The future of 'nowhere'

Urban planners love to hate the suburbs, but what's going to become of them? Will Bellevue eventually become a post-carbon ghost town or a new urban hybrid? Some reflections on the urban/suburban debate.
The Bellevue skyline.

The Bellevue skyline.

The suburbs have been with us since Babylon, but what is their future? There's an interesting forum on that topic at the Freakonomics blog where various thinkers lay out visions for the burbs in 2040. Will Bellevue be a cluster of abandoned, post apocalyptic high-rises, or a thriving urban hub that hybridizes the best of town and country living?

It's taken as a given in Seattle that the burbs are bad. Period. The prejudice runs deep, and current pressures — global warming, gas prices, affordability — are helping to push a re-think of suburban growth. The received wisdom in Seattle is that urban density is an inherent good and suburban sprawl is bad, yet the market tends to think otherwise: Most of America's growth is outside the city proper.

Critics often paint the suburbs with a broad brush, trying to wedge them into concepts ranging from the entrepreneurial "Edge City" to the conformist "Crabgrass Frontier" to ennui-inducing "Geography of Nowhere." But anyone who ventures throughout Pugetopolis can see there is more than one suburban form here: Downtown Bellevue has evolved very distinctly from artsy Kirkland, gated Sammamish, high-tech Redmond, blue-collar Renton, or shopping-malled south King County.

I lived for years in a neighborhood walkable from downtown Kirkland. I was very comfortable in a 1914-era bungalow on a quiet, tree-lined street that could have been anywhere in Bryant or Wedgwood. Today I was at a doctor's appointment in Bellevue and counted 10 cranes, many of them erecting office towers near the freeway. Last weekend, I drove to Auburn where small patches of farmland survive between ethnic mega-malls and flat-roofed factories and warehouses — to my eyes as charmless a sea of sprawl as you'll see around here, yet with enough of the old valley peeking through here and there to remind you what a fertile and bucolic place it once was.

Are all of these iterations of suburbia evil? Are they doomed by mega-trends? Or will they morph into something new?

Leading off the Freakonomics discussion is author James Kunstler, who provocatively predicts disaster. The auto-centric policies that created the burbs are no longer sustainable, and dramatic shifts are ahead. It sounds to me like he's predicting they'll be the new American ghost towns:

The suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins. In any case, the suburbs will lose value dramatically, both in terms of usefulness and financial investment. Most of the fabric of suburbia will not be 'fixed' or retrofitted, in particular the residential subdivisions. They were built badly in the wrong places. We will have to return to traditional modes of inhabiting the landscape — villages, towns, and cities, composed of walkable neighborhoods and business districts — and the successful ones will have to exist in relation to a productive agricultural hinterland, because petro-agriculture (as represented by the infamous 3,000-mile Caesar salad) is also now coming to an end. Fortunately, we have many under-activated small towns and small cities in favorable locations near waterways. This will be increasingly important as transport of goods by water regains importance.

Kunstler sees the coming peak oil/carbon crises as having an impact on big cities as well.

One popular current fantasy I hear often is that apartment towers are the 'greenest' mode of human habitation. On the contrary, we will discover that the skyscraper is an obsolete building type, and that cities overburdened with them will suffer a huge liability — Manhattan and Chicago being the primary examples. Cities composed mostly of suburban-type fabric — Houston, Atlanta, Orlando, et. al. — will also depreciate sharply. The process of urban contraction is likely to be complicated by ethnic tensions and social disorder.

Kunstler raises, I think, some excellent points. One is that a collapse of the carbon economy does not necessarily mean that cities are the mode of the future. His point about high rises bucks Seattle's conventional wisdom, which is based, of course, on a less convulsive version of the future. While cities are growing dramatically around the world, a collapse of the global food chain and the need to grow crops and feed people locally would necessitate re-populating rural areas (that's where the land is) and perhaps re-purposing suburban and even urban land for agriculture, something density makes more difficult. Farming methods, presumably, would return to a more human-powered era, so be prepared to get your hands dirty.


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Comments:

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 6:23 a.m. Inappropriate

A Couple of Quick Points: Just a couple of quick points. "It's taken as a given in Seattle that the burbs are bad. Period." That is true, but the prejudice in the burbs that Seattle is bad, period, runs equally deep and is just as irrational. Both of these prejudices inform much of our politics and growth/transit policies and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Kunstler's prognosis that both the cities and suburbs will decay and that most of us will end up living in small towns along rivers is just nonsense. I live in Seattle, have a large vegetable garden and keep a couple of hens, but I don't believe for a minute that most of us will take up an Amish lifestyle down along the Lewis River.

