to deteriorate. Close in as well. Yards were not scrapped of topsoil back then.

But, step by step, 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and now newly built Exurban McMansions.

I think that any analysis of Suburbia should do so by era.

A SWAG is that the break will be in 1960s/1970s era for survivability (with some 1980s).


I live in a suburb developed in the 1840s and it is superbly adapted to a post-Peak Oil world (having been developed pre-Oil).

Doesn't make it hurricane proof, proof against global warming rising sea waters or proof VS the fact that everything around you is living in a stew of oil.

You need not worry about the exurbs. With the massive NEVER ENDING flood of immigrants from the Third World eventually even Yosemite National Park will be at a nice braggable urban density. So just be patient and let population growth work its magic.

We can't afford to let the suburbs die any more than we could afford to let the core cities rot in the 1970s. But we did and we will. *shrug*

I think the key difference here is that in the '70s we had the surplus energy to build an alternative (suburbia), and we also had the economic viability to build this alternative. What do we build as the alternative to suburbia (and which what money and what energy)? People have to live somewhere, so they can't abandon suburbia until they have an alternative.

The difference is in the '70s a lot of the suburbia we now have didn't yet exist. We had a surplus of energy and resources and land so we built based on that.

The equal, opposite reaction to that is re-using the inrastructure of the urban cores. Yes, there will need to be extra development and investment in housing and transit but we're not starting with a totally blank slate. That core cities were established at a time before super cheap oil means the foundation for post-peak is already there.

It's a fixer-upper. ;)

The other difference is that when people fled the cities for the suburbs, it was largely people with money. They were able to go to the suburbs and buy or build. If everybody wants out of the suburbs because they become obviously unsustainable, then there will be no buyers. If there are no buyers, there is no value in suburban housing. The people left in the suburbs(which, thanks to the total lack of political will and media coverage will be most of them) will have nothing with which to buy or rebuild in urban areas. If suburban housing crashes (I mean truly crashes, as in nobody wants to live there) 150+ million Americans will see the vast chunks of their net worth evaporate. These people will have no way to buy any kind of housing. If they are somehow lucky enough that a crashing economy and fuel shortages haven't taken their job, they might be in a position to rent, assuming urban or other sustainable rental opportunities exist. If they've lost their jobs, no renting. No rent, no housing.

That brings up another issue. In many of our cities, the areas that emptied in the 70's have been revitalized with new development. Those areas aren't available for building new, cheap, energy-efficient housing infrastructure. In many areas, probably most, the cities will simply not have room to accommodate the millions of suburban refugees.

The country will not survive a hundred million or so homeless, angry people. The only possible way to avoid this would be to apply a lot of money and effort. That effort would not just go to making cities functional. Due to the numbers involved, it would also have to go to figuring out ways to modify the existing suburban infrastructure to improve its sustainability. Maybe this involves government moving some number of suburban citizens to new housing, claiming their land, and converting that land back to things that make the area more sustainable (agriculture, electric transportation corridors, centralized walkable mixed use areas, I don't know). Of course, any such solution assumes that the government has the resources to undertake, or at least backstop, such projects.

If society at large suddenly realizes that suburbia is untenable, suburban home values will almost certainly collapse. Such a collapse would trigger a similar collapse in the financial system, assuming the financial system had somehow managed to ignore the impending problems up to that point. In any event, with housing and financial net worth gone, and unemployment likely rampant, the economy would be in shambles. It's hard to see how the government, sitting under trillions in debt and obligations that it could not pay, would be able to talk the Chinese into buying enough t-bills to fund the required massive new expenditures.

In short, it's hard to see how, once suburbia collapses (or collapse is even recognized as likely), anything could be done about it. The only solution is to figure out some kind of reasonable (but clearly not pain-free) transition plan and to get moving on it well before the full weight of peak oil lands on the existing system. Of course, it's hard to convince people of the need until the need is obvious, which is too late. Catch-22.

Don't you think that if suburbia 'crashes' , as it must, that then there will be no real government since the tax base will have disappeared?

Once taxes start to decline rapidly the political vermin will realize this and depart since the real incentive will no longer exist.
The feeding trough will be gone.


It's hard to see how the government, sitting under trillions in debt and obligations that it could not pay, would be able to talk the Chinese into buying enough t-bills to fund the required massive new expenditures.

The argument is basically "proving" that the US government, say, did not have the capability to first engage in the New Deal and then fight WWII.

This part of the scenario is only relevant with respect to imported goods ... capital inflows are not needed for government to make domestic purchases. So the big question is whether the government expenditures would be net consumers of imported resources. If they would, on balance, result in reduced resource import demand, then instead of being impossible to finance with capital inflows from abroad, they would reduce the need for current capital inflows.

bmerson: jeff did such a good job posing the problem and so many comments were elicited, many very very good. Yours is certainly one of the best, even as bleak as your conclusion was. Jeff seems to say: We can't just leave the suburbs until we have an alternative....yes we can Jeff, if we have to. It's called being a refugee.

However, on the other side, in many of the recent suburbs, the houses are so big and will be so expensive for utilities that it could accelerate the trend to multiple occupancy. This would leave the best suited for transport, accessibility to employment and/or staples with higher occupancy rates than at present, and then a decaying fringe around.

They are MANY, MANY inexpensive (and healthy) ways to make suburbs less energy intensive

Here are some brief suggestions:

1) Double up occupancy (or more)of suburban homes

Many suburban homes are mostly empty (at least compared to previous generations). There are many advantages to this. Starting with reducing the per capita energy expenditure and increasing the amount of potential income earners (and the effectiveness of meals). Many families live separately and in the past this was not so. A good argument could be made that families living apart has not been an entirely good thing.

2) Telecommute from suburbia (at least 2-3 days per week)

Most suburban homes in the US and elsewhere have high speed internet connections and more than one computer (many portable). Many office jobs can be accomplished (with reasonable adjustments for the new technology) from home or in a disbursed manner.

3) Increase rail access to the suburbs

Many suburbs are serviced by at least some form of rail (often freight). Revitalizing rail service and electrifying it, to the suburbs for commuting and food distribution purposes is not an impossibility even within a very restricted energy budget. It would also have huge implications for energy efficiency in the economy.

4) Redeploy military resources and spending (and energy) to improve infrastructure (especially rail)

The US in particular spends obscene amounts of money on "defense" spending (as much as the rest of the world put together). Most of it is directed towards large high technology projects such as the latest air superiority fighter, e.g. F-22 (no use against terrorists) and (for example) the Virginia class nuclear attack submarine (two generations past the LA class that won the cold war). Any rationale for the spending of this level of money is dubious at best in a world made poor by the lack of access to oil.

5) Reduce luxury spending (and excess calories) for consumers in general

All rich countries waste VAST quantities of money and energy on pursuits of dubious use and many of them are even harmful. Americans in particular could reduce their expenditures on refined sugar and starches by at least 20% of the calories that they consume and actually be healthier. Other possibilities for saving without harm: christmas presents, christmas lights, going out to movies (can get them at home), going out to dinner , less material goods in general (e.g. excess clothing). The time and money liberated can be put to better use!!

6) Convert a substantial portion of the food consumption budget with vegetables (especially locally grown, especially from your own garden)

The consumption of vast quantities of meat (especially beef and milk) is not only unhealthy, it is also extremely energy inefficient. The US in particular could greatly increase the number of people that are fed by its farms (even with less energy input), if the 10-14X ratio of protein consumed by cows to produce one unit of meat protein were replaced by the direct consumption of the products of farms (e.g. soybean), total food production could be reduced without reducing the number of people fed. Even the less energy intensive methods of 50 years ago could produce a lot of food for a lot of people if people did not eat so much and did not eat as much beef (and milk and cheese).

7) Reduce or eliminate air travel for business and pleasure

Much business can be accomplished by phone or internet (even with cameras on cell phones) and people can adapt if they have to. Air travel can often be replaced by train travel or bus (with access to the Internet) where necessary. Much vacation planning can be altered to reduce energy expenditure. Did our parents and grandparents have a horrible life when they only took vacations by car (and nearby)???

8) Home schooling (and internet schooling) - fewer school buses (driving to school)

Many children are already receiving excellent educations by being home-schooled by their parents. Statistics show that these children are often superior by all scholastic measurements. Many suburban homes are large enough to serve as "one room schoolhouses" for local children. With reduced employment (far fewer jobs with less energy out there), more adults will be working at home and have time available to teach at home. Home/internet Universities are also available already. These can all be expanded and reduce energy.

9) Home improvements to increase energy availability and reduce energy expenditures

Many homes waste a lot of energy trying to keep their homes too cold in Summer and too hot in Winter. Most of us can afford to sleep in the winter with a house temperature below 15 deg. C. People have done this for centuries with no ill effect. An argument could be made that this will reduce refrigeration costs as well. Most Indian homes do not have air conditioning and people learn to sleep at 80-90 degrees inside. My home is normally kept at 70-72 degrees in the summer at night. I could definitely learn to live with a temperature 10 degree warmer (I did as a child when I did not have air conditioning). Home insulation is also an option for winter heating. This can be done very inexpensively.

Passive solar water heating is a low cost and relatively inexpensive alternative. Wind turbines or photovoltaic arrays are a possibility for some (some of that redirected military spending could be spent on upgrading people's homes).

10) Community gardening and home gardening

Almost all suburban homes are within easy walk of athletic fields or "children's parks". There are also tremendous amounts of "natural" fertilizer available in suburbia. Urine is one resource that is available in large supply, but also all the bushes, tree leaves and waste food (peels, seeds, spoiled food, etc.) can be used for composting. Some or all of these parks can be converted to garden plots if there is sufficient incentive. When people are hungry it changes their priorities. Do they really need all the wasted land for climbing gyms when people will be going hungry? Almost everyone in suburbia has excess trees and land that can be converted to garden plots and combustible material for fire wood. Many suburban homes even have "ornamental" fireplaces. They may become more important than decoration in the future (heating and cooking).

These are only SOME of the suggestions that could be realized if there was sufficient incentive. I would argue strongly that communities (and families) will strengthen in the future in response to the threats from the lack of cheap energy and the desperate people that will take matters into their own hands. The cumulative impact of even this list, if applied to a large fraction of suburbia would be IMMENSE. Don't underestimate the determination and effectiveness of parents to feed their children if there are few alternatives. Despair is not the ONLY likely response to energy collapse.

Many of the changes that will come will be BENEFICIAL (including many of the list above). I prefer to see opportunity in the face of challenge.

May God Bless all of these efforts,


In adddition to these good suggestions, a shift from ownership to renting (which looks inevitable) will help the average resident move from a 25 mile commute to a five mile commute.
A serious enforcement of immigration laws would create a lot of vacancies in the inner suburbs that look most viable, as well as reducing to some extent this country's population overshoot.

I think there really is something to that. High rates of home ownership lock people into geographies. Renters are more mobile; better able to move across town, state or nation toward opportunity.

In this case toward a shorter daily commute.

The downside is that it is very hard for renters to do efficiency upgrades - landlords won't do it because they aren't paying the energy bills and renters won't do it (even with the landlord's permission) because they may not be there long enough to reap the benefit and they don't get the equity, either. So, renting can be good for transportation energy but not so good for household energy.

I think that single renters are clearly more mobile. I'm not so sure about families. With families you have education (special education) issues, important places of worship and congregation, and wider social networks (being based on multiple people). And, of course, more stuff. Also, given the economic outlook, you will be seeing more, not fewer, two-income households. It is decidedly more difficult to move closer to 2 jobs. There is also a potentially negative impact on community (and the related local programs and efforts) if people either fail to become involved because they do not share a sense of local belonging or are always leaving through high turnover.

In order for increased renting to be helpful, it needs to be a more stable situation. To me that implies that it needs to be designed in conjunction with public transportation infrastructure. Rentals need to be located in hub areas that allow access to multiple economic centers via public transit. In this way families can rent, establish a feeling of community, enjoy some level of stability, and still have economic possibilities. Just don't ask me how we pay for it. :-)

sf, you write that "a serious enforcement of immigration laws would create a lot of vacancies" for inner suburbs. One way to cut down on illegal immigration is for the United States to stop jacking the resources of other countries by financing the election of stooges favorable to Western corporations. A prime example is Mexican President Felipe Calderon and his attempt to "reform" the Mexican oil industry. Actually, there was a demonstration in Mexico recently in which poor Mexicans were demanding the right to "stay home" rather than go to the U.S. for employment. What they meant was that the removal of American government and corporate influence from their country would prevent their local livelihoods from being destroyed, thus enalbing them to stay where they were.

This is very similar to the sentiments of many residents of coastal African nations whose fishing livelihoods are being destroyed by advanced European factory fishing vessels which decimate African fisheries, while the Europeans enact draconian laws to punish any starving Africans who might want to "illegally" immigrate to the EU.

That's pretty speculative about Calderon. Mexico has to pay for it's oil development either in cash, as Saudi Aramco does, or by trading some equity. The government doesn't want to give up using Pemex as a cash cow. Pemex showed an after tax loss last year.

Renters don't improve their homes in the same way owners do, especially in the realm of energy efficiency. There will be a trade off as this shift occurs (which looks to be already happening).

That's because of something called the split-incentive. The renter has the incentive to reduce their utility bill, which often takes a capital expenditure they are unwilling to pay because they get the benefits only for a short time, but the owner has the incentive to spend as little capital as possible to maximize returns.

Result: nothing gets done and the renter pays more for energy than they might otherwise have to.

Renters don't improve their homes in the same way owners do, especially in the realm of energy efficiency. [...]

That's because of something called the split-incentive.

I've rented all my life, only recently have we bought a place, but not yet moved into it.

In the last decade I've made some sort of offer to improve the place to each landlord, asking them to forgo rent in return, equivalent to half the cost of putting in the improvement, or even just to pledge not to increase rent while we were still tenants. In each case, I showed that the investment they made would be more than paid back in the extra rent they could charge, and paid back many times in increased value of the property in resale.

I've offered to install
- 2kW of solar panels (here in Melbourne that would supply 3,100kWh annually, or 8.5kWh daily on average, which is the entire electricity use of a well-run unit with gas cooking and water heating)
- a 5,000lt water tank, and a 2,000lt greywater system putting laundry and shower water into the toilet and garden.
- outside metal blinds to shut the sun out and improve security
- insulation which would have removed the need for any heating or cooling at all

In each case they refused.

Very short-term thinking.

Now we'll own our own place and can do that sort of thing, no longer restricted by the stupidity of others.

We own two rental properties. Making a rental property worth the investment is simply a math problem for the landlord: Rent - (vacancy) - taxes - (any utilities) - repairs. It's very possible that the landlord doesn't have sufficient margin in that equation to allow him/her to support your proposal. Your assumption here is that landlords always have significant amounts of discretionary income -- that they are rich. They may well be "house poor". So I wouldn't assume that the landlord is stupid, or even uncaring. In fact, if the landlord is sold on the ideas and has the capital, it will generally be better for the landlord themselves to do the work. Certainly, that's true with the way the U.S. tax code works. So one possibility in negotiating with your landlord, for example, might be to ask for this in exchange for a longer lease, with stiffer penalties for vacating. The reason for this is that vacancy and turnover potentially costs the landlord quite a bit in lost rent as well as fees associated with getting a new tenant and unquantifiable but very real risk costs associated with possibly ending up with the tenant from hell.

I've been a landlord for 25+ years. And, like all landlords, have had tenants from hell. Anyway...

Let's suppose I replace the old inefficient propane furnace with a nice new high efficiency one. In our case, there is also a wood heater that most tenants use rather than relying on the propane furnace. Let's further assume a new furnace costs $12k to install including the furnace, installation plus interest and that I plan to recoup costs over 10 years. I don't know what the IRS uses for depreciation so I'm going to exclude this.

My direct cost is $100 a month or $1.2K per year. Now I'm not getting anything out of this financially but I'm going to crank the rent up $100 a month which is will more than offset any possible fuel savings to the tenants.

I realize this is a simplistic financial analysis but it's close enough.


The rental sector is always a problem in this respect, but in most of Europe the issue is mitigated by a combination of grants for improving insulation and legal responsibilities on the landlord.
The cost of those responsibilities will obviously be passed on to the renter as far as possible, but the main objective of decreasing energy loss is attained.

There are a couple of difficulties to the rental sector at least in the UK, as the model was based on rising house prices, with the rent just covering expenses, and not always fully then.
Real rental rates in a free market are difficult to work out in the UK anyway, as many or most renters have their rent covered by the Government, thus increasing rents on what they would otherwise be.
I expect a return of 'social housing' here.

In the US a large problem for properly insulating the housing stock would appear to be the pattern of remaining in a house for a relatively short time.

It is pretty much an iron law that improvements do not pay for themselves when you come to move.
Legislation requiring certain standards to be met to sell a house may be the answer here, although that would reduce mobility to some extent.


Good example. I was thinking of blown-in insulation. Walls and attic for my house cost $4000 (USD). With rental fees running $1600/month, it doesn't take many vacant months to pay for it. Alternatively, raising rent by $40/month or $480/year would be less than the savings in the tenants' gas bill if their experience was like my own. (We insulated a 1963 bi-level and cut our heating bill by 60%. Also got rid of our chronic carpenter ant problem as a bonus.).


A serious enforcement of immigration laws would create a lot of vacancies in the inner suburbs that look most viable, as well as reducing to some extent this country's population overshoot.

We have a million legal immigrants a year. Stopping illegal immigration won't free up anything as that massive LEGAL never ending cherished and romanticized flood of people will eat up everything in its path. It will even eat up every inch of unused land in suburbia that people like to rail about while putting their heads in the sand regarding the continuous population growth that the US engages in. Like I have said before - the hated suburbia is disappearing under the onslaught of the millions upon millions fleeing their overcrowded homelands in Asia and Latin America.

