Sunday, September 9, 2007

The End of Suburbia

So I finally got around to watching The End of Suburbia, a documentary whose thesis is that we've already reached or passed our peak oil producing years, and that the coming energy crunch is going to be very hard on everyone, but especially hard on SUV-driving, McMansion-living suburbanites. And it's going to happen in our generation.

I have no way to evaluate the oil-production predictions of the movie's talking heads. If they're right, my retirement portfolio is probably going to be toast. But my house in the center of Greensboro is probably going to be very valuable, so maybe I'll come out OK.

I think the movie's thesis would be more believable if it weren't so obvious that its principals despise suburbs and SUVs, and clearly desire their demise. And the repeated claim that suburbs have "failed to deliver their promise" is patently wrong. People keep moving to suburbs because they like them.

My favorite part of the movie came near the end, when urban designer Peter Calthorpe speculated on ways that suburbs could be retrofitted to accommodate a world of high energy prices. Shopping centers could become mixed-use, live-work villages, and some of the pavement of arterial roads could be reclaimed for sidewalks or businesses and residences.

If Kernersville is any indication, our suburbs may already be densifying, and I wouldn't be at all surprised to see that trend continue. It's entirely reasonable to think that in 50 years, the Triad will be an archipelago of urban villages, with many more people either living at or near their place of work, or telecommuting (as my wife does), and depending on vehicles like this to get around:



Jeffrey Sykes said...


I came across some Peak Oil links recently, in case you are interested.

Jeffrey Sykes said...

End of Oil Links

David Wharton said...

Thanks for the links. I don't know what to think of the Peak Oil thesis, since my understanding of petroleum geology = 0. But it makes sense to think that supplies are going to dwindle at some time in the future, and we're going to have to deal with that.

Anonymous said...

I have been following the peak oil debate for about a year. One of the best sites on this is, which compiles any stories related to peak oil/climate change. There are also tons of blogs on this issue, ( i.e.; and

There is also a TV show based in California or Oregan that is dedicated to this issue called Peak Moment TV (

The basic peak oil argument is that at the very least, conventional oil production is on the decline and cheap energy prices occur when you have more supply than demand. Once demand outpaces supply, the prices will become a lot more expensive, which is bad news for countries such as the U.S. whose economies rely on inexpensive fossil fuels. Third-world countries are already dealing with this and Cuba faced an artificial peak oil in the 1990s after the Soviet Union collapsed, so there is already evidence of what happens to economies when countries can't access the oil.

Undercover Urbanist said...

David- your house is going to be very valuable, and many of the neighborhoods along Bryan Boulevard and the other orbital thoroughfares in Greensboro will likely lose value in comparison.

There is certainly some overzealousness in EoS, especially on Kusntler's part.

But the question about Kernersville isn't about density, it's about urbanity. Tyson's Corner and Arlington in VA are both dense, but Arlington is urban, and Tyson's corner is all but completely auto-dependent because of its suburban form.

Granted, Tyson's may be fixed over the next 30 years by extending the Washington Metro, but the street layouts, set up for maximum automobility, that define the urban space are problematic and limit possibilities.

If Kernersville is densifying and becoming more walkable and urban, then things are moving in the right direction. Density within suburban forms may merely intensify the problems of a low-oil future by not providing the low-energy mobility that downtown and near-downtown neighborhoods in Greensboro provide.

David Wharton said...

UU, good point about the distinction between density and walkability.

I've been wondering, though, whether "urbanity" is the right word for what we're thinking.

Lots of small villages have the pedestrian networks, mix of uses, and building forms that are often called "New Urban" (e.g. Vermillion), and a great deal of -- maybe most? -- New Urban development seems to be taking place in suburubs.