The evolutionary change that Skip brings up towards the end of his column is probably correct. Bellevue is changing from a "suburban city" into an "urban city" before our eyes. Because of our heavy investment in auto based infrastructure and our ingrained notions of where we want to live or not live, change will be very incremental and evolutionary regardless of what planners or futurists may think or counsel. Just as the region has changed since 1976, thirty two years from now in 2040, the region will be changed but still very recognizable and familiar.

As so often, Skip provides another thoughtful and provocative column. Great Stuff.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 6:40 a.m. Inappropriate

Peak Oil impacts: Seattle faces the same Peak Oil impacts as other cities.

According to energy investment banker Matthew Simmons, global oil production is now declining, from 74 million barrels per day to 60 million barrels per day by 2015. During the same time demand will increase 14%.

This is equivalent to a 33% drop in 7 years. No one can reverse this trend, nor can we conserve our way out of this catastrophe. Because the demand for oil is so high, it will always be higher than production; thus the depletion rate will continue until all recoverable oil is extracted.

Alternatives will not even begin to fill the gap. And most alternatives yield electric power, but we need liquid fuels for tractors/combines, 18 wheel trucks, trains, ships, and mining equipment.

We are facing the collapse of the highways that depend on diesel trucks for maintenance of bridges, cleaning culverts to avoid road washouts, snow plowing, roadbed and surface repair. When the highways fail, so will the power grid, as highways carry the parts, transformers, steel for pylons, and high tension cables, all from far away. With the highways out, there will be no food coming in from "outside," and without the power grid virtually nothing works, including home heating, pumping of gasoline and diesel, airports, communications, and automated systems.

This is documented in a free 48 page report that can be downloaded, website posted, distributed, and emailed: http://www.peakoilassociates.com/POAnalysis.html

I used to live in NH, but moved to a sustainable place. Anyone interested in relocating to a nice, pretty, sustainable area with a good climate and good soil? Email: clifford dot wirth at yahoo dot com or give me a phone call which operates here as my old USA-NH number 603-668-4207.
cjwirth

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 7:50 a.m. Inappropriate

Good article; comments could get weird: Ratcityreprobate is right; Kunstler talks nonsense but sells books. Cliff Wirth is at a minimum associated with the "peak oil" consulting company whose services include "relocation" to that safe, sustainable place. His comment is more self-marketing than anything else.

I'll second RCR's observation that your final paragraphs are more likely correct; change will be evolutionary.

Brookings' Berube says suburbs will "have to become less self-focused and more regionally minded to solve problems, like transportation. He envisions better governance and more collaboration."

In the state of Washington, at least, cities find it easy to collaborate in some areas, using interlocal contracts and MOUs for various projects. But regionalism as policy is hampered by the state's revenue system, which rewards cities for self-focus, and by our unremitting populism, in which centralization is always suspect. The state's growth management statute is focused on individual municipal and county compliance, not on an urban region's sufficiency or sustainability. City officials are elected on issues that are narrow and parochial - the land use that happens in our own neighborhood, police and fire response times - not the larger regional problems.

The evolution is already underway. I agree that we are going to need a richer vocabulary, if we're going to solve the next generation of problems.
Deb Eddy

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:20 a.m. Inappropriate

more "weird" stuff: Read all about it.

"Two urban land-use trends that have not been generally acknowledged will complicate climate change-driven effects in highly urbanized areas unless stormwater managers work closely with planning departments: smart growth and residential "mansionization"...

Redevelopment, infill, or home-scaled remodeling in densely populated built-out inner-urban neighborhoods causes incremental hydrograph modification that will compound extreme weather events' effects on urban infrastructure... Seattle's Climate Change Action Plan mandates increased housing density to reduce carbon emissions (Hayes et al. 2006)....

In single-family zoned areas in Seattle alone, 492 homes were demolished between 2003 and 2005, with an average of 500 demolished homes each year in all types of zoned areas in Seattle since 1998.