So cheer up all you suburbia haters and fretters - we have a wonderful solution that must dovetail beautifully with declining fossil fuels as the peak oil pundits all implicitly endorse it - use the billions of the Third World to populate suburbia to city density. Problem solved!!!!!!!! Now everyone relax and turn the same blind eye to the "suburban problem" that you do to population growth.

Lack of basic arithmetic skills is such a tragedy.

(1m/300m)x100% = 0.33%

(1.0033333)^100 = 1.4 = 140%

A quota of 1m per year represents, over 100 years, a 40% increase in the original total.

So much for the "scary foreign hordes being allowed to invade the country". If you are worried about undocumented migrants, restore the ability to catch and convict employers employing undocumented migrants, which was gutted under Reagan. If the jobs are not available, they will not come.

Many of these are good suggestions. But I would personally resist those that reduce opportunities for social contact. Going to the movies, going to school, even going to work are important chances to be with people. Social contact spreads good ideas, creates opportunities for trade (my peppers for your tomatoes?) and improves mental health.

Isolation needn't be a consequence of oil depletion.

There's another way to double occupancy of suburban homes, take in roommates or move in with your family. Intergenerational housing is looked down upon by Americans (note the cliche of the Star Trek fan living in his mom's basement), but it's common in other cultures. In this economy, I have a feeling adults living with their parents won't face quite the social stigma that they used to.

Excellent on subject post. Thanks

good suggestions Iwylie: The only fly in the ointment IMO for suburbia is the transportation issue. As the suburban transportation issue fails with deteriorating roads and infrastructure, high cost or rationed fuel, all those improvements to suburban shitboxes are moot.

Isn't the point that the suburbs are unsustainable? You have to let them die.
The problem is that suburbia is such an important part of the American dream. Americans must be de-programmed so they can seek alternatives instead of continue investing in a cul-de-sac.

Why is suburbia a problem?
There is no need to commute. Some 90% of people in my workplace can do all their work from home over internet, including meetings. Some 50% of businesses might be like that.

Rather it is more important to have enough land space for food. Some 1/20 acre can grow enough potatoes for a year's supply for family of five. Essential is, that your property receives enough sunlight to supply your food (and energy needs, if Obama bans coal).

It is the city that is not sustainable, because nothing can be planted on concrete and everything has to be trucked in from the country.

I think it's overly optimistic to think that 90% of people can telecommute (not that you were suggesting this was a universal figure), but I do agree with you that there is huge potential here to reduce the amount of daily commuting. And I agree that the distribution of land in suburbia is very, very valuable--I'll detail the potential there in post #3. However, we need to be very wary of simply extrapolating the theoretical amount of calories from potatoes that can be grown in X area... supplying a steady, resilient, dependable, and nutritious set of calories to a family is far more challenging than just digging up your back lawn and planting potatoes. I think it can certainly be done--and I think it is realistic for suburbia to be roughly 50% food self-sufficient--but I think we need to approach that issue understanding that it is far from simple.

I chose potatos because it is possible to thrive comfortably on diet consisting 90% of potatoes. Some high-nutrient supplement to ammend your menu would be milk, eggs, sauercraut and possibly chicken meat.

This is proven nutrition time tested through centuries. So in tough times of scarcity, I am concerned for people in cities, not for those in the suburbs.

I agree with you in general, I'm just cautioning on the danger (as well demonstrated in the historical record) of over-reliance on one crop for the majority of calories. Not that this is a particularly difficult problem to solve...

Potatoes and simple math.

Human being needs ca. 2400 calories per day.

Potatoes have ca. 300 calories per pound.

90% of 2400 is 2160.

Pounds of potatoes to supply 90% of calories is 2160/300 = 7.2.

Try eating 7.2 lbs of potatoes per day. (Actually, first start by eating 1 lb per day for a week. 7.2 lbs could be lethal if you push it. Stomach needs serious acclimation time).

Also, you will get too many of some nutrients and not enough of many others.

Solanin poisoning would be a risk.

Anyway, what about beer in the diet?? Petrus missed that essential nutrition.

A Russian general attends some American Army exercises as part of detente. He boasts to the Americans that his soldiers thrive on 2000 calories a day. The Americans reply that their soldiers consume 3000 a day. "Nonsense", the general replies. "No One can eat that many potatoes!"

In Communist Russia, joke tells you! | MetaFilter

The Irish peasantry famously lived on little else pre-famine, owing to high population and very small plots.

Potatoes have ca. 300 calories per pound.

90% of 2400 is 2160.

Pounds of potatoes to supply 90% of calories is 2160/300 = 7.2

Actually, potatoes have 363 Cals/lb. (0.8 Cals/g)
Cooked with oil (fried, baked) they contain far more cals, at least 30% more (if baked with light drizzle of oil).
So 30% more would be 472 Cals/lb (a much more realistic estimate of kilocalories supplied by cooked potatoes).
So 2160/472 = 4.6lb potatoes.
I routinely eat meals of 3lb roast potatoes without any adverse health effects, and I could easily scale that up to 4.6lbs if I absolutely had to.

Nice! Thanks for correcting my underestimate.

Regarding the amount of calories a person needs per day (post below), see the USDA and the United Nations statistical branches regarding nutrition.

All very useful calculations, but I'd just point out that when there's a 30% increase in calories due to frying in oil, that's because you're adding a new food item. Oil is incredibly calorie dense, but it takes quite a bit of land to grow. Of course, this makes it a great candidate for centrally produced and shipped-in food, but we need to be careful not to confuse this 30% increase in calories with self-sufficiency...

2400 calories/day? That seems pretty steep. Is the average weight of humans really 200 pounds? Because that's the right number of calories for a 200 lb person to maintain their weight.

I chose potatos because it is possible to thrive comfortably on diet consisting 90% of potatoes.

Potatoes are one of the most disease sensitive and pest sensitive crops as are bananas, cocoa and several other important food crops. I grow a lot for the family and for selling but one must be aware that the potato can and will fail some time in future to provide as it did for Ireland in the 1800's. The more widely grown a crop, the greater the danger of failure.

Yes, one would want to have hills of the three sisters between potato beds.

But in an urban context, inner urban through to suburban, we are quite a ways away from a shortfall of staples ... so far away that we feed staples to meat animals for meat. Even if corn and wheat and rye and oats and rice become quite a bit more expensive and harder to come by, there would still be enough staples.

So growing the fruits and vegetables to add diversity and nutrition to a boring staple diet does have quite a bit going for it.

If things get so bad that we abandon suburbia than I suggest that those

90% of people in my workplace can do all their work from home over Internet...

will not being doing their work anymore. If it comes down to essential living I would argue that that almost all work done on computers is superfluous, and does not contribute to basic needs. This is a lot of what JHK rails against, so much of our economy is invested in delivering services, analysis, and information that is really nonessential. What we sorely lack is ability to feed, clothe, and keep ourselves warm - without cheap imports could you or your typical suburban area produce these in sufficient quantity?

Like the hyper-networked investment and banking system I fear this is the ugly weakness of our current system of commerce and living here in the USA. I pray that the "network" doesn't get challenged like our financial system because you can't bail out a nation if it collapses and people need food, water, and energy. The fed can't print those or with a few keystrokes change the balance sheet. Lastly, if we do enter a Kunstler/LATOC future, the best way to think of wealth, prosperity and employment would the the common linkage to physical, tangible goods. Stuff that has weight and intrinsic use value. You can't make any of that stuff by working remotely.

Honestly, I truly pray that we never see such times here. However my continuing analysis of data and trends sure point toward this being part of our "probable" future.

This is a lot of what JHK rails against, so much of our economy is invested in delivering services, analysis, and information that is really nonessential.

I think those sorts of jobs will always exist in one form or another. Even in medieval subsistence economies there were nobles, and the nobles had flunkies and lackeys who were altogether utterly unproductive. Her Majesty employs a guy in Buckingham Palace to go around and make sure all the different clocks are wound up and keep proper time - his position existed before anyone cranked up an internal combustion engine or ate from a plastic salad shooter, and his position will exist after those things, too.

What we sorely lack is ability to feed, clothe, and keep ourselves warm - without cheap imports could you or your typical suburban area produce these in sufficient quantity?

This is very true. However, since fossil fuel production is not going to simply stop overnight, as it declines we'll have the chance to build up the skills and productive ability. Corporations may blindly wander off cliffs, but entire populations generally don't. As an unproductive member of the upper class of Western society, Kunstler imagines that the masses are stupid. But he is wrong.

I think those sorts of jobs will always exist in one form or another. Even in medieval subsistence economies there were nobles, and the nobles had flunkies and lackeys who were altogether utterly unproductive. Her Majesty employs a guy in Buckingham Palace to go around and make sure all the different clocks are wound up and keep proper time - his position existed before anyone cranked up an internal combustion engine or ate from a plastic salad shooter, and his position will exist after those things, too.

True, but it's a matter of scale. The nobility may have employed large numbers of servants and household staff but this was only ever a small fraction of the total working population. According to Veblen in 'The Theory of the Leisure Class' the 'flunkies and lackeys' provided the nobility with a means of vicarious consumption, enabling them to flaunt their wealth and status. They were able to do this by virtue of the surplus food/energy which they appropriated from their subjects and/or slaves. An energy surplus from the lower classes was needed to subsidise these unproductive jobs.

In recent times the number of unproducitve jobs has proliferated (BTW I do one of them) due to the enormous energy subsidy available from fossil fuels. Fossil fuels (and to a lesser extent nuclear power etc.) provide metaphorical 'energy slaves', the modern equivalent to the slaves and serfs whose productive capacity supported the nobility and their households of old. If (when) net energy available to society declines there simply won't be enough surplus to support the number of 'service' jobs we have today. We can't all be official clock-winders to Her Majesty.

Corporations may blindly wander off cliffs, but entire populations generally don't. As an unproductive member of the upper class of Western society, Kunstler imagines that the masses are stupid. But he is wrong.

It's not necessarily a case of 'stupidity'. The real question is whether there will be enough time and resources to develop effective infrastructure, skills-base, political and economic structures for a post-peak civilisation. Populations may make poor choices but catastrophe may simply be forced upon them when they run out of options. There is more than one way to fall off a cliff.

Never heard of "vertical farming" where apartment and high-rise buildings can have floors set aside for food growth?

Indoors, year round, with proper climate control and temperature control, where the weather is not a factor in crop failure, where yields are no longer dependent on soil composition up to the vagueries of location, where a harvester consists of ceiling tracks suspended from the floor above and an electric crane replaces the diesel or gasoline operated machine.

Doesn't ring a bell?

No, you don't plant on concrete; but on that concrete you can do the same thing that mushroom farmer* have been doing for years.

*And hydroponic gardeners, and greenhouse owners...

Is this approach realistic or sustainable with a collapsing economy? What kind of infrastructural costs are associated with the set up and maintenance ?

Do you need a constant and reliable supply of electricity for grow lights, water pumping and the "electric cranes" etc.? Who will pay the bills?

How do the costs compare to using empty lots (if their is little open land, created by the recycling of empty buildings and their property)?

I just don't think this will be at all practical in the vast majority of locales.

If we have unlimited cheap energy, material, and financial resoruces, and are only constrained by food, then vertical farming has potential. Since we don't I think vertical farming is the poster-boy for the "Roddenburry" (Star Trek creator) view of the world. If you find a vertical farming stock to invest in, let me know so I can short it.

In a much more decentralized mode, container gardening, greenhouse gardening, etc. can work on top of pavement. But unobstructed solar access is still required (admittedly, not for mushrooms, but you need photosynthesis to produce the feedstock for the mycelia, and that DOES). Greenhouses and polytunnels, etc. will likely be an important part of the solution for suburban self-sufficiency, but it won't facilitate areas with urban density achieving any meaningful degree of food production.

I think the energy mavens here need to translate their understanding of the concept of energy density, as in oil is very energy dense and hydrogen is not, into food.

Vegetables have an energy density of about 100 calories per pound. Although humans may consume a high proportion by weight of vegetables in their diet, let's say 50% for a vegetarian, this will only constitute a small percentage of their caloric needs.

For example. Somebody who eats 5 lbs of food per day may eat 2.5 lbs of vegetables for a gain of 250 calories. This will be about 10% of the total calories they need per day.

Where does the rest come from? Grains (1600 calories/pound) and beans (1700 calories/pound). And if you aren't a vegetarian then fats, meats, and dairy, etc. which all are more calorie dense than veggies.

Why aren't these "calorie crops" useful in a vertical farming scheme? Because they require a lot of area to grow. Whereas I might expect to yield a pound of veggies per square foot of space, I would only expect to yield an ounce per square foot of wheat.

I know stuff all about farming but I am surprised that beans and pulses have a low density.
Not that I give any credence to vertical farming.
Hydroponics in containers, maybe.

You may have misunderstood. Beans are high density when the seeds are eaten, i.e., not green beans.

i would like to rent some land and grow hutterite soup beans, just so that i will be out of everyones way. I just got a google phone.

Pole beans are an excellent highly productive vertical crop. Green beans have fewer digestable calories then dried beans but to maximize harvested calories from limited growing space one would want to grow pole beans and harvest them daily for green beans for several months and then let a final crop go to maturity and be harvested and shelled for dried beans.

The trouble is most Americans would rather buy a bag of frozen beans that are trimmed and ready to cook then spend the time to harvest beans even if they had the knowledge and resources to grow them.

However, if the cost of food continues rising much faster than wages then an increasing percentage of people will eventually find growing food a rewarding proposition. The trouble is it will take many years for people to become effective growers. It takes time to learn what to plant, when to plant it and how to efficiently plant, raise, harvest and use/store food crops. And for many urban folks gaining access to sufficient growing space will be challenging. Even in suburban areas which have plenty of land per capita it will take time to put it to good use.

In a fast collapse scenario I could see significant starvation occuring here in America even though I believe we could comfortably feed everyone with a slow transition to a lower energy sustainable agricultural system.

In the long term I expect that global warming and other environmental issues will be far more problematic then declining fossil fuel supplies. Agriculture can thrive without oil but not without water.

Ignoring the edible portion of food plants, consider that high energy density means you need that much more photosynthesis to produce that energy and therefore that much more sun area.

One potential problem with vertical gardening is competition with solar collecting area for heating. Passive heating of a house requires roughly that the entire south wall be converted to windows, themosyphon, or solar wall. However, in many cases the roof can be employed instead but it may be more tricky to get convection.

Around one tenth of an acre may feed a person using the three sisters:
as well as the potatoes mentioned before. Potatoes do pretty decently:

Calories(2000)     116%     Total Carb         175%     Protein            124%
Carb/Prot/Fat    92/7/1     Fiber              219%     Non-Fiber Carb     471g

Total Fat            5%     Vitamin A            5%     Calcium             37%
 Sat Fat             4%     Thiamin            106%     Copper             147%
 Mono Fat            0%     Riboflavin          70%     Iron               149%
 Poly Fat            9%     Niacin             175%     Magnesium          174%
  Omega-6            8%     Panto. Acid         93%     Manganese          272%
    LA               8%     Vitamin B-6        386%     Phosphorus         174%
    AA               0%     Folate             174%     Potassium          380%
  Omega-3           28%     Vitamin B-12         0%     Selenium            14%
    ALA             54%     Vitamin C          397%     Sodium              10%
    EPA              0%     Vitamin D          (nd)     Zinc                60%
    DHA              0%     Vitamin E            5%
Cholesterol          0%     Vitamin K           62%     Omega-6/3 Balance 62/38

So, the average 1/3 acre yard may have some significant potential, if you can whip it into shape.

great info. thanks.

re: suburban gardens:

Let me share an experience I had as a teenager living in suburban DC in the mid 70s. I used to mow lawns for money, and one of my customers was next door to a house where they turned under the grass and planted an enormous garden. In fact, the garden completely filled the front and back yards of their ~1/4 acre lot. They took all of my grass clippings to compost and had an incredible quantity and variety of veggies. So I've seen what can be grown on a typical suburban lot, and it is truly amazing. (I would say the neighbors were both amazed and perplexed.)

Here's the funny part. I found out later it was a rented house, and the absent landlord had no idea what was going on!


How much of the US has enough natural rainfall or sustainable groundwater to grow potatoes? You'll need that without expensive utility lines to bring in water.

Why is suburbia a problem?
There is no need to commute. Some 90% of people in my workplace can do all their work from home over internet, including meetings. Some 50% of businesses might be like that.

Broadly-speaking, there are five types of jobs out there which need to be done in any modern civilisation,

(1) housework/childcare
(2) officework
(3) retail service
(4) primary production - farms and mining
(5) manufacturing

The first must be done from home, though the middle and upper classes can hire other people to do it for them.

Officework can be done from home, though most jobs would require a day or so a week for consultation. The guy designing the wheels and the guy designing the body and the guy designing the engine of a vehicle really do need to sit down together from time to time and co-ordinate what they're doing.

Retail service must be done at the shop/restaurant/whatever, but it's possible to have the retail site be the front of a house. This is very common in Europe, going back to Roman days - a shop at the front facing the street, residence behind and above it. This would see the end of big stores, which is no great tragedy.

Primary production must be done at the site. While it's possible to live at the site, this is not always attractive - who wants to live next to an open-cut mine?

Manufacturing can be done in small shops, as with retail, but economies of scale mean it's likely to continue to be done in larger factories, and people have to commute.

We in the West tend to forget about primary production and manufacturing because they don't employ many people in the West. Primary production is heavily dependent on fossil fuels for machines rather than labour, and the bulk of manufacturing is done in Third World countries.

However, in a fossil-fuel-constrained world, there'll be a need for more labour in primary production, and having Indonesians make our shoes and the Chinese make our buttons won't be so attractive. So we can expect that post-peak fossil fuels we in the West will see more people working in primary production and manufacturing. And as I said, those jobs are hard to do from home.

Certainly there are millions of people who could be working from home, but don't because of a lack of imagination and conservativeness and mistrust of employers. But it's not so easy as you present when you extend it to the whole economy. Not everyone's job is like yours.

By the same token, primary production and manufacturing are the activities that will have the strongest benefit from access to freight rail ... whether heavy rail or light rail (see Aerobus for an example of a container at a time light rail system (RealMedia)).

That would suggest opportunities for passenger and freight electric rail to share infrastructure.

To some degree you can leverage the devaluation process of the present housing and commercial building stock.
If the present house has to be given back to the bank, many will be moving in to rented accommodation, and if petrol is expensive then it is likely to be closer in to the town than the house that has been given up.

It is not difficult to split a house into two apartments - it is doing it well that can be expensive, but if you haven't got much money you just have to put up with that.

Smaller accomodation in turn means that less heat is needed, and insulation is easier.
More compact settlements mean that a lot of the road, sewage and electricity infrastructure is not needed, and as regards sewage it is worth noting that we do not really want to be throwing most of the nutrients and fertiliser away.

Less cars mean that gravel roads instead of tarmac should do fine.

Retail space should become redundant as people can afford to buy less, so again freeing vast amounts of energy, and providing materials to adapt the buildings that remain to the changed conditions, in denser nexuses giving work opportunity more locally.

All of this means that the electricity infrastructure, for instance, should have less strain than presently seems likely.

Hard times mean that a lot of trips such as to football matches will not take place.
The very scale and waste of present arrangements give enormous room to down-size and economise - for instance a shopping mall might be converted to offices or factories to employ local people.

I'd guess that perhaps a 30% contraction of the suburbs would provide many of the materials for in-filling the rest, and greatly reduce energy consumption.

I think there's a very significant element of inelasticity at play here. When people can't afford to own their house any longer, then I agree that they are more likely to rent. However, it takes credit and economic vitality to afford to build new rental housing for any significant portion of suburban homeowners who can no longer afford to own their homes. Instead, what I think we'll see happen is a shift from people living in suburban homes tha they own to more people living in suburban hoems that they rent. I think that some contraction--over the long term, maybe 30% like you suggested--is realistic, though. I think it will come from a clustering effect around more viable pockets of suburbia, near transport, jobs, and resources, and will actually improve the ability of suburbia to sustain itself by opening up pockets of land within existing developments (not to mention golf courses!).

I was not talking about building new rental housing, but doing basic conversions to houses to allow two families to share.
Believe me, it can be done cheaply, essentially for nothing if you share the kitchen and bathroom, but many American houses have two or more of those anyway.
If some house are being scrapped there will be building materials available, and in a depression labour will be dirt cheap.
The plumbing for the kitchen of an abandoned house could then be installed into one of the bedrooms and the only other thing you have to do is provide separate access, and split the plumbing, perhaps putting in a new hot water tank, which again may come from an abandoned house.
The banks then get a rental income from a foreclosed property, and more with the two families for a minimal extra expenditure.
It is only expensive if you are working to high standards, but we are talking about rental housing for people who have lost their own house, many of whom, I understand, in the US end up sleeping in their cars.
Plenty of people will stay in a typical suburban house, but close to bus routes and employment conversions can be done very cheaply in the sort of environment we are imagining.

Is it possible to short your own mortgage, or a neighborhoods mortgages? Possibly to recover some value?


Multiple families can move into one home. I've already heard of it happening.

That's what happened to the middle class single family homes in the central cities ... they were broken up into apartments.

A declining share of property value in one settlement zone leads to absentee owners and multiple residency.

And of course, this is exploiting the sunk cost, so they become run down.

Or sold as condos. Rentals vary in quality (with price) and multiple occupancy need not be a decline in value or utility.

One 10,000 sq ft mansion on St. Charles was broken up into 17 condos. A duplex next door to me was broken up into 5 apartments, now condos. First quality renovation.

Little noted so far in the discussion is the re-use of land, i.e. parking lots.

A parking lot next to Zara's grocery has two 1,000 sq ft condos in a two story duplex. Another added an efficiency apartment and reduced the size of the parking lot. Another added a small apartment/condo to the back of a parking lot. And this is in an area with a minimum % of land area devoted to the automobile.

Best Hopes for reusing Parking Lots,


Everyone seems to think that breaking up larger houses into smaller units is a new idea. My grandmother and grandfather did this toward the end of WWII.

They bought big old (mostly early 1900 two story houses) and broke then into two family houses (one up and down). At one point my grandmother owned 15 houses. My grandfather did the conversions after work and on weekends. What is interesting is that they did it for very little money...of course, building codes were non-existent.


My one issue with this article is the use of sunk costs. The definition of a sunk cost is something that cannot be recovered and therefore has no bearing on future decisions. In your description the homeowner considers what the original cost of the home was when deciding whether or not to leave. In reality, sunk costs should not be considered at all when making economic decisions(although they often are).

This may be simply an issue of nomenclature, but our decisions about how to approach suburbia should not be affected at all by previous energy expenditures used to create it. We should only evaluate what is the lowest energy option going forward.

I think the standard definition of sunk cost was more valuable if one also accepts its paired classical economic prinicple of no resource constraints and perpetual economic growth. In a world where there's plenty of energy to build an alternative, and you'll have equal or greater access to money in the future, then the amount of money previously invested in a home should have no bearing on future decision making (as you point out, only the future balance of options is relevant). However, in a world where our past ability to afford energy was far greater than will be our future ability, the I think the "sunk energy" (which is probably the term I should have used) is highly relevant. When it comes to weighing future alternatives (more from a societal standpoint--as in, what big picture alternative exists to suburbia), the amount of energy already sunk into suburbia will influence, and to some degree dictate, our future decisions.

Another way of looking at this is how a company tries to assess changes in software and hardware deployment among its "installed base"; the assets it currently has (including licenses) has a tremendous bearing on the viability of future changes. This is amplified orders of magnitude when we are talking about homeowners who have most or all of their investment capital wrapped up in their "installed base" that likely will have a very low value, making it difficult to sell in order to move to a more desirable location.

Yep, you've pretty well encapsulated the problem:

- Sunk cost vs. the Sunk Cost Fallacy
When you trade equities, do you place stop-loss orders? If the position was "too large to fail," would a stop-loss be more necessary, or impossible? How does that differ from Suburbia?

- Motivation to move vs. financial ability to move
Aren't the early adopters of smaller but sustainable (or at least survivable) lifestyles the ones who should be rewarded with benefits like easier transport and better security? We all vote with our feet, so I suppose the question is, What will government policy do to reward the forward-thinking? At least can we ask that dying neighborhoods not be propped up with public money?

I guess you could say that I live in a suburb - ten miles from Portland. But it's 1.5 miles from the electric train, in a well-watered agricultural valley. So rescuing a dying Suburbia is not a Y/N, all-or-nothing proposition.

My approach? Withdraw the public-money bailouts and sponsor public works instead, concentrating on projects that support higher density living closer to public transport. Duh.

Withdraw the public-money bailouts and sponsor public works instead, concentrating on projects that support higher density living closer to public transport. Duh.

That is what Govt. needs to do. The bailout money would be so much more valuable in building and repairing physical infrastructure. Unfortunately the average citizen doesn't see the obvious value in this. So for MOST Americans it's not an obvious "Duh".

"lifestyles the ones who should be rewarded with benefits like easier transport and better security?"

My, my, my aren't we a good example of greedy rent seeking at the public teat! Subsidize my life style! It's superior! Perhaps Portland could have thrown some crumbs your way if they hadn't sunk so much money on their light rail and had invested in a better bus system.

"Many (Portlanders) use their public transportation system,” says Weyrich. In fact, 9.8 percent of Portland-area commuters took transit to work before the region build light rail. Today it is just 7.6 percent. In a story repeated in numerous cities that have built rail lines, rail cost overruns forced the city to raise bus fares and reduce bus service. That’s a success?"

I'm curious would you say, "Too bad," to bailout money to someone who lived 10 miles outside the city but just 1.5 miles from light rail? If they lived next to a bus stop would that make any difference?

For sure, the concept of suburbia has turned out to be flawed, but the endless barrage of cheap shots is tiresome. What people conveniently forget is that all human living arrangements are "flawed"; urban, suburban, rural, it makes no difference.

First off, I don't live in suburbia and never have. I live in a small town thirty-five miles from a major northeastern city (Philadelphia, PA). I'm not trying to be "the defender" of suburbia. But some things need to be pointed out.
Suburbia was a reaction to two convergent social trends. 1) Increasing wealth of the urban middle class. 2) Increasing deterioration of the standard of living in the cities.

There is nothing frivolous, silly or stupid about a parent's desire to raise their children in a safe and healthy environment which promises to give those children an advantage in their development. One doesn't need to be a brain surgeon to see the terrible, dangerous, life threatening environment which has evolved in many of the large urban areas of the United States. And most depressingly, among the most dangerous environments for children is the urban public school.

I think that there are some very serious social problems which will have to be addressed before we see any gross trend to abandon the suburbs. I doubt very much that even a catastrophe as potent as Peak Oil is going to be enough to force people to place their children at risk.

I guess I find myself in a bit of an odd position: my intent in this series is actually to come to the defense of suburbia, and to shift the conversation from "suburbia sucks" (which, as you poitn out, becomes tiresome) to "what are we going to do to improved its flaws?" So, while I'm not sure if I was effective at communicating that stance in the initial article, I agree with everything you've said. In particular, I think the distributed pattern of land ownership represented by suburbia is of great civilizational importance, and any setup that threatens that also potentially brings grave consequences for the political structure of our society through incrased centralization, hierarchy, wealth disparity, etc. More on that later.

So, while I'm not sure if I was effective at communicating that stance in the initial article,

Jeff, in fact you were effective, but as always responses often drift in directions not necessarily directly on subject.

I am continuously impressed with the thoughtfulness and professionalism of writers for TOD. Thanks for the first of your series. It is extremely relevant to our time. I am looking forward to the other 3 parts.

Suburbia was a reaction to two convergent social trends.1) Increasing wealth of the urban middle class. 2) Increasing deterioration of the standard of living in the cities.

False !

Post-WW II Suburbia was a market reaction to a series of Gov't policies and subsidies. VA loans only for new homes in new neighborhoods, "forced integration" > white flight, massive road and highway building, federal aid for building new schools (but not fixing or improving old ones), etc. etc.

We need to understand the root causes to properly discuss future policy options,


Are you really saying that none of the following lead to the development of suburbia:

1. Desire to be raise a family in a lower crime area
2. Desire to live in a larger house for the same amount of money
3. Desire to live on a larger lot for the same amount of money
4. Desire to live in a newer house for the same amount of money
5. Desire to send your kids to better schools in suburbia
6. The increasing wealth of the middle class
7. The desire to live in quiter neighborhoods

I agree with you that policies, subsidies, and returning veterans were also factors. But I also agree with you that we need to understand the root causes, and the seven factors listed above are ALSO key causes of suburbia. Many of the policies and subsidies were chicken-and-egg situtions: did government subsidize VA loans and funded new schools because people wanted to move to suburbia, or did people want to move to suburbia because of these policies. The reality is almost certainly some of each. So I think it's an over-dramatization to say "False!" It may not be the whole story, but I think it's part of the story.

Jeff - I think that Alan is right on this. The various desires you list are the result of marketing - in essence, a rationalization for the person moving, but not the true cause. Increasing wealth is a different matter, it is not marketing, but remains a post event explanation of enablement, not a cause (increasing wealth could have been expressed in any number of different ways).

That's a very slippery slope: if the desire to send kids to good schools and to live in low crime areas is a result of marketing those desires, then one can also say that the entire project of humanist philosophy is one of marketing to people their need for an existence beyond that of "cog in the machine." At some point, we must assign some fundamental value to our desires or we might as well just die. After all, none of us ever do anything but pursue one or another of our desires. I think the suggestion that suburbanites need to post-facto justify the choice to live in suburbia is itself just as likely to be the result of attempted rationalization by those who don't live there...

Jeff - It's not that the desires are the creations of marketing, but that marketing was used to convince us that those desires would be satisfied by moving to the suburbs. Had I not screwed up the posting, this might have been clearer. As I (tried) to point out - "The cities didn't start decaying until the tax base was eroded by the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs."

Jeff - I think that Alan is right on this. The various desires you list are the result of marketing - in essence, a rationalization for the person moving, but not the true cause. Increasing wealth is a different matter, it is not marketing, but remains a post event explanation of enablement, not a cause (increasing wealth could have been expressed in any number of different ways).

The typical explanation that people wanted to get away from decaying cities doesn't really fit the history. The cities didn't start decaying until the tax base was eroded by the exodus of the middle class to the suburbs.

Alan -

I really don't see how you can cry 'False!' as to the deterioration of the standard of living in the cities, particularly regarding the major urban areas of the Northeast and Midwest.

One can argue endlessly about the causes of the various social pathologies that have plagued American cities during the Post-War era, but the fact remains that unless one was affluent or near-affluent, living in many parts of the larger American cities circa the 1950s and 1960s was rapidly becoming an increasingly unpleasant and even frightening experience. So, for a lower- or middle-income urban blue-collar family living in or at the outskirts of a rapidly deteriorating urban area, moving to a newly built outlying suburb was a very rational decision. When your car has been vandalized for the second time in a month, your kid in high school just got beat up again, and you're afraid to go away on vacation lest someone rob your house, you start to get the message: Get out of Dodge!

It's the same primordial force that has propelled mass migrations since antiquity: the desire to leave a bad place for a (perceived) better place. If algae have enough smarts to migrate from the shady side of a rock to the sunny side, then it should come as no mystery that humans will tend to do the exact same thing.

I think one thing that is not given enough attention in these discussions is the tendency to paint 'suburbia' with too broad a brush. One has to realize that Kuntsler's despised suburbs consisting of poorly built McMansions languishing in the middle of nowhere is somewhat of a caricature.

Plus, suburbs undergo evolution, almost like organisms. Many of the suburbs built out in the boonies surrounding the cities of the Northeast during the booming 1950s have over the decades become pretty much self-contained clusters of not only residences, but also a quite diversified array of commerce, office parks, and light industry. One can live, work, and die in such areas without having much need to travel long distances into some major urban downtown area.

Even though the prospects for the brand-new Kunstler-type suburbs that are truly built out in nowhere may not be too good, again, those suburbs are hardly characteristic of all of US suburbia, particularly in the Northeast.

"Plus, suburbs undergo evolution, almost like organisms."

If those organisms were The Borg from Star Trek.

... but the fact remains that unless one was affluent or near-affluent, living in many parts of the larger American cities circa the 1950s and 1960s was rapidly becoming an increasingly unpleasant and even frightening experience.

Quite true ... but much of that was created by suburbanization.

People were living in cramped, poorly maintained housing when they might have been able to afford better during WWII, because there was very little capacity to invest in housing. WWII follow on the heels of the Great Depression, when people did not have the resources to invest.

So there was a massive pent-up demand in the late 1940's, a sizable share of the population had developed appreciable nest-eggs, and government policy encouraged home purchase by veterans as a benefit, to avoid a post-WWII economic collapse.

By the 1950's, the first wave of suburbanization was well advanced, leading to exactly the reaction in a declining settlement zone ... owner-occupiers moving out, absentee landlords buying the property, breaking it up into multiple occupancy to increase the income per acre that can be obtained from low-income households.

"White flight" was a second wave of suburbanization, aided and abetted by the so-called "urban renewal" projects so incisively critiqued by Jane Jacobs.

I've got to say, I think the 'death of suburbia' meme has been overdone.

Providing government isn't stupid enough to wash its hands of wider society, I think the key phrase will be 'adaptation'. Food will come nearer, probably mediated by online ordering etc. Physical commuting will decline with more home working, less zoning, and a degree of spoke-and-hub bus trips for journeys that can't be ducked.

Insulation will be bolted on, solar heat, rainwater collection, etc. will be added and big houses will become home to extended families.

All of this is possible and is a continuation of existing developments. To suggest a mass exodus requires answering a new question - to where?

I agree, and as I stated above, "it is time for the discussion to shift from 'suburbia sucks' to 'what are we going to do about it?'" And, as you point out, ANY suggestion that we leave suburbia (whether voluntarily or involuntarily) requires not that we weigh the attributes of the proposed alternative against suburbia. I think suburbia will win out--it might not look like Leave It to Beaver, but suburbia isn't going anywhere (Perhaps I should have been more clear that my "Escape from New York" title graphic was a parody?)

Just call me "SNAKE"........

Snake, I heard you were dead!

Orleans Parish has a population of 650,000 at it's peak; 445,000 pre-K, about 350,000 today. SMSA of 1.2 million.

Orleans could easily be adapted to a population of 900,000 and an extra 300,000 in close-in suburbs. Close half of the 24 mile causeway to the North Shore (commuters today, perhaps minimal traffic tomorrow).

All primary economic activity is in Orleans Parish (port, tourism, oil & gas support, universities, two medical schools & Medical Center, food manufacturing).


It's also world-famous for: uncontrolled violent crime, unsolved vulnerability to hurricanes (threatening total dispossession if you don't have a car), utterly worthless public schools, monumental political corruption, and a certain general decrepitude of buildings and infrastructure. Who in their right mind, now living elsewhere, and most especially if they have children, is going to see it as a viable alternative?

I just voted on two changes in the city Charter; one will give the Inspector General (a new position, hired an apparent bull dog from the NE) 0.7% of the General City Budget so that he (or she) can investigate anyone for corruption without fear of budgetary reprisals. The other will give the City Master Plan the force of law, severely reducing "back door" development deals.

I live about 7 blocks from what will likely become the best public school in the USA. The Republic of France is supplying teachers for all subjects except English & Geography and they will teach in French. Spanish in Grade 3 and a "non-Latin alphabet" in Grade 8 (Russian, Chinese, Japanese). Taught under the French system. Many other innovations in education as well; we are definitely improving education dramatically.