If every demolished home in Seattle was replaced with a new home, these data suggest that 250,000 square feet per year of imperviousness would be added each year. While this is not a huge amount of imperviousness, actual imperviousness increases are probably much greater since many of the demolished homes are not replaced by homes but by more densely grouped structures such as condos, town homes, or commercial buildings...The Seattle Climate Change Action Plan calls for 22,000 new homes downtown and in nine inner-urban neighborhoods by 2024 (Hayes et al. 2006)... [The Regional Council has since set in motion the Mayor's "laughable" plan to up that to 350,000 more people by 2040. Less the 29,000 net new people we gained between 4/2000 and 4/2008, that would be 320,000 new units at Seattle's rate during that period of about 1 (one) net new persons per new unit. Hardly a "sustainable" rate]

Generally when professionals in our industry speak of sustainable infrastructure, it refers to low-impact development, integrated site design, green infrastructure, or natural system restoration (http://seattle.gov/environment/building.htm). Still, this "assemblage" approach leaves out a number of important components.

One architect, in contrasting green building with sustainable building, makes a number of critical distinctions. Raymond Cole defines green building as reducing resource use and environmental destruction, while sustainable building is defined by simultaneously responding "to changing climate and repair[ing] previously damaged ecosystems." He compares green building's technical emphasis on "resource use environmental loadings and occupant comfort" to sustainable building's technical emphasis on "extending scope to understand behavioural and socio-cultural aspects of technological advance" (Cole 2005)...

Seattle's storm of 2006 gives us what might be one of the last cautionary tales of modernity. As the foundation of modernity, our stormwater and sewer infrastructure is mass-scaled and still largely mechanistic. Those who cleared storm drain inlets the day Seattle flooded could not save neighborhoods from flooding because the infrastructure's capacity had been exceeded and it could do only one thing–fail."
afreeman

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:30 a.m. Inappropriate

agreeing with something: Much of Seattle's "suburbs" is becoming a lot more liveable outside of the drive-everywhere lifestyle. That's because much of suburbia is densifying, putting housing near shops and employment, getting better transit, adding bike routes, adding sidewalks, and generally becoming more urban.

I'm a big fan of the little downtowns proliferating everywhere, from resurgent older downtowns like Renton and Issaquah to new ones like Mercer Island. It's also cool to see some cultural diversity -- who knew cricket was so big at Marymoor Park?
mhays

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:31 a.m. Inappropriate

photo: PS: As with every Bellevue story in Crosscut, once again I'll ask why an ancient photo is used. Doesn't somebody have a camera!?

mhays

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 11:34 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Peak Oil impacts: How much money is Peak Oil Associates making off this doom and gloom fear mongering?

dbreneman

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 12:10 p.m. Inappropriate

combines the good and bad: Mercer Island is not only between Seattle and Bellevue geographically, it combines the good and bad environmental elements of both of these- and the further out suburbs. That's why I've lived there all these years. Jerry Gropp Architect AIA PS

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 12:44 p.m. Inappropriate

future: The idea of post-apocalyptic farm cities is one that doesn't acknowledge the difference in the limits of fuel energy and electric energy. If all energy became very expensive, then we'd fall back into an agrarian system. But we should have enough renewable energy (especially here) to make electricity perhaps more expensive but not unaffordable. Short-distance road travel will also be affordable, but large maintenance-intensive freeways will not. We'll still have a central electic grid - the value of such a grid is much higher than the maintenance of it.

In such a world dense cities are still by far the most efficient form of living. Keeping the distance between housing, workplaces, and services very close removes time and energy from transportation. Building housing that is dense and touching vastly reduces energy for heating. Dense cities are much more efficient in terms of electrical wiring, commerce, plumbing, and transit because materials and travel time scale down with distance. Importing food by rail will never be expensive or difficult. Yes, we may need more farm laborers, but nothing near the number of people that live in the exurbs right now.

Oh, and Bellevue isn't a suburb anymore - it's a city. I see it as a younger version of San Francisco's "suburb" of Oakland.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 1:02 p.m. Inappropriate

Photo?: That's a photo of Bellevue? I thought it was a photo of the southwest side of Mt. Index........

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 5:29 p.m. Inappropriate

You are missing one big issue: Everyone is missing one very big issue about density: it requires a great deal more social coordination and government than we are used to or (if one judges by our success in transportation) very good at it. This is not Canada much less Holland. We are not skilled at tasks which require fine-grained thinking. High-density development requires a great deal of social coordination.

That's an advantage which lower-density development doesn't have.