Meanwhile, local Suburban schools are going downhill. A number of children in the neighborhood.

The Corps of Engineers has promised to give us what they originally promised in 1968 by 2011.

The homes are almost uniformly well built and can (and are) being renovated at a fast rate. Good solid construction with quality materials can withstand neglect for decades. Modern Suburban construction falls apart in a couple of decades.

Pre-Katrina, New Orleans was a city of great positives and great negatives. The negatives are being addressed, (a little Global Cooling would be good though) and we are trying to preserve the positives.

Best Hopes for New Orleans,


Just a simple question.....Where is the money going to come from to pay for this? Not one penny of State or federal taxes should be directed toward your city. Not one penny.

When will this insanity stop? Pissing away millions on an area that will be under water with the next Hurricane? Just how high do you think the C of E can build the walls? Let those who choose this place to live, pay for it. How many children, of other people, will get to go to that school? 1% , 2% ?? The "local Suburban Schools are going downhill"? How many energy effecient schools could be built for just one of the walls the C of E will half*ss build? You really need to think in a different direction.

Alan, they better build the "new" New Orleans on a raft. Building below sea level is always folly.

Yep, it will never work -look at Holland.
What doesn't work is not adapting to the situation, not paying enough in property taxes or building to the correct standards.
This needs detailed planning, not trying to build the same houses as everywhere else.

See the Netherlands floating houses:

In some regions of China the houses are built on the basis that they will flood every few years.
People build in concrete, brick and stone, not wood, keep many of their possessions upstairs, and even keep small boats handy.

It's a challenge, but one many people have taken up at many times and places.

Ohhh. the insanity continues even in Europe. When you folks in the UK start to eat each other, because you pissed way all of your opportunity Capital to save yourself, on Ferris wheels, call Holland for help. They can send you a Tulip. Over educated, intellectuals, dealing with a problem of Very Basic, fundamental issues always leads us into folly. If you choose to live below sea level, You pay for it. Not me. You want to live on a small strip of land, in the Texas Gulf, and the next big wind that happens by, strips you off to be eaten by Sharks? Well, that's just a great idea, for the Sharks, but YOU pay for it. Not me. Not my efforts, not my taxes, not my time. I will not send the troops to rescue you when you climb the mountain and fall into the crevace. I am all about the "common good", but there are limits, as we see approaching quite rapidly these days. Rebuilding anything in the NOLA basin is not only foolhardy, but breathes outright ignorance about what is blowing our way in this country. Making NOLA into an offshoot of Southern France? Visions of grandeur populate every man's mind, it's just that reality will win that game every time.

Yep, it will never work -look at Holland.

Well Dave don't forget that Holland has had devastating breaches of its dike system throughout the centuries, the latest occurring in 31 January – 1 February 1953. Perhaps you are too young to remember the disaster, but I am not. A combination of abnormally high tides and a strong northwesterly storm resulted in breaching of the dikes. Officially, 1,835 people were killed in the Netherlands, mostly in the south-western province of Zeeland.

They were extremely lucky in 1999-2000 that the two tempetes passed just south of them with their sustained hurricane force winds attaining 220km per hr. It is likely they would been in deep water trouble if the storms had hit head on.

Holland has a long history of using ancient, time-proven methods for building their dike system and it is a very robust system, indeed. However the right combination of events can still undo their best efforts. With the slow rise in sea levels that is taking place, the odds keep going up that history will repeat itself.

New Orleans, on the other hand has a dike system put in place by the Army Core of Engineers. The ACE is essentially a training organization intended to train new engineers for use in times of war for building airfields and other construction jobs. They have a dismal record of deepening, diking and straightening rivers to control floods. In most instances these projects have made the situation worse because the water has no where to go but up and over instead of spreading out in natural flood plains which are now built up with housing and agriculture.

The dike system in the New Orleans can, in no way, be compared with the robust system employed by Holland through the centuries. AND New Orleans is subject to the same sea level rise as the rest of the world and the land is subsiding in New Orleans and the last several hurricanes have destroyed much of the plant growth that helped protect the area from storm surge and high waves.

I still maintain that to build below sea level (next to the sea) is pure folly.

New Orleans has a unique asset unavailable to other coastal cities. Many million tonnes of silt brought down by the Mississippi River (aka The Big Muddy).

Two early experiments to divert this silt to build/re-build a natural barrier/levee were successes. The State of Louisiana has recently agreed to devote all new off-shore oil royalties to coastal restoration.

In extremis, we could fill in Lake Pontchartrain. There is THAT much silt. Saving New Orleans is MUCH cheaper than rebuilding a new city.

Best Hopes for New Orleans,


Best Hopes for New Orleans

Yes indeed, they need it.

Relevant to this thread is that New Orleans was tied with New York City for fewest VMT by residents. A very different urban form (and much more human scale) with equivalent results.

The rest of the USA could learn much from this living example. Killing it could create a major loss of a template for the future.

Best Hopes for learning from Old Urbanism,


There have been a few fatalities over the years, although far less than on the Dutch roads, but I can't believe that you can seriously propose that because of that we should not have had a whole country, which has been created in defiance of nature and has given immensely to humanity over the last 400 years, both for good and ill.

Their folly seems much more creative and human than your 'wisdom'.

There have been a few fatalities over the years, although far less than on the Dutch roads, but I can't believe that you can seriously propose that because of that we should not have had a whole country, which has been created in defiance of nature and has given immensely to humanity over the last 400 years, both for good and ill.

"A few fatalities over the years" Interesting remark. A short, by no means thorough search gives: Yr. 1219 January 16 killing an estimated 36,000 people; 1362: Grote Mandrenke strikes in January killing at least 25,000 inhabitants; 1825 February 3 to 5: The provinces of Groningen, Friesland and Overijssel were flooded through serious dike breaks, as a result of which more than 800 people lost their lives.

How does that compare with the number killed by horse carts or by walking into the blades of windmills?

In the 10th century Holland brought large areas of boggy soil and marsh on a peat plateau, behind sand dunes and next to the sea, under cultivation. Drainage of the land resulted in extensive soil shrinkage and in many areas the land surface dropped down by 15 meters. That is, they brought on many of their problems by their own actions(I am sure they did not have the knowledge about such consequences at the time). BTW only about 1|5 the of the land was created by reclamation not the "whole country". But if you are from Holland you know that.

I have no criticism of the Holland dike system. It was ingeniously designed and has served well "with only a few fatalities". However, when you live below sea level next to the sea you must expect recurring disaster. Especially in hurricane-prone areas and areas adjacent to seas known for extraordinarily powerful storms. With plenty of past experience it is folly to continue to do so. With rising sea levels and seemingly more frequent storms, you can bet that Holland is worried too.

Just about everything was dangerous in the Middle ages.
Check out 'Black Death' and 'Mortality'

Being born is usually fatal.
What counts is what you do before you die.

The problem with suburbia, from a long term survivability perspective, is that they degrade quickly and require the kind of upkeep effort and expense associated with younger inhabitants.

I can only wonder what will happen if the population shift happens again, with the children of the boomers moving back into the urban areas, and making do with less of everything, because a triage mentality become quickly in effect when living space is at a premium?

Will the suburbs become a place where only the old live/survive, and decay into senility along with the decaying infrastructure?

Will McMansions become shared co-op housing with seniors relegated to sub-sub-divided units, with a growing heap of trash piled up as their memories and mementos get digitized and the actual objects get tossed and forgotten after their owners die?

Will I, will we all end up as "forgotten elders" stuck out in the suburbs somewhere, moving from small house, to co-op apartment, to shared housing, to shared rooms, shedding our belongings year after year, move after move, until we end up in that place that no one can share?

Will there be services that detect when we're dead and come and dispose of the bodies?

Suburban houses don't necessarily need young and active residents to maintain them. Lawncare, housecleaning and pool maintenance are largely outsourced to cheap immigrant labor. Two things that could happen. The elderly downsize their residences as you say, or intergenerational housing, the kids move back in to save on expenses.

Two things that could happen. The elderly downsize their residences as you say, or intergenerational housing, the kids move back in to save on expenses.

And for the second, there must be transport of some form ... which is where the suburban village comes in, a small (0.25 to 0.5 mile radius) precinct at the stop on the dedicated transport corridor, with a surround hinterland of suburbia oriented to the suburban village.

I think one real possibility is that in the years ahead, things will change in steps.

As long as we can, we will live in the locations we do now, or perhaps in a subset of those locations. Some families or friends may move together, to share living costs, and to be in a location closer to work. We may use the yards to grow fruits and vegetables.

Gradually, there may be disruptions that cause large numbers of people to move. For example, if we were to lose electricity in major cities, or if some of the Southwest were to have inadequate water. (If the people who believe that technology will save us are right, these issues may never happen.) When these disruptions happen, people will first move into available homes in locations that are already built.

Eventually, there may be disruptions in large scale agriculture. At some point, the disruptions elsewhere and the disruptions in large scale agriculture may combine to result in a political demand for land reform. If there is land reform, I would expect that the new movement back to the land will have some characteristics that are similar to the original settlement of the US. Land may be given away free. People will build homes with the help of a few friends, using local materials (log cabins or adobe huts, for example). There will be some people who will be able to move into homes that are already built, but more homes will be these simple homes, without electricity or water. Because of the low cost of these homes, there will not be a need for financing.

For example, if we were to lose electricity in major cities

Gail, you fail to realize that Suburbia will lose electricity first and electrified transportation last. If the grid begins to fail, people will flock to where the power is, the major cities. In your case, Atlanta will have air conditioning when the Suburbs are sweating in the dark.

MANY more feet of distribution wiring/capita in Suburbia (a consequence of devoting large % of land to the auto plus large yards and large homes). More to maintain. (Note: During Gustav I was without power for about 11 hours. Suburbs went without power for weeks). Priority is given to the higher value and then higher density power lines. Suburbia is at the bottom of the list.

Apartments/condos with shared walls and less sq ft use much less power/capita. In a power short reality, they will get more service.

Utilities CHOSE who to blackout when demand exceeds supply. Transportation (and hospitals) are never voluntarily blacked out. Suburbs are a lower priority than cities when rotating blackouts occur (lower demand/capita in cities and higher value users are embedded in the urban structure make them the last to be chosen for blackouts#).

The early failures of the grid will force people out of Suburbia, not out of cities.

Best Hopes for Realistic Appraisals,


# I am on the same substation as the Convention Center, one of three DC supply stations for the St. Charles Streetcar Line and, I think, Touro Hospital. Entergy apparently gives that substation priority. Electricity was on when I returned after Katrina, three days after I was allowed past 82nd Airborne checkpoints. Others said it had been off for only 8 days on my street.

They can cut my electricity when they pry it from my cold dead solar panels.

I think you're going to see that change drastically and soon. Once you have been forced onto a "smart meter", which can cut you off at whim by remote control, it will make far less difference that you happen to be on the same substation as a hospital. And sweating in a city condo that receives no outside air because it's on the downwind side of a building will be even less fun than sweating in a suburban house that at least is ventilated when the windows are opened.

Oh, and the "smart meters" will increase everyone's chances of being cut off, because politicians, being feckless and shiftless by nature, will find it easier and more comfy to make excuses for rolling blackouts than actually to face down NIMBYs and BANANAs.

Please note the down thread post by Whitis. US cities use half the per capita electricity of non-urban populations and NYC uses 1/4th the electricity.

Surely a benefit and should be encouraged if maintaining a 99.99% reliable grid becomes problematic.

And does a utility chose to blackout 10,000 Suburbanites or 20,000 city dwellers for 50 minutes in a rotating blackout ?


We may use the yards to grow fruits and vegetables.

Standard practice in modern Suburbia (less true in 1950s and even 1960s) is to scrap off the topsoil (and often sell it) and add enough on lawns (about 1/2" to 3/4" depending on climate, etc.) to grow grass (with chemical additives).

Growing a garden in subsoil and with buried construction debris is "difficult".

Fruit and nut trees can grow in such conditions (with a starter hole of good soil) but they often take decades (depending on species & climate) to mature to full productivity. And they are not yet planted.

IMHO, wishful thinking,


"difficult" is not equivalent to "Wishful thinking".

Even with the original topsoil removed and a dense layer of typical heavily fertilized suburban turf it isn't particularly difficult to have a productive garden. In a really bad area the first season can be used to grow suitable cover crops or even native weeds which are harvested and composted to produce quality-improving soil amendments, or in extreme cases, soil for raise beds.

Under knowledgeable management even the worst suburban lawns could be made quite productive in fairly short periods, and average lawns can be useful immediately. In areas like mine, which are not atypical, where we're sitting on prime farm land growing food is almost as easy as tossing some seeds out the back door and then remembering not to mow over the seedlings.

Currently organic garden management is uncommon mostly because there is very little incentive to undertake such a project, which does require a non-trivial effort. If events were to make such practices desirable, I do not think it would take very long at all for suburban areas to produce as much as 50% of their own food, perhaps more if the federal government were involved to enable local experts to work full time toward that goal.

It would probably make a good post-peak business opportunity. Instead of the Tru-Green Chemlawn guy and the professional lawnmower guy coming around you'd have a gardening consultant making the rounds monthly to check out the conditions and make customized recommendations which the homeowner would carry out.

Crushed charcoal (or char that never made it to coals) also makes an excellent additive.

Indeed, given that most suburban lawns are smaller than a good truck gardener site, leasing a string of front lawns to a truck gardener (who might, indeed, pay in food shares to avoid the risk of market prices on the produce been raised), would allow the expertise to be focused in someone who makes a living from it.

Under knowledgeable management

That is the rub. With major and knowledgeable effort and scarce resources, most (not all) Suburban yards could yield a decent crop (much of the food during the summer perhaps).

But the expertise to do so is not widespread. I hope that I am wrong, but I do not see "the monthly visit by the expert gardener" as likely. Few have the aptitude or experience to become home gardeners. Most Suburbanites are several generations from the farm and that culture has been lost IMHO.


Grafted nut trees can see first crop in 3-5 years, depending on the type of nut. Grafted dwarf apple trees can bear in 2-3 years (semi-dwarf in 4-6 years).

Soil can be improved with red clover, buckwheat, etc.

Disease resistance is key, as access to sprays may become limited

Time to plan and plant is now. I have 45 fruit and nut trees in their 3rd year of growth in an edible landscaping layout, and will be planting more. Yard not big enough? This Chicago man has 97 apple trees in his 1/4 acre yard;

Still think your yard is too small?

i have only 5,000 square feet in southern california. i have little gardening skill, but my seven fruit trees produce all the fruit my family can eat. plus the neighbor's mulberry trees hang over my yard and provide all the jam we can eat.

of course, this all requires quite a lot of water...

Answer: Drip Irrigation

Drip irrigation works if you have water. LA relies significantly on water from the Owens River aqueduct. Water from Sierra's melted snowpack. LA may have peak water and peak oil to wrestle with.

"First crop" is NOT "mature yield". In my limited experience, the first crop is quite small (almost nothing) and the second year may yield enough for a few meals.

A fully grown pecan tree might supply enough nuts to meet the edible oil requirements of an adult or two (SWAG), but that takes decades. Some trees (figs come to mind) are early bearers and reach maturity in less than a decade, but I think that they are an exception.

Planting a diverse orchard that could supply half the food requirements of an adult will take time (and space). Avocados, figs, pecans, starchy cooking bananas and citrus in my area. An odd diet, but doable.


Seedling pecan trees can certainly take a long time to get to full production. Grafted varieties take much less. Grafted walnut trees will reach full bearing in 10 years, with substantial amounts before that. Filberts will reach full bearing in 8 years (timeframes dependent on soil, climate, water). Find these details in this Home Nut Tree Plan guide.

"IMHO, wishful thinking"

Right on!

The USA, in roughly twenty years (~1950-1970) trashed virtually every piece of prime commercial property (called "downtowns") and many well built established neighborhoods.

We also have 10x the retail space of circa 1950. Meanwhile residential space has ballooned (x2.4 in SFR as family size has shrunk, making per capita space x3+).

Your analysis of the "sunk cost" of Suburbia ignores the fact that much of the built environment is relatively short lived. Major repairs in 20 years is the "new" standard for residential construction. 20 to 30 years for commercial development. Repairs or "renewal" will be required regardless of Peak Oil, etc.

The best US example I have seen of sustainable Suburbia was a tour of the under construction Greenbush MBTA commuter line (replacing a line shut down in the 1960s, tour after ASPO-Boston) and several operating T commuter rail lines. Many of the current and former (and to be) rail suburbs had a walkable core clustered around where the rail station used to be. Well built homes generally. Post-WW II sprawl of course added onto the sustainable core.


I disagree with two of your fundamental premises

there is no alternative that is both theoretically viable and realistically implementable, we must instead focus on adapting suburbia to a post-peak oil future

We certainly can abandon suburbia, but we must recognize that doing so also abandons any hope of a peaceful and prosperous future.

In the second statement you conflate "Peaceful" and "Prosperous". It is entirely possible to have a peaceful and high quality of life in a world with minimal Suburbia.

If by "prosperous" you mean the same level of conspicuous consumption as today, I might agree. But that is a goal not worth pursuing.

Abandoning Suburbia can mean a HIGHER quality of life coupled with lower levels of consumption. I see no alternative to reducing levels of consumption (see Suburbia. malls, SUVs, etc.) and increasing levels of long lived, energy efficient capital investment.

There is no hope of keeping current levels of conspicuous consumption post-Peak Oil and your discussion seems (at first reading of Part 1) focused on that unworthy and impossible goal.

Best Hopes for a Higher Quality of Life and Lower levels of Consumption,


PS: I live in an 1890 home that has been subdivided into 5 apartments in a premier example of "Old Urbanism".


If you read my article as suggesting that we keep "current levels of conspicious consumption post-Peak Oil," then I'm not communicating very clearly. I don't equate prosperity with conspicuous consumption, but rather with quality fo life (which isn't the same as "peace"--I think they're very separate and distinctly worth-while goals. As I've written about extensively [one example], consumption and quality of life are not synonyms, and are often in opposition).

While you say that you disagree with my statement that there is no theoretically viable and realistically implementable alternative to suburbia, you don't provide one. Your presumed solution of walkable neighborhoods and "old urbanism" doesn't qualify. While I certainly don't suggest we abandon them, it's not realistic to move the population of suburbia to old-urbia. This is simple supply and demand: if everyone in suburbia wants to move to a nice, walkable older neighborhood, then the price there goes up and the price of suburban homes goes down. This destroys the ability of suburbanites to afford the transition, and is complicated by the mortgages they already have which will become increasingly underwater due to exactly this generalized desire to move. Even IF it was possible to uproot suburban population and re-settle it in older, more dense neighborhoods, that wouldn't qualify as theoretically viable in my book: it would only exacerbate the existing dependency and supply-line issues already present in highly concentrated urban areas. Suburbia has a great potential to provide its own food, water, and energy needs (as I'll detail in a later post). Urban environments do not, and this will only be made worse if we further incrase their densities. While there are certainly disagreements over the value of self-sufficiency and the political and civilizational ramifications of urbanization and dependency, I firmly believe that peace and prosperity are predicated on a more, not less, decentralized future (see, e.g., The Problem of Growth).

Additionally, to the extent that it would be possible, in theory, to re-settle suburbanites to older neighborhoods, this necessarily requires a massive investment in the infrastructure (think schools, for example) and housing in those neighborhoods. This is no problem if our economy continues to grow and credit markets un-freeze facilitating the capital flows needed for such a project. But, as I pointed out above, this is a Catch-22 situation. The very existence of a theoretically-viable alternative to suburbia that suburbanites want to move to destroys the availability of capital to build-out that alternative and the financial power of suburbanites to make that move.

I think we actually are in general agreement that continuing our current levels of conspicuous consumption is an unworth and untenable goal--however, I think that an adaptation of suburbia to be less wasteful, less consumptive is the most realistic and desirable way of both conforming to future energy availability AND increasing our ability to live peacefully and prosperously.

Your post deserves a longer reply than I can give ATM (About to walk to the polls, pre-lunch being forecast for shortest lines, then downtown to City Hall via streetcar).

Look for my earlier post on this thread regarding the SMSA population around New Orleans.

Best Hopes for Better Understanding,


How ?

Refocus our GDP from consumption long lived energy efficient capital (infrastructure mainly) investment.

Building will slow, but not stop. Trees will still grow. "Adaptive re-use" is usually cheaper than new builds. Converting old warehouses and office buildings to condos & apartments is a solved problem with proven solutions.

I had lunch at a local restaurant yesterday with a foreman for a new 22 story high rise that broke ground recently in downtown New Orleans. 250 apartments/condos, minimal ground floor retail (8 floors of parking garage !) On the site of a parking lot. Owner is a large local construction company that is largely self financing. Financial chaos may prevent many more such developments, but resources will not.

(A half floor of secure bicycle parking instead of 8 floors for cars would reduce costs and resources used).

Increase density in existing housing in cities (a natural adaptive response to economic pressures). Build on parking lots. Consider taking space from highways for housing (destroying I-10 from Canal Street to Elysian Fields is a good candidate here).

But what to do with the 4 million people in Phoenix ? Las Vegas ? Perhaps collapse to a new urban core of 1 to 1.5 million people, clustered along the light rail lines (Enough water for fewer people) and migrate the rest (perhaps some back to Mexico).

The cost of new & adaptive re-use urban housing construction (and minimal retail and some office/factory) should be significantly less than current Suburban development, even after adjusting to a higher quality and higher efficiency construction . No new roads required, etc.

More later.


Urban areas don't need to supply their own food. 1 gallon of gas will move 4000 pounds of food (a years supply for a person) 50 miles (100 ton miles per gallon) by truck or 200 miles by rail. That same gallon of gas might handle 1 day of commuting. Freight transportation is much more efficient than personal transport. Shipping energy can also be efficient.
Food shipment is inefficient if you have to ship it 1500 miles, which we foolishly do. Cities need to eat primarily what can be grown in the surrounding countryside and eat it in season.

At 1 acre per person (US uses 2 acres per person but as little as 1/10 acre may be needed, meat is probably due a significant portion of the difference), it would take 28% of the state of new york to feed NYC. But new york city has 42% of the population of the state. 25% of the state's land is used for agriculture (about 1/3 acres/person in the state). Thus the state has as much farm land per person as suburbia has lawns. Shipping in drinking water 120 miles would use another gallon/year/person by truck, less by train, less by pipeline, and even less flowing downhill (they use gravity for 95% of the water supply). Water for non-drinking uses would use much more - fortunately they don't truck it in. NYC gets its water from a number of sources and is currently building a third water tunnel 60 miles long and 24 feet in diameter to provide redundant access to the upstate portion of its supply. What energy is used probably comes from electricity and is included in their per capita consumption.

A PBS special mentioned that manhatten was the most energy efficient place in the US. A New Yorker Article makes the same argument.
People share close to 5 out of 6 walls with neighbors which drastically reduces heating and cooling (plus, you probably heat and cool a smaller area). People take subways and walk. Spread out cities are another matter, but US cities use half the electricity per capita as non-urban population (NYC uses 1/4).
If the residents of new york city lived in suburbs, they would take up almost as much land (at a US average of 1/3 acre lawn) as the state of Connecticut or 37% of New York state's agricultural land.

Now, due to NY's northern location, the surrounding area may be currently be disproportionally used for dairy/meat. Half of New York agriculture revenue is from dairy, producing 11.7 billion pounds of milk per year (1414 pounds (73 gallons) per NYC resident ). That is enough for 594 days calories per person in NYC or 255 days calories per NY state resident.

Since energy and food are much more efficient to ship, it pays to have people close to their destinations.

Suburbia does improve when you replace the lawn with a garden. Ordinarily, the lawn is a travesty - it spreads people out making them have to travel much further and is more often than not essentially unused. And more gas is used to mow lawns then to haul a year's supply of food from neighboring rural areas to the city.

It is a mistake to confuse a city's self sufficiency with sustainability. Think instead, of mentally moving a spread out population into dense cities (while still having as much land per capita), which has already done. This frees up the land for more productive food and energy production, relatively uninterrupted by a spider web of roads, sidewalks, fences, etc.
It lowers the energy use per capita considerably.

The primary argument for distributed agriculture, in my view, is not that we won't have the energy to transport food from far away (the Romans did that without much trouble), but rather the impact of political and economic structure from centralized production & dependency vs. decentralized production and self-sufficiency (see, also, the Romans). More on this point in Part 4.

The Romans certainly brought food from far away, but they also had smaller cities than we do today. I discuss this at some length in The Oily Smudge on the Future of the City-State, saying,

peoples like the Incas relying on foot transport never had bigger cities than the 10,000-100,000 range, those with canals like the Aztecs got up to over 100,000, and those with animals and good roads like the [Ottoman] Turks or Romans managed a million.

Absent fossil fuels [or some truly amazing electric rail transport], we're not going to have these great cities like Tokyo and Los Angeles and Melbourne. They're simply too large, requiring too many resources, it'll be physically impossible to bring them enough to keep them going.

Note also that the Romans, etc, only managed to maintain one or a very few cities of that largest size. The world currently has 26 cities of over 8 million people, and over 400 of more than 1 million.

London was a mega city 150 years ago when the only oil was whale oil. They managed with very low efficiency coal fired steam power. Whats amazing about the existing electric rail systems ( for example Sydney 100km radius). Even diesel rail uses very little about 1-2% oil consumption. This pales in comparison to petrol driven private and commercial vehicles.
Has anyone noticed that most people prefer to live in suburbs rather than in city centers. Its not only are we stuck with all the suburban infrastructure, people still want to continue to build it.

London was a mega city 150 years ago when the only oil was whale oil. They managed with very low efficiency coal fired steam power.

According to this,

London's population was a million in 1801. Once they brought in rail, they could double or triple it.

I said, "absent fossil fuels" - or some really amazing electric rail systems - we can't manage these huge cities. Not "absent oil". In terms of being able to maintain very large cities, there is nothing special about oil among the three fossil fuels; we like to focus on oil depletion here at TOD, but the depletion of the other two is just as real, though not as immediate.

London was in addition an imperial capital at that time. Empires typically have one or two big cities, and the other cities and towns are considerably smaller. Compare to nowadays, with over 400 cities of more than a million people in the world, and 26 cities of more than eight million. That is orders of magnitude more than the cities and their sizes in pre-fossil-fuel ages.

Has anyone noticed that most people prefer to live in suburbs rather than in city centers.

that depends on what your city centers and your suburbs look like. Here in Melbourne our city centre used to have a population of about a thousand at night, hardly anyone lived there, it was miserable, there were no food shops and the like. The State Government made a conscious effort to develop it to be liveable, apartment buildings went up, more shops appeared and so on. Now lots of people live there, some paying a thousand bucks a week to do so.

So it really depends on what you make these places like. If you neglect them, if they are bleak and crime-ridden with no private or social services, people will avoid them. If they are bright and clean and well-serviced, people will flock there.

Just a few remarks:
Stranded costs (or stranded investments)
suits the subject even better than sunk costs.

The NYT now has two nice stories about coming back to the city:

Happy to Be Back in Brooklyn

Where Walkable Encounters Affordable

I remember a suburbia that was in its infancy. This was the year 1962. Yet even in 1949 my father moved us to what was just the very early beginnings of the suburbs. That was in North St. Louis County. In a far older town that was an outlier of St. Louis and that had very many far older homes and even mansions. Many with old horse carriage barns.

So we moved into a very new brick bungalow that only had two bedrooms and a coal stoker furnace. Down the street was ones that were carbon copies.

Many who lived there only owned a single automobile. Surrounding us was a huge lake and very old country club and lots of pastures and woodlands with huge old oak trees.

We were happy enough but it wasn't the farm. Yet we adapted. Walked to school or rode bikes. Had small corner grocery stores. The downtown was vibrant and we even had a yearly fair and carnival.

It was just about exactly what Europe must have had. Small townships with lots of interaction and people still acted like small town folks.

Then it all started to change as the developers really got wild. All the countryside was destroyed. Huge trees dozed down. Life changed dramatically . Crime started to grow. The schools become mega schools and no one knew anyone else.

I used to take a bus to a bus loop in town.Change in a closer in bus loop to a streetcar and ride that to downtown St. Louis to work.

Some family men did not own cars but used public transportation or rode with others.

I go back to those areas on occasion and hardly recognize it anymore. All my teens years were there but now its junk food and sleazy tan parlors or other useless places. The creeks are gone. Trash blows down the streets. Its more like a ghetto now.

Streetcar tracks were paved over. Small town life disappeared. All my teenage friends had long ago disappeared.

It was the suburbia that might have had a chance to continue as everyone raised gardens and lived within their means.

Its all a dreamfantasy now. Something to think back on when the American Dream was alive and well.

To me it was the ignorance and stupidity of the developers. They went for the kill. They cared less about real people. Hand in glove now with the loan merchants they have IMO dealt a death blow. The land and trees are gone. All paved over.

You can't bring back what once was. It would just be a sham. The underlying environment has been destroyed.

I will just recall it in my ruminations now.

I will stay on my farm and never leave. My wife asked me to come to the outskirts of Chicago for Thanksgiving. My answer was "Never".

Talk is good. Hope is good. But reality is reality.

Can it work? Who will tear down all that 'stuff'? The developers? I don't think so.


Older small towns, less than ~5000, always had a small business area surrounded by homes on relatively large lots, by today's standards. Gardens, even livestock to a degree, were integral. Although there were apartments above stores and shops, the majority lived outside the two or three block business area. This is described well, though remorsefully, in Wendell Berry's Port Williams fictional series. Our little town, and many others farther west, didn't really start to "suburbanize" until the 90's, and the pattern is still quite evident. The train no longer stops, but the old station is still on Main, with both homes and limited siding.

I agree with Jeff's thesis, that there is too much invested, and we have too little resources, to have abandonment or a new shift. As I look to surburbia now, I see neighborhoods usually delineated by schools. I can envision smaller "villages" coalescing around these schools, with the closest homes converted to basic needs stores and shops. Quite a thought, somebody at home in the day again in these yards and homes. Outlyier homes abandoned, becoming the new haunted houses for the neighborhood kids. Or possibly the crack houses, at the other end of nostalgia alley.

I think you're right on the money with this notion of "local clustering." On a related note, our multiple-car garages with their garage doors have great potential as small storefronts, little workshops, etc. My grandmother ran a sundries shop from her converted garage in suburban Vancouver, B.C. in the '50s and '60's. There's plenty of "retail space" and "commercial space" within easy walking distance of suburban homes if we move our cars out of it...

Half the suburban garages I see are piled full of "stuff" with the cars parked in the driveway. Still, your point stands for the other half of garages.

airdale & dougfir:

The small towns that were far enough away to escape being absorbed by metro areas have stayed much more like they were. If they have managed to so far escape being "assimilated", Borg-style, then they are probably pretty much free and clear at this point, for I don't see much money being available for further "development" at this point. ALL the developers are now going bankrupt, or will very soon now.

I don't know to what extent the suburbs can be salvaged and transformed, and I don't know to what extent that is even a good use of resources. I do believe that small towns still have a much more promising future, and are indeed worth saving.

I agree.

Best Hopes for Small Towns,


The one advantage of the Burbs is that they are closer to the farm and food production all of which is going to become more labor intensive.

The other trend IMO is less people working at all in which case the burbs ain't a bad place to do nothing in.

Houston might serve as a model for what might (and might not) be viable adjustments to the suburben sprawl. It will share some similarities with some areas and not so much with others.

Foremost, the burb dwellers will not be relocating to the inner city either as buyers or renters. The old worn down neighborhoods near downtown have been undergoing renewal for the last 6 to 8 years. Even with the downturn in the economy (not nearly as bad here as elsewhere) inner city prices are running 2+ times the cost per square foot as the burbs. Rental won’t be much of an option either. Rates near downtown are probably close to twice what a burb mortgage might be. Due to its size, Houston has developed something akin to a “suburban inner city”. The former burbs (10 to 20 miles from downtown) eventually attracted the true inner city dwellers that were priced out of the downtown neighborhoods. Thus we have an inner ring of very high priced properties with easy access to D/T, the next circle out of low priced single family unit with fair to poor public transport and an outer ring of expensive homes with limited commuter buses. It’s very difficult to imagine any viable approach to significantly change this distribution. The only way to physically concentrate folks is vertical expansion….there just isn’t any significant amount of undeveloped land within 30 miles of D/T. And vertical expansion would be available only to the wealthiest portion of the population.

On the bright side though, Houston has been transforming itself into smaller “suburban cities” (for lack of a better term) for some time now. We have no zoning laws to speak of in Harris County in which Houston dominates both in area and population. BTW: Houston city limits extend 30 to 40+ miles into the county thanks to the power of annexation. As the bedroom communities developed the city was able to capture and incorporate them. In theory, one day Houston and Dallas (200+ miles away) could share a common boundary line. Thanks to the lack of zoning many large business complexes have developed in the burbs. Major medical complexes have also moved to the burbs. This could serve as the most expedient and cost effective to alter energy consumption. While there are still a great many folks commuting to D/T a significant, and growing, portion of the population is now traveling much shorter distances to jobs in the burbs. A significant service industry (restaurants, malls, etc) has developed in these areas also. Essentially, though many areas are still technically in the city of Houston, they have evolved into small “satellite cities”. This could be a viable long term approach to the problem. The benefits should be obvious to all: no massive relocation of families, retention of home values, local job development including low to high income earners, lower motor fuel consumption, etc.

I’m not familiar with zoning restrictions in other states but do understand that in many areas the development of similar satellite cities won’t be viable without a change in the law. Even with such amendments it would take decades to effect significant changes. But there would be significant financial advantages for both business and families to re-concentrate themselves: cheaper land and new job/housing opportunities. Any idea that does not include significant financial incentives for the participants has little chance of success IMHO. The gov’t could mandate such changes but it’s very difficult to see such forced relocations ever being employed.

Who amongst our hardy band here live in areas were such satellite cites might be a model that offers some hope?

Think of New England, where suburban development was overlaid on an existing pattern of small towns and village centers. Many suburban houses in eastern Massachusetts are within a short distance of a local center of some sort.


Would local regs allow large office complexes in those areas? That would seem to be the key to me: new office buildings = new companies = new earning potential = migration potential to these areas = new infrastructure opportunities and the jobs which come with them.

In all seriousness, what do people DO in office buildings?

Will those tasks still be around, will those layers of middle management, or middlemen, still be needed or paid for with declining energy and resources?

On a related aspect, our largest private employer is the hospital, a one story, 15 bed affair with attached long term care. Even designated as a Critical Access rural health facility, I don't imagine it to continue its present payroll. I forsee much of the endless paperwork and non-patient jobs being eliminated, perhaps with much of it's "technology." Already we ship most critical care on to the city, after stabilizing. Certain services are trucked in in a mobile semi which sets up operation on a biweekly basis on the side street.

Nationwide, we might retain some of the less expensive technology, and may continue to see some mobile services, I see most having to get back to a more basic operation. Simply providing skilled, attended care during illness in a non home environment, probably with old or new medicines, but without the near the intervention or diagnostic services.

In all seriousness, what do people DO in office buildings?

I can't speak for everyone, but I spend most of my day surfing the web and reading the Oil Drum :)

In all seriousness, what do people DO in office buildings?