Oh well, so much for reality. Go ahead and argue about density if you like.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 5:46 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: You are missing one big issue: We have too many assholes in the US who think it's ok for their car to beep every time they park, or stick barky little drop-kick dogs on their patios, and to have harleys and loud stereos. American me-firstism might work in wide-open spaces, sort of, but it doesn't work when others are around.

We also have to get over some people's idea that every dense neighborhood is fair game for loud bars. Those should be in certain areas (like where the bars were there first), and the rules should be enforced everywhere else.

People who say "noise comes with cities" are either not well traveled, or just really good at ignoring noise. I've never seen such pervasive rudeness outside the US, in London, Hong Kong, Tokyo, or anywhere else. In those places, people care about not being jerks. Hell, even New York is cracking down. Good for New York.

But we can change, or we can at least punish the jerks.
mhays

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 6:03 p.m. Inappropriate

People Don't Respond Like They Should: The problem with all of these "experts" is that they use straight-line thinking and try and shoehorn it into the future. Nobody knows how individuals will react either en mass, individually or small groups. As new information becomes available or previously new information is proven to be bogus or inaccurate, different decisions will be made. Distrust of government and frustration with it will play a part. Technology will play a part. In spite of what anybody may want to believe, oil will be with us for quite some time. Freeways won't turn into cratered wastelands overnight the car will be around too. Once people start to grasp the scope and cost of what the eco-facists propose, things will really start rocking. Have the experts accounted for that? A few hundred thousand Prius' do not a revolution make, every politician wants to be re-elected.

How come these experts never give precedence to not having to travel to work at all? I work at home exclusively (years now) and have friends that actually travel to the office maybe once or twice a week. In the future this will become even more prevalent. I can see where the college campuses will be a thing of the past. I wonder how academics like that thought? These are low carbon solutions that can happen now. The U of Dub campus would function very well as a wildlife park. So who's resisting this change? Maybe some of those experts that love their campus office? What is good for the goose should be good for the gander.

If you want a perfect example of the fascist thinking that permeates the green lobby, peek at mhays. Obviously he doesn't like little dogs and people he thinks are "jerks", for whatever reason. Obviously by his metrics, these people need to be "punished" for not seeing it his way. So if the "green revolution" isn't moving fast enough maybe it's time to start stuffing it down everybody's throat. Stuff ‘em all into a cement high-rise (it's for their own good you see), ban the dogs (don't need those now do we?) and start handing out the cheap vodka (a bottle of anesthesia a night goes a long way toward compliance). Joesph S. would have loved it.
G Jiggy

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 6:10 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: People Don't Respond Like They Should: College campuses will be a thing of the past? They've been saying that for at least 50 years... do we really want everything to go virtual?

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 7:36 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: People Don't Respond Like They Should: That's hilarious. Obviously I didn't say most of that.

Little dogs are fine. People who let them bark around other people are jerks.

Not sure where that cement highrise thing came from. I'm in favor of density in terms of what gets built, but there will always be houses, as well as townhouses and other non-highrise options.

But hey, it's fun making stuff up about other people, eh? Or are you just a nutcase?
mhays

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 7:37 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: People Don't Respond Like They Should: (I was responding to g. jiggy)

mhays

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 8:15 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: People Don't Respond Like They Should: //Once people start to grasp the scope and cost of what the eco-facists propose, things will really start rocking. //

Heh. Someone just called Knute an eco-facist. That just made my day.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:01 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: People Don't Respond Like They Should: Dogs bark. People that allow dogs to bark may or may not be jerks, but they most likely are NOT control freaks. Little yappy dogs ARE annoying, though; you sort of remind me of a little yappy dog.

Posted Mon, Aug 18, 9:10 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: A Couple of Quick Points: I don't understand how you dismiss Kunstler out-right by virtue of a vegetable garden and hens. Kunstler is one of the more astute social critics in the MSM, by my measure--one that extends beyond my taste in landscape and pets. I would also point out that Urban and Suburban decay is currently underway, and the psychology of previous investment is not the driver of change, as you suggest, but rather an impediment to change.

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 9:42 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: Peak Oil impacts: I just wanted to point out that Paccar is already coming out with hybrid 18 wheelers. Also the new Boeing and Airbus planes advertise the fact that they use less fuel per passenger than previous designs.

Companies who build vehicles of transportation will adapt to the rise of oil costs in a fight to compete for customers. Just as they did in the 70's when cars guzzled gas, companies will build more fuel efficient models. In the end the ones who will be hurt are those who can't afford the new cars. They will be forced to live closer to work. Those who have no issue buying a brand new car will end up with cars that can go longer on each tank and they will keep living in their picket-fence houses in the suburbs.