In New Orleans, attorneys and accountants, import/export business, shipping, exploring for and producing oil & gas (and sulfur), managing refining and distribution, managing food manufacturing (coffee roasting, tea packaging, hot sauce, mayonnaise, freezing poultry for export, etc.), managing ship building & maintenance, engineering.

Hope that helps,


You are listing occupations, business types, not what people do.

As the report above says, he surfs the net. Others talk or write, some add or think.

Best hopes for much less talking, phoning, memoing, conferencing, surfing, more thinking in much smaller structures.

While Chattanooga is 'small' compared to Houston, the pattern of development here is similar. It is currently very trendy and expensive to live downtown. Many of the old businesses have been converted into very expensive condos for the well-off who chose to live in the urban center. This displaced most of the poorer families to the close in suburbs. However because of the geography there are a number of small towns surrounding Chattanooga which have become its McMansion suburbs. First businesses died in these towns but are now being replaced by new 'trendy' shops and restaurants. Only very recently has the extension of sewer systems allowed the development of subdivisions like Alan talked about where the top soil is scrapped off the 1/3 acre lot. Most of the suburban houses are on lots of an acre or more and many people have vegetable gardens; so much so that selling vegetables around here in the summertime is difficult with so many people giving away their surplus. This is true for those towns that are on the valley floor. However those towns located on the mountains are entirely wooded and growing even tomatoes is difficult. The real negative we have is almost total lack of public transportation outside of the downtown area. We have a poorly utilized bus system and no rail other than freight tracks where trains pass through and no longer stop as the stations are gone. I am fortunate enough to have retained my 'agricultural' zoning so it is legal for me to have chickens. Interestingly, my roosters crowing in the morning are answered by crowing from some areas around me that I know are not zoned agricultural.

the Burbs is that they are closer to the farm and food production

Closer "as the crow flies" perhaps (arguable) but not for effective transportation post-Peak Oil.

Which is closer, Vancouver Washington (sprawl suburb across Columbia from Portland) or the Pearl District of Portland ?

Pearl residents can take a streetcar to Max, and then west to Beaverton (? my memory is weak) and then catch a commuter train south with their bicycle.

Vancouver WA residents can bicycle from home.

Which is "closer" ?


Starting from WT ELP principle Economize Localize Produce and applying it to Suburbia the answer seems fairly clear.

The suburban communities would need to recreate more centralized work area ala a downtown. This downtown core needs a fast rail connection to the larger city center.

Suburban areas that can recentralize and localize could become viable small towns and villages. Later local food supplies become important.

Saving suburbia does not need to happen and probably won't happen. This article claiming that the sunk cost deter abandonment is mistaken it times of stress sunk costs are the first ones people are willing and able to abandon.

If your underwater on your home loan then walking away takes your debt load to zero.

If you own your own home outright and sell for any price even zero then your free to abandon the property with no constraints on your future.

Jobs are what matters and people can and will do what they have to to work. Look at Detroit and Michigan as a guide if you will of what people are willing to do if they have no jobs. People may complain about money they lost in homes in Detroit but at the end of the day you have to work you don't have to deal with sunk costs.

So some suburban areas will probably survive esp those that grew up around original towns in the first place some won't. I would guess that the cost of living in suburbuia primarly the fixed housing cost will be lowered to make them attractive vs living in town. The total cost of living in suburbia vs moving into town should be equal or lower than the lower energy alternative. Given the current high cost of suburban housing as far as I can tell housing prices have plenty of room to decline to allow the cost of suburban living to compete with alternatives.

Taking the price of a home from 300k to 200k frees up a substantial amount of money to allow people to absorb the higher living costs.

Whats this indicates is that the problem with suburbia is probably the inflated home values that no longer reflect the value of living in suburbia. To take this to and extreme if suburban homes cost say 10k then existing suburban homes are viable at practically any projected levels of living cost. This is limited to some extent by heating and cooling costs of the largest homes. In general however you can fairly easily show that suburban homes are viable if the cost 3X of the median single salary. A second income can readily be used to cover any additional transportation expenses and esp pay for expensive electric commuter cars.

What kills suburbia is not that it cannot be sustained in a viable manner despite high energy costs its that housing price will not reset fast enough to ensure suburbia is viable because the prices are sticky going down and it forces most home owners underwater on their loans in a few years and the price people can pay for suburban homes drops suburbia dies as people walk away.

If you want to save suburbia then the right way to do it is ensure that people only buy homes they can afford with 3x a single income for families or 2x the income of a single wage earner and second they pay 20-40% down.
Then suburbia will be stable and suburban homeowners have more than enough money to invest in transportation.

I'd like to suggest that the author provide some definition of "Suburbia" as a foundation for the rest of the series.

The posters above have a range of ideas about what a suburb is -- and in fact there are a wide range of different types and ages of suburbs, which will have different problems and assets in a low-energy world.

Jeff, I'm just so happy to see you working on a distinction that I've been trying to make for years now - there is the question of what we think of the project of suburbia (and I think all of us can agree that if we were in charge, we'd do it differently), and then the larger and much more important of whether we're to abandon suburbia. Like you, I've come to the conclusion that that simply can't happen - my reasoning has partly to do with our previous investment, and partly with the need for land that we're going to have to feed ourselves.

I have to say, I think in the fairly short term, the transportation issue is really a comparatively minor one - even if we imagine most food and goods coming only to central points along freight lines, for example, and the problem of commuting, that problem gets far smaller if you simply imagine people filling the cars and trucks we actually have - pickup trucks get crappy mileage, but with three in the cab and six in the bed (no, not legal now, but I'd bet anything it will be), it really isn't that expensive to get to the market or to your job. Most people in the 'burbs will find they are mostly travelling to the same central areas.

Westexas, I think I respectfully disagree that things are already unfolding in the 'burbs as Kunstler said - sure, under-construction developments were the first sufferers, and certainly a few people moved inwards when gas price rose. But the statistics are still small, and honestly, I think as the economy gets worse, we're going to find that the suburban house you live in continues to look better than trying to sell it and move - even if that means that - gasp! you have to ride to work with your neighbors.

I think Kunstler is brilliant and that his book was incredibly influential - but it and The End of Suburbia have been too influential - they've shaped the discourse of peak oil into a discourse that is partly about the suburbs in a way that it shouldn't be - instead, it should be about how all the places we live are going to be changed- and where you live is going to shape how you live more than it has. I've tried to explore some of the differences here: http://sharonastyk.com/2008/06/10/city-country-suburb-it-isnt-where-you-... But suburbia isn't going away.

Great post, Jeff, and great subject for discussion.

Sharon Astyk

You're right about carpooling in cars and trucks. In Texas, it's legal for adults to ride in the open bed of a pickup truck. In most other states, it's legal to ride in the back with a camper shell. I still think it's easier for five people to carpool in a 30 mpg sedan or seven people to carpool in a 20 mpg minivan, but beggars can't be choosers.

A few years back I was a grad student in suburban Southern California with a longish commute to a low wage job, so I know a thing or two about commuting on the cheap. I had a cheap used motorcycle that got 50 mpg (not that fuel prices mattered back then), and I spent a lot of weekends fixing it. In hindsight, I didn't save a whole lot over a cheap used car because motorcycles are high maintenance and less durable. Motorcycle spare parts are already expensive and hard to find. In a world of disrupted supply chains, they'd be one of the first to deteriorate. Unless you had to make a lot of solo trips, most people would be better off carpooling and splitting gas in a sedan.

Here's a simple test for suburban viability: are you less than 10 km (6 miles) from any school, work place, doctor's office or shop that cannot be reached by train? If yes, your place is viable: your preparation for a scarce-fuel future is buying a bicycle that is good for commuting (e.g. fenders, bag carrier) and a bicycle trailer for kids that can also be used to carry groceries. If you are further out than 10 km, managing life by bicycle becomes too burdensome. 10 km is realistic. Believe me, I tried it. Being endangered by cars would be no problem at $20 gasoline because there would be so few.

Yet, at $20 gas a 6 mile trip only costs $4 with a 30 mpg vehicle-mass transit will charge you more at this point. I have stated this point a zillion times-any trip manageable on a bicycle will be clogged with cars using $20 a gallon gasoline-the exurb commutes will leave, but these can't be replaced by bicycles anyway-streets clogged with cars will not go away with 20 or 30 dollar a gallon gasoline.

If yes, your place is viable...

Yes - until it snows, as I said upthread. Last winter ended less than a year ago. Has everybody on TOD already forgotten, in so little time, that such a thing as winter actually exists???

Yeah, winter here can be a real problem. Sometimes it drops into the forties at night. Last year I think it actually went as low as freezing once or twice. Those days, riding a bike is real uncomfortable.

Well, that's fine for you, or as the English expression has it, "I'm all right, Jack." Perhaps if it is allowed to go downhill to the point where riding bikes becomes unavoidable, all the people who live where there is winter can come and crowd in with you.

As you can read upthread a ways, there are people who ride all winter long in places like Chicago. So it is doable, especially when riding bikes become unavoidable, as you mentioned.

That sort of thinking is useful, but I wonder about the assumption that the doctors, workplaces, stores etc that are within 10km now, will still be in 10 years. Stores close, doctors move, and jobs evaporate. I can walk to stores and hospitals from my suburban home now, but see no reason that they will be viable or maintained in current suburban locations indefinitely. Once there's a hoarding mentality, for instance - something that is easy to slip into and hard to slip out of - then our neighborhood Safeways are not going to be open 24/7 with full shelves. In my area, doctors are already leaving for the bigger cities and health clinics are being closed.

And just to throw in another variable which occurs to me: flat suburbs are a lot more viable in terms of bicycles and wheelbarrows than hilly ones. Places where there is a lot of vertical relief can be more difficult to get supplies to. Biking uphill is for the young.

The addition of electric motor hubs on bikes will take their range out to 20+ miles. And I've bike commuted at 10 miles one way, so don't look at 6 miles as being any kind of limitation.

Thank you. This is how the discussion needs to be going. What do we do NOW, given the messed up choices we have made in the past. I would also like to see this approach applied to agriculture. The current permaculture emphasis within peak oil circles, and the notion of "going back" to all organic agricultural methods does not realistically account for the irreversible changes that have come about from decades of modern development. Population increases are especially relevant here. If we just shout out, "destroy the suburbs" and "to hell with the people who live there," well then fine, but you are talking about the extermination of millions of people. Same goes with agriculture. Permaculture is not a food production system. It is a design system. That's all. It has a lot to teach us, but not how to produce any appreciable quantity of food to feed the numbers of people alive today (even through the forseeable future if we could somehow begin a humane population reduction program of volunarily having less children).

And I know some of us here believe in the viability of all organic agriculture to produce as much food as the industrial ag system. I have been an organic farmer for years. I just do not believe this. The amount of inputs required to grow organically is immense. Even no-till, soil-building methods I do not believe can ever reduce the need for sizable inputs, at least if we want produce enough food to get humanity through a humane depopulation program that will take generations.

We need to think realistically of what to do NOW, given the mistakes of the past. I am excited about reading your four-part series. Thanks again.

Emanuel Sferios

Hmmm... Let's assume TSHTF and we are all barely surviving on essentials. Would you rather be in a concrete jungle with millions of other hungry people, or closer to the country were food is produced and population density is much lower? I know were I would rather be.

The whole purpose of the city was to support the industrial revolution. If TS does really HTF, then we are leaving the industrial lifestyle. Why would we care if we could commute into the city on an electric rail if there are no jobs there? If there is still food being transported, it will have to go through the 'burbs to get to the city. I would rather be first in line.

This is a good point, but the problems start in the transition period *before* TSHTF. I live in shared housing in Portland with cheap rent, use public transit and/or bicycle to work. I am not at risk of losing my house due to rising commute costs and the inability to pay a mortgage. In short, it is much cheaper to live and rent in the city than to own a house in the burbs. I think we are going to see a lot of people moving back to the cities for this reason. The cities, also, are the center of political and commercial activity, and they are transportation/warehouse hubs. The shipping containers are dropped off here in Portland. Not in Beaverton.


I wonder if community gardens could be created in judiciously located suburban open areas. If there are no playgrounds or parks to take over then work out which house covered blocks to sacrifice and bulldoze them flat. Forget about ripping up the tarmac but build raised beds filled with tree mulch, charcoal, compost etc. Construct rainwater tanks, fish ponds, chicken coops and vine trellises. A high chain mesh fence and locked gate will be needed around each garden. The person with the key must be competent and reliable. Able bodied people will have to work for their allocation of corn, squash, potatoes, eggs and so on.

Long time lurker here on TOD. As an Architect this topic convinced me to comment. I too am frusturated by the "suburbia sucks" slogan that gets used all too often. As already noted, many older suburbs have actually weaved quite well into the fabric of the core cities they surround. It's simply not true that all post WWII suburbs have less density and more infastructure needs than core cities. The vast majority of the "problem" suburbs and exurbs... with super sized lots, oversized houses, shotty construction, lack of pedestrian scale and so forth...were built from the 1970's to present.

I would place all pre-1970 suburban housing stock on the safe list just for their proximity to the core city and that their age probably has given time for full development/infill. As for the newer, I wouldn't necessarily write it all off. One thing to note is that in most major N. American cities more people work in the suburbs than the city centers. As long as there are jobs in the suburban office complexes, nobody will be vacating their adjacent bedroom communities. The sunk cost should be applied to the commerical structures of suburbia as well. Again, these will not be abandoned for a glass tower downtown.

The real test is if there is enough time to in-fill and fully develop these outlying areas. Density must rise and with it must come viable transit. I do see far out suburban nodes surviving around large employers. Similar to the Pullman District outside of Chicago.

Back to the core cities. One big concern I have is that most cities have been essentially stripped and left to rot since the 1960's. New urbanism was truly a shame. I don't want to debate the reasons for the suburban exodus, but the result was that the housing stock for the most part hasn't been maintained for 30+ years. Also the pedestrian access to services in the core cities has greatly been reduced as businesses either moved to the suburbs or went bankrupt. There are exceptions to this in portions of any city, but in almost every major city I've visited there are large portions of inner city that would need to be essentially rebuilt to support the pre WWII population. Another concern is that old buildings simply are not energy efficient. Yes, you can retrofit this, but if the structure is falling apart it would be more prudent to start over, salvaging what you can.

My other concern about core cities, and inner ring suburbs, is about work. If we truly redensify to pre WWII levels or more, what are all these people going to do? I agree that glass tower office jobs will be few and far between. The historic businesses of the city I call home have all long ago left. The riverfront has been changed from an industrial area to loft condos that are equally ridiculous as an exurban McMansion. But the guy in an exurban McMansion could theoretically use available land and abandoned houses to start a farming operation and produce something, city lots or condo units, I don't think so. I do think urban renewal will continue, but I think the population estimates are greatly optimistic.

Excellent topic, and your treatment is timely. Some, but by no means most, 'burbs are seeing foreclosed houses darkened or squatted upon by persons who need to extract a living from petty crime in the neighborhood. Some homes have been bulldozed to preclude this, though an eyesore remains. Exurbs have more impact from over-extended mortgages, higher fuel costs (larger homes) and longer commutes, but tend to have more space to grow food. The most car dependent burbs will see the most devaluation, depending upon other factors such as local industry viability.

Solutions? The obvious: intensive gardening, biking (electric boost, folding bikes, velomobiles, other variations), neighborhood watch, telecommuting, multiple skills, bartering, re-purposing of existing assets, bus service increases, and so forth. Lawn worship will be replaced by edible landscaping and permaculture workshops. Solar window boxes will sprout from south facing windows in the Northern Hemisphere. Solar cooking will become more visible. Backyard youth sports will re-emerge (travel teams will fold). Root cellars will come back into vogue. Life will return, in some ways, to how it was at the turn of the previous century.

I want to thank Jeff for posting his piece and undertaking the broader project. This is a truly worthwhile discussion.

As a promoter of "suburban homesteading" I obviously have some ideas about what I expect to see in suburbia. But before we go too far down this path I'd like to remind everyone of an inconvenient reality.

There will be no plan for dealing with the suburbs

I say this because much of the discussion here seems to assume that we will be able to organize some sort of response to peak oil that will deal with the "suburban problem." Even if resources were not an issue, even if financing were not an issue, there still will be no coordinated effort.

Others have already noted above that there are different kinds of suburbs and this argues against a single approach. But that really, is the least of the problems facing any effort to implement a plan. We need to be realistic about how people go about organizing their communities. Hey, we can't even convince more than a small number of people that peak oil is even real, how are you going to convince people to take action to mitigate it. Many of those we engage in discussions of peak oil fight against the idea. They won't be with us. But the vast majority don't even engage the issues. Think you'll have much luck getting your plan adopted any time soon?

So, suppose you got around this problem by somehow stealth financing enough candidates for congress and the presidency (and yes, I understand this is US centric, but that's where the biggest suburbia is) that you actually got your plan passed into law. What do you suppose will happen to your plan at the next election cycle?

Okay, so suppose you get yourself appointed "king of the world" and you announce your plan. How long do you suppose it will be till you're deposed?

Yeah, I know that somewhere down the road things will get so bad that everyone will realize you were right and we need a plan. But by that time the way we live will have been altered so much that your plan will be unimportant.

Rather than looking for a plan I would suggest our time would be better spent trying to understand the dynamics of the changes we are likely to see, the likely responses to it, and what steps we can take as individuals and in small localities to address these changes.

For example. If occupancy in my subdivision falls to say 50%, will there be a viable community? Some of that depends on closeness to a town center or other community "center." Is agriculture within our subdivision possible? what of reclamation from abandoned houses? What can be done to get local governments interested in community gardens? town centers? Or even local industry?

For the reality is people will make decisions about leaving or staying in a suburban home based on things that are important to them. If they can foresee fulfilling those goals in the suburbs they will stay, if not they will leave. So understand those goals in all their variety and you'll be able to make a personal plan on how to address your suburb.