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 10:06 a.m. Inappropriate

Nowhere is where the majority lives: Nowhere is where the majority of Americans live, and will continueto live. Cities, subiurbs, small towns, farms and forests are all functioning and necessary parts of the real human landscape, as they have been for at least 10000 years, and probably will be for the next 10000 -- because they all meet human needs. All forms of settlement evolve and adapt to changing resource and technological conditions. What won't happen is any massive shift to rural, small town living, simply because cities/suburbs are where most jobs are createable and sustainable. I use the phrase city/suburbs on purpose, because, Kunstler and historically uninformed planners notwithstanding, tghe distinction is more rhetorical than real
And what really couldn't and won't happen, Knute, is the absurd idea of total local self-sufficiency. The very basis of human civilization and prosperity is the division of labor, specialization of production and exchange of people (genes, ideas) and goods. The end of cheap oil will not end the advantages of agglomeration (cities) or of trade, but rather spur new rounds of innovation and creativity.
Freakonomics will not replace the science of economics nor fantasyland the science of geography.
DMorrill

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 3:02 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Nowhere is where the majority lives: Economics and Geography are social sciences, and that is an important distinction - not everyone is rational, and hence, the qualifier is important.

What is important is that we have individuals capable of making their own decisions - and this we may well be losing. If it's lost, we all might as well be bending over and spreading the cheeks for what is about to happen to us.

As Sucher notes, density has social costs - and they directly contradict any economies of scale that are present in Cities. Because of this Kunstler may well be right in prophesizing some sort of continuing trend of decentralization. Certainly the internet reduces the costs of communication and informal coordination making this a more realistic option for the educated individual, not just Ted Kacinski types.

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 3:03 p.m. Inappropriate

One Word: Buses.

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 5:39 p.m. Inappropriate

Hydrogen Changes Game: What you see in the suburbs is the problem of extending the current grid system -- and by grid I mean any of the interchanges of energy, money, traffic -- from the old urb to the new exurbs.

Basically the rubber band can't stretch any more because all of our grid systems are tied to very centralized generating "nodes" -- power, Internet, business.

Enter hydrogen. Hydrogen can be generated by water -- a new process from MIT and another from Australian are 100% efficient. With a solar powered system, storing energy as hydrogen, a home can be 100% off grid.

That means I can build a house anywhere, not just at the edge of where the systems end.

Enter WiMax. Wimax, unlike Wifi and cell phones, don't need hundreds of little antennas...just a few really big ones to cover scads of area.

Imagine a person living on a few acres of land, with his own hydrogen/solar generator. He can take any water source and the electrylsis process will purify it. His "car' could be a truly "off road" vehicle because he doesn't need 100% perfect roads, just a good enough road to get groceries (the ones he doesn't grow himself). Entertainment? Plenty of it through his 75GB Wimax pipe...games, phone, streaming video.

So, the part that's could disappear is the "urb" as in we may become a honeycomb of people back to living everywhere in the countryside and being really self-sufficient.
jabailo

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 6:18 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: Hydrogen Changes Game: Sorry, what does "100% efficient" mean? Are you proposing solar-powered electrolysis of water to create hydrogren with no loss of energy in the process?

Posted Tue, Aug 19, 9:05 p.m. Inappropriate

RE: A Couple of Quick Points: You need to re-read what I wrote. My points are that despite the fact that I grow some of my food I do not believe that we will abandon cities and suburbs to become farmers or small town dwellers. We are not going to beat our Ipods into plowshares and move to the sticks. Secondly, my point was exactly that previous investment is an impediment to change, and that is one reason change is incremental and relatively slow.

Posted Wed, Aug 20, 8:50 a.m. Inappropriate

RE: A Couple of Quick Points: How about I don't. A garden does not make you an authoritative voice on the validity of Kunstler's claim one way or another, but its the only thing you mention in your dismissal. How about you actually consider Kunstler's reasoning before condemning it as "nonsense."

Previous investments are not sustainable; therefore they won't be sustained. The progressive, linear change you describe requires a stable environment, and its safe to say the environment is growing increasingly unstable. The expectation that progressive, linear change will continue simply because it occurred in the past smacks of market ideology. Sudden, non-linear change strikes me as a more realistic expectation.

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