I think you make an extremely important point, and, while pessimistic, one that I agree with (with one nitpicking modification): there will be no single, central plan for dealing with the suburbs.

In my opinion, a structural requirement to most any solution going forward (whether it addresses energy, housing, food, etc.) is that it be scale free. Individuals will form plans to deal with their own risk exposure in suburbia. Communities will sometimes even get into the act. I agree that a unified national plan is not very politically likely (at least not one that is bold enough to actually work). Solutions--like home insulation, gardening, pushing for local zoning changes to allow neighborhood stores or small livestock, etc.--will be increasingly workable IF the same solution can be applied at the individual/family level, the community level, the bioregional level, and the national level. Then, if we assume that it won't be applied at the national level, at least something can still be done...

A realization that Victory Gardens are needed again will be one major realization that will make its way around quickly. With a number of people turning large areas of yards into gardens already will be examples held up. The same with those preparing edible landscapes (tooting my own horn here).

There are two very important things working against planning, at least in the U.S. First is structural, the design of our political system. And the second is cultural, the belief in free markets/antipathy to planned economies.

Individual/Family plans are absolutely necessary for anyone who takes peak oil seriously. But that is not really a plan for suburbs, it is a plan for my family's survival. Next step up depends on where you live.

If you are in an unincorporated area, I wish you the best. You might try working through your HOA if you have one, but they don't really have any power that isn't granted in deed restrictions. You could of course, try to organize people on your own, but this runs into those cultural issues. Unless you can convince people that you have the correct take on peak oil I wouldn't put your chances real high. Best bet is lead by example. Implement your family plan, show others what you can accomplish, maybe they emmulate you.

If you are in an incorporated municipality, you might have the option of getting the local gov't involved. But don't think that you're going to take over the town council and implement some big plan based on changing tax codes, taking the money from the 4th of July celebration and putting it into some local bus service or the like. You will get crushed. Better bet would be to get the council to commit to some small things, like supporting a community garden, a farmers market, maybe if you dream big you can convince them to extend tax breaks to small craft based industries. And of course, you have the same option of leading by example.

Beyond that, there is no likelihood that you will impact the existing political structures. Maybe I'm overly pessimistic about american politics and there are some county level governments that could be reached, but I doubt it. There will be no state governments you will touch. Bio-regional is a non-starter, there are no existing institutions at that level.

Is this overall pessimism? If you want to call it that. But it is important to understand that the governance system we currently have is part and parcel of the entire setup we currently live in.

You might try working through your HOA if you have one,

But, in my experience, the home owner's associations are the enemy. Their job is to protect the property values, forcing the poorer folks to subsidize the paper value of the houses of the richer folks in the neighborhood. Lose your job? They will fine you ridiculous amounts for not doing entirely unnecessary exterior maintenance. The home owners association will force you to work on the superficial, rather than the substantial. Don't want to waste gallons of gas mowing the yard? They will fine you. Want to grow a garden in your front yard? The home owner's association will come to interfere. Want chickens in your back yard? They will burn a cross on your lawn. Want to put solar collectors on your roof? They will probably put a stop to that. Want to convert your south wall to a thermosyphon solar wall? They will again interfere. Their job is to force you to maintain the facade. They want you to replace the completely useless fake shutters on your house when you need to be replacing functional stuff that doesn't work. So they can still pretend it is a rich white neighborhood (it never was even when entirely white) when it has been taken over by immigrants living 10 in a house; at least the latter is energy efficient - but half the people in the neighborhood probably don't have health insurance. In the old days, they would prevent people from erecting a large satellite dish; today, they would apply that same thinking to your concentrating solar dish. It is all about the myth of real estate appreciation.

Visiting my mom once in a rental car, her HOA put a note threatening fines or towing on my windshield for not having a county sticker - on an out of state practically brand spanking new car (not a derelict) that was not required to have county stickers. Not that it is any of their business to enforce vehicle regulations even if they were applicable.

Even their "utility" in preserving home values has been disputed. And in a post-peak future, it will only be worse. If anything, they may accelerate foreclosure (or even initiate it for unpaid fines) and decline in property values because they will push people over the financial edge.

Homeowner's associations were part of the problem that created suburbia

The Federal Housing Administration in 1963 authorized federal home mortgage insurance exclusively for condominiums or for homes in subdivisions where there was a qualifying homeowners' association. The rationale was that homes in tracts where there was a homeowners association would be more likely to maintain their value. The effect, however, was to divert investment from multifamily housing and home construction or renovation in the inner cities, speeding a middle-class exodus to the suburbs and into common-interest housing. The federal highways program further facilitated the process. In the 1970s, a growing scarcity of land for suburban development resulted in escalating land costs, prompting developers to increase the density of homes on the land. In order to do this while still retaining a suburban look, they clustered homes around green open areas managed by associations. These associations provided services that formerly had been provided by municipal agencies funded by property taxes; yet, the residents were still required to pay those taxes. Accordingly, local governments began promoting subdivision development as a means of improving their cash flow.[3]
Homeowners' associations are often criticized for having restrictive rules and regulations on how homeowners are allowed to conduct themselves and use their property. Board members and professional managers must enforce the rules aggressively and inflexibly in order to protect themselves from personal liability under the good business judgment rule. Moreover, homeowners' association leaders have little financial incentive to avoid indulging in rigid and arbitrary behavior that is needlessly offensive to residents; unless people begin to leave in droves, it will have little effect on the value of a board member's home.
Some scholars and the AARP charge that in a variety of ways HOAs suppress the rights of their residents.[13] Due to their nature as a non-governmental entity, HOA boards of directors are not bound by constitutional restrictions on governments, although some critics claim that they are a de-facto level of government.[14]
Only property owners are eligible to vote in elections, and voting by renters is prohibited, since the association has contractual agreements solely with owners. Additionally, only one vote per unit may be cast, rather than one vote per adult occupant, so that voting representation is equal to the proportion of ownership.
The AARP has recently voiced concern that homeowners associations pose a risk to the financial welfare of their members. They have proposed that a homeowners "Bill Of Rights" be adopted by all 50 states to protect seniors from rogue Homeowner Associations.
“It is obvious from the complaints [to DCA] that that [home]owners did not realize the extent association rules could govern their lives.”
However, in general, courts have held that private actors may restrict individuals' exercise of their rights on private property, especially considering that individuals are under no obligation to build or purchase private property in a planned unit development governed by a homeowners' association. [Contrast this with the statement in the first paragraph that you couldn't get a federal loan or the next one]
Advocates often maintain that people choose to live in HOAs, but some note that "choice" is misleading. In reality HOAs have been mandated by municipalities for decades either directly or indirectly. This is often accomplished by conditioning plat or other approval on the creation of amenities such as roads, open areas, greenbelts, retention basins, etc. and an obligation to maintain them. Certainly a large percentage of the population has no choice but to live in an HOA. Finding a non-HOA neighborhood of homes built in the last several decades is virtually impossible. The choice for most buyers seeking a newer home is not HOA or non-HOA but which HOA.
But another survey of 3,000 people living in homeowners associations found that two-thirds of them found their HOAs were "annoying" or worse.[12] At least 19 percent had been in a "war" with their HOA. Fifty-four percent of the respondents said they would rather live with a sloppy neighbor than deal with an HOA. Twenty-four percent responded positively about an HOA.

Far from being a force for positive change, HOA's will have to be defanged before positive change will even be allowed to happen.

...authorized federal home mortgage insurance exclusively for condominiums or for homes in subdivisions where there was a qualifying homeowners' association...

The effect, however, was to divert investment from multifamily housing and home construction or renovation in the inner cities, speeding a middle-class exodus to the suburbs

I was unaware of that particular pro-Suburbia, anti-city policy. Thanks,

Best Hopes for pro-city, Anti-Suburban policies in the future to balance the past,


Ah, the great free country the USA, where you can carry a firearm into a shopping mall but you can't hang your washing out in your backyard :)

whitis - you don't have to convince me. I think you missed the tone of what I was after - no doubt my fault in writing poorly. I have nothing but contempt for HOAs and have refused to live anywhere where there is one. Your discussion of the problems of HOAs are precisely why I would argue against there being much of a "plan" in unincorporated suburban areas.

I can't see how we can go to a situation where victory gardens are important for survival i.e high food costs and uncertainty and maintain the high prices for suburban homes. Maybe some sort of hyper inflation scenario.

The point is that the current economic conditions of in general low inflation and a gradual increase in value of suburban housing is the part of suburbia thats in danger. The problem lies in our financial institutions that have allowed homeownership. In my opinion this support structure is now breaking apart. Without it many of the suburban homes will probably be resold as rentals destroying the family values that attracted people to the suburbs. Not that renting is a bad thing but given that the landlords will probably have cash flow problems and also same for the renters we can expect slumlord like rental dynamics to proliferate.

This along with a continuous stream for foreclosures will erode the value of many suburban areas. Certainly many that own their homes outright or bought 10-15 years ago will be able to hang in there and plant victory gardens but I don't see that as compelling for the survival of suburban living.

Whats happened recently is that suburban housing has become unfordable for most. For those that can nominally afford it it require a dual income household. Most of suburbia is now barely affordable even in a robust economy much less in a economy where victory gardens are likely to be important.

It only takes a few burglaries and murders to dramatically reduce the value of a suburban community.

If you look at suburbia itself and consider that we will probably see the amount of disposable income available drop going forward you have this problem of maintaining suburban homes as people have less and less money every year. This includes simply maintaining the structures. Furthermore as gasoline gets expensive we probably will see people that can make living choices choose renting closer to town or purchasing a condo.

For the most part it makes sense that the overall direction if you will of migration is away from the suburbs and towards the cities which offer more stability. As I said if food actually becomes a issue I think we are talking about a different set of problem. But given a general change in peoples attitudes with the flow going the opposite of what it would in the past suburbia has this problem of being unable to attract the new home owners required to keep the chain of home owner ship going.

Also note that this intrinsic collapse if you will of ever sprawling suburbs was probably going to happen regardless as the baby boomer generation retired we have a natural end to the baby boomers buying ever larger houses or stating in large homes with only 1-2 people after their children left. The demographic changes coupled with the fact that the farthest exurbs are at the fringe of driving range means that despite all the issues we face we have a undercurrent of a sort of natural end of suburban expansion.

I think that suburban communities that recognize the challenges they face may well fare well many will not.
My opinion is that the suburban facade of being a safe place to raise a family can and will be destroyed by the forces acting against stability of suburban life. As this is lost people will turn agianst suburban living.

A set of similar trends and forces is what lead to the death of our city cores in the first place.

Memmel - thanks for the thoughtful response. I don't so much disagree with you as simply have a darker vision of what is coming. While your concerns seem to largely surround the affordability of suburban housing and the suburban lifestyle, I see a much more precipitous drop in the economy that pushes the affordability question aside.

My expectation is that ten years from now the vast majority of suburban houses will have more owed on them than they could be sold for. Indeed, I don't believe selling and buying suburban houses will even be an issue as it won't happen. For a few years the banks will continue to foreclose, but as some point they will stop taking action only because they can not even unload the houses they already have foreclosed on. And in many places, foreclosure won't even be an option as the local municipalities and counties fail and are unable to govern/enforce laws, etc. And this is only for those banks that survive. Most will have failed and many mortgages will simply pass into the ether.

Ownership is likely to become more a matter of physical occupation of the house rather than what is on paper somewhere. The only question for those who currently own is whether to abandon the house or to try to wait out the banks. That's when suburban homesteading becomes a reality.

Hi Shaman, from the little I know about it it seems zoning laws are the critical element in the States, which forced the construction of large houses, do not allow offices and factories in some areas, do not provide for pavements or bicycle paths etc (not sure if the last bit is due to the zoning regulations?)

If the system is amenable to it, heavy taxes on properties left vacant might discourage rapid repossession and encourage their either being disposed of quickly or rented out promptly.
Local by-laws making the owner responsible if crack-houses were opened on their premises might also help.

I'm not sure how much of that makes sense, as conditions vary greatly in different countries, and even, I believe, in different States in the US.

Dave, no doubt the sorts of responses you are suggesting would help. But there in lies the problem. First, you would need to stealthily (because you are not going to be allowed to do it in the open) gain control of the proper level of gov't to implement these changes. And then, you would have to survive the ensuing onslaught of money, media, power, etc., that would come at you once you've implemented your changes. And good luck with that.

I was recently browsing records for the county assessor for Travis County, TX (Austin and surrounding area) and saw plenty of properties that owed 15 years or more in back taxes.

No matter how much you tax some vacant properties, you'll never collect :) It's the American Way: "What, me, pay taxes?"

Single use zoning has shaped suburbia into what it is today. JHK talks frequently about how this made the "apartment above the retail shop" all but go extinct. While zoning laws have had ill effects they were borne of logical needs. For example keeping residential away from hazardous industrial waste. Don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. Houston has no zoning and it's far from a perfect example of development harmony.

The worst example of zoning laws run amok are in certian exurbs they have minimum lot size requirements that are well into the several acre size. Mainly a result of cities not wanting to install public water/sewer so they require lot sizes big enough to house a septic field.

I think Houston is a great example of how you do NOT want 6 million people to live together.

It's like sprawl on steroids, driven by cheap gas on one hand and a desire for rich folks to live seperated from nasty things like oil refineries and poor people on the other hand.

It is a monument to the "let's build something ten miles away from everything else and get the city to build the infrastructure and then everyone will come to us" mentality.

Example: fifteen years ago, they started work on the Grand Parkway, a loop around the city to complement the two they already have. It's going to be 180+ miles long if they ever get it finished.

(disclaimer: if you can't tell, I don't like Houston much. I guess it's a necessary evil.)

Great post that has generated good discussion relevant to a post peak oil world. I grew up in a new post WWII suburb in Sydney but have lived in suburbs and inner cities in Australia and N America.

In Europe suburbs are not built on cheap energy, with higher energy costs US suburbs will use more mass transit, more fuel efficient cars and improve home energy efficiencies. In Australia, new larger homes are replacing smaller post WWII 2-3 bedroom timber homes, they have much better insulation and lower energy costs.

Older Sydney suburbs have about the same density as newer suburbs, but less mass-transit infrastructure. This can be built over decades.

In US and Australia many baby boomers are about to retire and will stay in suburbs, not commute to work or drive their kids to school. They will want regular short commuting( short range EV ideal), trips to city(mass transit ideal) and long distance vacations(more problematic especially air travel, but rail and sea based travel OK).
As the developed worlds population stabilizes, the population density of persons/dwelling declines, but a lot of the suburban costs such as garbage/water /sewer are based on the number of people using them. For example, less people, less food eaten,less sewerage, less garbage,less traffic, less road repairs. Most infrastructure is in place , except mass transit.

The biggest problem will be workers commuting. I see car-pooling as a stop-gap measure until EV are widely available and or mass transit improved. I don't see any reason why renewable energy will not be able to replace coal and NG for electricity production. In any case there is no reason why suburban homes have to use more energy than rural village or inner city homes.

In any case there is no reason why suburban homes have to use more energy than rural village or inner city homes

Much more asphalt/capita. Services (from policing to UPS deliveries) take more energy. Longer distances to pump water and sewage. And other "embedded energy" uses (further from goods and food distribution).

Plus no shared walls.

Suburbia has a structural problem with energy use, although more efficient housing reduces that handicap.


I seriously doubt that cities will be more sustainable than suburbs during peak oil. Most cities are an absolute mess; the city of the future is the typical third world city, poor people building shacks on mountain sides, etc--not something nice and well-ordered.
A future of high rise cities(+8 stories high) will be an infrastructure nightmare IMO. High rises are big money wasters for the owners. High rise public housing is a nightmare.
Mass transit is somewhat economic for areas with population densities of greater than 10000 people per square mile.
By increasing population density the number of VMT per person in a year decreases but the total VMT rises about half as much, increasing street congestion.
We really need to look at suburban planning rather than urban planning.

Cities SUCK. That's why only freaks want to live there.

Hello TODers,

I have already addressed many of the issues in the keypost and thread discussion with my earlier postings on O-NPK recycling, bicycles & wheelbarrows, and SpiderWebRiding as the 'ribcage' to Alan Drake's RR & TOD [spine & limbs]. I would recommend newbie TODers start by reading TopTODer Heading Out's keypost:

The EROI on supplying fuel

..He estimated that a single human porter or tlameme as they were known in Nahuatl, could carry a load of about 25 kg (55 lb) of maize. He calculated, however, that the per day overburden of a porter, taking into account the nutritional needs of the porter and his family, was about 30% of the value of the load, based on a round trip for the porter. This places an absolute limit on the transportation of corn of 3.3 days or 100 km (60 miles). In other words, if a porter carried a load of corn 100 km, he would have used it all to feed himself and his family. The effective limit for a commercial distribution system, of course, would have been considerably less, say 50% of the absolute limit, or 50 km. During the Aztec dominance in the Mexican highlands, basic foodstuffs, other than gourmet items, were normally drawn from within a restricted radius of one day’s journey or approximately 30 km.

He goes on to quote Johann von Thunen on German economics, with a horse:

He determined that the absolute transportation limit for cereals carried by a horse and wagon was about 80 km. At that point, the horses and drivers would have eaten all the grain during the round trip.
80 km [49.7 miles] is no obstacle if we have a well-designed spine, limbs, and rib networks.

Recall the earlier link where a single person on a pedal bike can move 800lbs, at a profit, in the Boston area. SpiderWebRiding by steel wheels on narrow gauge rails will last a lifetime vs compared to numerous sets of tires and tubes, especially if the postPeak roads are hammered.

We do not want to be like the iconic African picture of balancing heavy loads on our heads, or other dire transport schemes.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

By comparison, Corn, transported by an corn ethanol powered semi, would have an ultimate limit of thousands of miles (Using sustainable growing methods, ethanol energy yield can actually be quite high). One bushel (70lb shelled at 15% moisture) of corn produces 2.7 gallons of ethanol (1.77525 gallons of diesel equivalent BTUs) and a truck gets around 90 ton miles (2571 bushel miles) per gallon of diesel. Thus, the ultimate limit would be about 4564 miles. By train (or ship, both around 400 ton miles per gallon), 20284 miles - almost circumnavigating the world. And of course, trains can be electrified to use other energy sources.

Humans just are not very energy efficient compared to machines at doing hard physical work. It takes just a tiny portion of a crop (or the land it grows on) to support the farm machinery and transport to a regional market - using humans for tasks they are ill adapted to would chew up a much greater portion of the harvest.

I should note, however, that human labor may make sense over a broader range than suggested in the previous two comments.

In the porter example, the porter's family was included. If the porter was carrying the food to his family, then at the indicated distance he has still done the useful work of feeding himself and his family (ignoring the energy cost of producing the food).

And if someone is otherwise unemployed, the basal metabolism needs to be deducted. Walking (70kg person without additional load) consumes 50 Calories per hour and running about 78. Thus the porter consumes 3000 calories walking that distance without load, plus a basal metabolism of about 700-1500 Calories per day for 3 days, plus a perhaps 18 Calories per mile (1080) due to the load or about 7680 total calories. Roughly half is basal metabolism which would have been expended whether the porter worked or not. Importing immigrant labor (from a national standpoint, ignoring effects on the foreigners) or worse breeding extra labor for work that can be done by machine can result in increasing food demand almost as much as you increase supply.
I should also note that USDA SR21 indicates that 25kg of shelled corn contains about 21000 Calories (with cobs about 1/3 as much), so the ultimate limit for the porter without family might be about 2.73 times as high or 164 miles and about double that if you subtract basal metabolism. The straight dope Calorie figures are a little lower than some exercise sites.
CaloriesPerHour suggests walking 60 miles burns 4610 Calories unburdened and 6297 with a 25lb payload (equating payload weight with body weight), plus basal metabolism. Of course, the porter probably has to walk back, too (though he may be able to do useful work on the return trip). By bicycle, 3,792 calories to carry the load 60 miles and less impact from basal metabolism. That is equivalent to about 4410 watt*hours, about 4 times as many (electric, not thermal) used by an electric bike. A non-hybrid ethanol powered bike would probably more or less break even with human labor; the real efficiency is moving freight in bulk (and more by moving by rail or water).

Even adjusted for basal metabolism and ignoring the overhead, the energy return on human labor is poor (and would be negative if you created more humans to do the job). Growing biofuels (for food production/transport) to make agriculture more efficient feeds more people per unit area than using human labor. Of course, these calculations are approximate and need to be adapted to specific tasks. Also, humans may consume significant amounts of energy when idle. Watching a big screen TV alone may consume as much energy per hour as the bicycle porter (but that can come from sources other than biofuels and thus place less tax on limited farmland and watching TV on a small screen or laptop or with others uses less). Idle hands are the devil's energy consumers :-).

But overall, mass migration to farms would probably be not only unnecessary (sustainable agriculture might need about double from 0.2% to 0.4% of the population) but counterproductive. Manual biointensive methods, however, may provide a better return on human labor in terms of land use (not as good as market garden), but not as clear in terms of energy when you consider the extra calories used on labor (doesn't explain how energy use is calculated, though apparently includes metabolic energy and it isn't yield adjusted). Most of the labor is soil prep, though, for which there may be more efficient mechanical alternatives (preferably electric powered for residential use). On another post, however, the same research indicates (without sufficient detail) that the energy input is lower for the biotensive than on rototilled or plowed plots for edamame (green soybeans). Digging ditches takes 594 calories/hour (higher than "digging - garden" which is probably lighter work. It takes 16 min per m^2 (or 158 calories) to dig (plus about half as much of other, less strenuous, labor) which yields about 0.8kg of soybeans (1176 calories) so biointensive gardening is using perhaps one fifth of the crop to feed the gardener. Biofuel powered tilling would take something like 0.5% of the crop energy and deep digging significantly more but probably a lot less than human digging. The digging alone comes out to 0.66MJ/m^2 which is 6 times higher than his energy calculation so it looks like he may be taking 2000/24/60 as his per minute energy use, ignoring the fact that energy use during heavy digging increases sevenfold over average (and even more over baseline). He claims he double dug. Double digging isn't needed every year but is needed for the first couple years and intermittently thereafter. Thus, contrary to his energy/yield plot, when double digging is required the energy use is going to be worse (roughly double) than market garden or small farm. (He has some flawed arguments on ethanol in another post, as well.) In years you don't have to double dig, biointensive might just about break even with the other methods on energy use.

The Suburbs are home to a lot of people who don't have any other practical alternative, so they're going to go on living there and coping with whatever conditions develop for as long as they can. Shelter is, after all, a basic need and no one is going to move out of a house and into homelessness just because the house sucks, costs too much and can't be properly heated.

It is not fatal to live in an expensive cold ugly inconvenient house.

The more horrifying situation is the sheer number of people (whole families, hundreds of thousands of them) who now stand to be forced out anyway... by job loss leading to mortgage default and consequent foreclosure.

Suburban living is, after all, not your primary concern if you are evicted from suburbia.

The first problem is not the uncertain future of millions of vinyl clad monstrosities in the Gatewood Manor Estates of America.

The first and foremost problem is the humanitarian crisis of truly overwhelming numbers of newly homeless families in a nation that is already virtually helpless in the face of relatively small numbers.

It is going to come on really fast, just as fast as the mortgage crisis itself, so the solution is going to have to happen fast, too. One quickie solution would be to adapt a page from England's play book: the government buys up (or forecloses) the empty housing and puts the homeless people back into them, on the dole.

Getting back to the secondary problem (i.e. what will happen in hard-hit suburbs) that is very simple to predict. The units will fall in price until they are cheap enough that someone will buy them and either live in 'em or rent 'em out. In other words: slumification, same as happened to inner cities in previous decades. Not a good thing, but as certain as sunset.

Looks like we're gonna go Socialist in a big way, doesn't it? And the folks who are going to do it are the self same Cowboy Capitalists who have slandered the very word for as far back as I can remember. They are going to do it to save their own butts, of course, because failure to do so will cause the immediate collapse of western civilization... and themselves along with it.

Talk about irony.

I'll re-propose a fairly simple short to medium term fix. Pass a federal law to void zoning ordinances in a fairly broad way. Convert the more usable McMansions into duplexes, triplexes, or even quad-plexes and sell off the added units. The existing "owners" - who deserve little sympathy as few of them "own" a darned thing anyhow - can live in one of the units, carrying mortgages they can actually afford. In addition, the extra units would provide housing affordable by first-time buyers, which is still almost nonexistent. And best of all, if businesses can move in close to where people live, then there will be less need for long-distance commuting, and less need to throw away buildings and infrastructure we can no longer really afford to discard.

This would make would make local rich folks unhappy to have the hoi polloi moving in, but so what? And by the same token it would make local politicians unhappy because they would actually have to work for a living for a change, to make the local government work on such taxes as can practicably be raised from said hoi polloi instead of from only rich folks, but again, so what?

There is never going to be any significant movement toward "sustainable" suburbs until the final nail is in the coffin of the madness that got us here in the first place.

Yet the beat goes on... Developers in a town near me are still wrangling with the town to get approval to mow down a good portion of the last large tract of hardwood forests in the town to put in yet another development with houses priced at around $500,000...

Not until town officials laugh in their face and literally throw the developers out of the meeting for suggesting such ridiculous proposals in the wake of $700 billion bailouts and widespread job losses will I believe that anything constructive can come of the suburbs. Instead of being busy lining their pockets with help from the developers - the town leaders might want to actually take a look into the future and see the potential ruin their continual rubber stamp approval of every development that came along will cause. But nothing will change unless their priorities and vision does.

As someone else said - there's no plan to make this work - the only plan will be from the developers and their financial backers who, long after the clear cutting is done, the houses are half built - none of which are sold, and the losses begin to mount - then come crying to the taxpayers to bail their a**es out yet again.

I apologize for the rant but it completely infuriates me that town officials even listen to anything the developers / bankers / real estate "profession" have to say anymore - they don't have a shred of credibility left IMHO.

On the surface it seems plausible to not only walk away from Suburbia but plan for it, yet that won't happen. Why? Because too many trillions of dollars was invested in it, which provides an economic incentive to develop alternative forms of transportation that aren't fossil fuel dependent.

For example, if wind and solar arrays on a mass scale supply enough energy to charge up electric vehicles, then the problem is solved.

You see, economically, its makes a whole lot more sense to keep trillions of dollars worth of infrasture with alternative forms of transport, than to walk away from it.

Don't think I don't know the conflict that arises here on TOD between economic viewpoints and peak oil. Sure, but in this case economics wins out as long as the alternative is viable. Whether it is viable or not depends on the development of a large enough renewable infrastructure. And that's up to society, and as of tonight Obama plans to start that process not long after entering office. Let's back him up.

There will be another 25 million people in this country in just 10 years alone. Nothing will go unused. Nothing will be walked away from. We have a wonderful paradox. Although population growth appears to be contraindicated at this point in history, in reality it is a wonderful blessing - it will solve a terrible problem - low density suburbs.

Most of the world has been hoping for a change in thinking in US administration. Here in Australia 75% of the people polled have been hoping for an Obama win to end the 8 year nightmare.
Obama has a once in a century opportunity to help US citizens to re-invent the US economy. There's not much argument that it needs fixing. Is the patient sick enough to take the strong medicine needed and is Obama going to be bold enough to propose unpopular medicine?.
One thing is for sure, he will be starting with a lot of good will from most of the world. A sick US economy doesn't help anyone else.

You're right Slater...the US needs a whole lot of fixing. But you might not be familiar with the US political system. The president actually has very little impact on the economy. Tax laws, mortgage and banking laws, social safety nets, trade laws, etc are all written by our Congress. The only bit of impact a president has is a veto power but that too can be overcome by a sufficient number in the Congress. The only significant impact a president has is choosing members of the Supreme Court and the ability to wage war (which can impact the economy). Sen. Obama has pledged to reduce our presence in Iraq but has also promised to expand the war in Afghanistan.

From my vantage point, most of our economic problems were generated by changes in laws which were pushed by both parties in Congress. It's difficult to imagine the Congress not setting up a new set unsustainable economic policies to generate a quick fix for our current problems. And those will work, of course, until they stop working.

At the time, one writer described the Canadian billionaire's vision as a "wild scheme." But almost two years later, Canadaville is set to grow rather than shrink. After experimenting with small-scale organic farming on a plot of land at the community's edge, Magna is set in 2008 to expand the operation to over 340 hectares.
It's a risky proposition.

Canadaville residents, most of whom have no agricultural background, will have the chance to try their hand at entrepreneurial micro-farming as a way to supplement their incomes.

Here's an interesting experimental re-deployment of people from an unsustainable high-density inner city. Agreed, investment this case very high per capita ($37,000 per person), but thats for initially very poor people who lost even the small assets base they may have had in Katrina, and prior any serious land value deflation. Perhaps with continued experimentation could potentially become self-sustaining?


"There is a feedback-loop between declining house values and tight credit markets. Declining home values and increasing foreclosure rates (one result of declining home values) undermine the viability of mortgage-backed securities (and send shockwaves into the credit default swap markets). This makes credit tighter, decreasing the pool of people able to buy homes, which leads to further home value declines, ad infinitum. This is the core of our current financial crisis."

One step in the right direction might be getting back to paying for things with past earnings (aka "savings") rather than future earnings ("credit"). An evil thought virus seems to have implanted itself in the minds of the inhabitants of modern industrial society that economies are necessarily based on credit, and that when there is no credit there can be no economy. Historically, such a sense of entitlement to have things one cannot afford will likely prove to be a relatively brief phenomenon, similar to suburbia itself and just as correlated with that brief eyeblink of time in which abundant, cheap energy was available.

"Suburban civilization is dependent on cheap energy to heat, cool, light, and purify water supplies..."

There is an interesting subconscious assumption going on here that shows just how deeply embedded in our psyches cheap energy has become. This is not meant to criticize your choice of examples, but to point out a frequently repeating subconscious meme that pops up with regularity in arguments on this topic even when the argument is attacking the status quo thought processes. This example shows how hard it truly is to escape the effects our culture's deepest assumptions have had on our own subconscious thinking, though we struggle mightily against them with our conscious minds. To wit, *nobody anywhere* is *dependent* on cheap energy for cooling, because *nobody anywhere* actually *needs* cooling to survive. Even in Iraq people manage to get by with no air conditioning. AC is simply not a necessity of survival. Neither is lighting. Food, water, clothing, and shelter of some sort (in most climates) are the necessities. It turns out only two of the four examples cited as energy dependencies above are actually true depenencies. I suspect the lifespan of suburbia can be stretched out quite a bit -- admittedly at much lower comfort levels -- by separating out the true dependencies from the "really really WANT it" items. How much increasingly scarce energy could we save in the industrialized world simply by banning all air conditioning? (Of course we won't do this now -- comfort comes first, as long as survival is not yet imminently threatened! But it might happen eventually...)

Utopia in Decay

Kevin Cherkauer

I think this is starting to approach the root of the problem--I tried to come at this same issue in my essay The Problem of Growth.

Also worth considering are other "radical" solutions like a demmurage currency. Again, here's where the theoretical ability to solve our problems crashes into political reality and goes nowhere...

My wife and I lived in small cabins (80 sq. ft. to 200 sq. ft.) in the northern Alaska bush for many years. We heated with wood and usually did not have running water or electricity. We were comfortable and happy. We no longer live in Alaska, but our lifestyle remains relatively simple. Our current home is about 600 sq. ft. and seems spacious. The McMansions of modern suburbia will follow the path of the SUV. Both will become obsolete in a world of tighter energy resources.

Suburbia planning

First you have to reset the rising tsunami of underwater mortgages to the lower market price of the properties [and therefore the occupants ability to pay]. Yes this means the bankers lose -but they can't get blood from a turnip anyway, at some point the swarm of foreclosed unmaintained properties becomes a burden. [Good luck finding a politician willing to legislate this mortgage reset.]

Second you have to ban HOA restrictions on energy efficiencies like solar panels, front yard kitchen gardens, small livestock, clothes lines, number of occupants per house, operating a business on the premises, etc.

Third you have to preserve/promote public transportation alternatives to cars. Light rail, bus, bikes, stagecoach, ferry, sailboats, whatever.

Fourth you have to prop up more regionally localized supply chains [food/fertilizer, lumber, textiles, metalwork, medicine, glass, pottery etc] for local businesses to operate.

Third you have to address infrastructure like water supply and sewage systems. Install community stormwater collection cisterns. Scrap the current water based sewage system, it's too wasteful of both clean water and nitrogen.

Finally provide assistance for home insulation improvements. Provide education on raising and preserving food. Provide education on cooking food without wasting fuel, provide education on conserving heat and reducing risk of housefire.

That's just for starters. If you can keep suburbia intact, ie protected from the banks emptying it of occupants, then it can adapt to a lower energy future to become the new mixed use town or village.

Unfortunately most of the housing in suburbia was built to poor standards. People chose size and fancy details over true quality. Also, much of the U. S. housing stock is nearing the end of its useful life. Maintaining and remodeling these old houses is too expensive and can never bring them up to what I would hold as truly modern construction standards.

I finished building my retirement home a year ago. I chose aerated autoclaved (AAC) concrete as the building material because of its durability and energy efficiency. I have a house that is fireproof, termite proof, storm resistant and practically exterior maintenance free. It should never require exterior painting and should not need a new aluminum roof for 100 years. With reasonable care it should last 500 to 1000 years, perhaps longer.

AAC is made from a mixture of sand, cement and aluminum. When heated, the aluminum reacts with the alkaline cement and releases hydrogen gas bubbles and the mixture rises like a cake. The resulting concrete blocks have 1/3rd the density of conventional concrete. 1 The pores in the AAC make it insulating, so there is no fiber glass insulation except in the attic.

Because I live in a hurricane zone I used extensive reinforcement of five-eights inch rebar that goes through three and one half inch vertical cores on approximate three feet spacing in the exterior walls. The rebar was cast in the concrete footings and continues up to a horizontal bond beam in the top course of block around in the walls. The cores and bond beam were poured with super-plasticized (flowable) concrete. The exterior walls are 12 inches thick and the interior walls are 8 inches. The walls weigh about 100 tons and, along with the ceramic tile over concrete floor, serve as a thermal flywheel so that one hardly notices changes in the outside temperature. It’s also very soundproof. My annual gas and electric bills total about $1200 (8000 kw-hr and 200 therms gas) and my insurance bills are far below those of my neighbors.

The house is 2250 square feet and has an 850 sq ft garage of the same construction. My cost to build, excluding the land, was $325,000 with me acting full time as the architect and general contractor, as well as doing some of the labor. (This is not a job that I would recommend to anyone who is not familiar with engineering and construction. And it took a full year of hard work.)

AAC is the standard in many areas of Europe. In fact, my AAC installation crew were formerly from Germany. The reason I had to do so much of the work myself is because no one in my area is familiar with AAC. That also had much to do with the higher cost.

I agree with others who commented about houses being too big. My house is the size it is because of subdivision covenants, which are responsible for oversized houses everywhere. Houses in the US are twice the size of houses in Europe. We also spend too much on fancy details (granite counter tops, luxury bathrooms, tray ceilings) that add little to the serviceability of a home, but contribute heavily to the builders profit. Also, builders pay little attention to the orientation of windows and roof overhangs, so homeowners end up fighting sunlight rather than benefiting from it.

1. www.safecrete.com Informative we site about AAC with photos of houses and construction details.