Thursday, November 19, 2009

Suburbia is unsustainable

I recently wrote about James Kunstler's book "The Geography of Nowhere" and about the fact that the car society (“made in the U.S.”) is grossly unsustainable. There is hardly any structure less durable after global oil production peaks than the countless and endless American suburbs. The American way of life epitomizes the wasting of cheap energy. To build and to live in a sprawling suburb and to be so totally dependent on cars is not a good position to be in when heating (or air conditioning) becomes expensive and when driving a car and maintaining a “thinned-out” infrastructure (electricity, water, roads) becomes prohibitively expensive. The fact that detailed zoning laws by default prohibits commercial activities in residential areas (for example neighborhood stores), means that the nearest supermarket is usually located so far away that any options beyond the car are hard to imagine for many Americans. 

We know that many American suburbs have problems with "subprime loans" and foreclosures today, but I think many people here in Sweden do not understand how bad things really are in some places in the United States. When I wrote about "The Geography of Nowhere", I linked to the 12-minute long film "Foreclosure Alley". I recommend it again as it opens doors and gives shocking glimpses of a total crisis of monumental unpreparedness and desperation. People who are evicted from their large, beautiful (new) houses lose hope and can't pull themselves together together to try to sell their stuff and lack the strength to pack up their stuff (or they do not have anywhere to take them) before they have to leave them. 

The business models that are presented in the film are fascinating in their perversity. Spraying dead lawns green to make them look more attractive is a great example of a Potemkin village and of the fact that surface nowadays is more important than substance. I have not been able to drop the idea and found this article about Nick Terlouw and his Greener Grass Company as well as the accompanying 2 minute long news flash fascinating. Nick works in Stockton, California, "the ground zero of the foreclosure issue," and the paradox is of course that the more people that are evicted, the better the business for the Greener Grass Company. 

A customer says that "it turns the grass green and makes the neighborhood look decent again." The fact that the grass looks fine is important, that it actually still is dead (and the human tragedies that can be imagined behind each dead lawn) becomes a secondary matter. "After the spraying, the grass had a sparkling appearance and looked not only alive but also lush and thriving" - and all this for only 200 dollars! How can someone lose hope and think that there are problems that human inventiveness cannot solve when Greener Grass Company proves how easy it is to far surpass what nature has given us! Further research has led me to the company Tate Turf Painting - "the leader in grass painting" ("We have developed a process that can have a lawn a beautiful, natural looking green within a matter of hours"). Tate Turf can provide you with everything you need to start up your own greenwashing business (equipment, color and training). 

Any change has its winners and its losers. Among the more humorous (?) phenomena are skateboarders who use real estate brokers' sites or satellite imagery from Google Earth to find empty houses with large pools, which they then convert and skate in. At an internet forum, a skateboarder writes 'God bless Greenspan, patron saint of pool skatin' ". Well then, at least one person looks at the current economic situation and likes what’s going on. 

Moving back to "Foreclosure Alley", I think we can agree that it is shocking, but it does not say much about how this situation could occur or what will happen in the future. I therefore went back and read "The next slum?" again. It is written by Christopher Leinberger, a professsor of urban planning at the University of Michigan, and it was published in The Atlantic Monthly in March 2008. I read it last spring, before the subprime crisis had reached hurricane strength, and the article made a deep impression on me. While subprime loans at the time had emerged as a problem, this was before the financial and economic crisis crisis crashed the party (the explosion occured half a year later, in the autumn of 2008). 

What Leinberger’s article describes is how some recently-built suburbs - the furthest away from everything and everyone, therefore most dependent on cars and bought by the financially weakest players on the market – are collapsing. One example is Windy Ridge, 110 kilometers (!) Northwest of Charlotte, North Carolina. In late 2007, 81 of 132 homeowners had been evicted. Thieves had broken into empty homes to steal wires and sell them for the value of copper. In some cases, the walls had been smashed to get at copper pipes, and also brass and aluminum were desirable materials to steal from abandoned houses. The market value of a looted house naturally falls a lot. “a ‘notice of foreclosure’ letter affixed to its door [is] like a big billboard saying 'come and take me'." When do we get "house-sitters" (compare this future profession with babysitters or parking attendants) who may live for free if they guard and manage a bunch of abandoned houses in order to maintain as much as possible of their value? 

The 50 homeowners who still lived in Windy Ridge now had new neighbors; homeless, drug addicts and criminal gangs that slowly entered the area and made it their home. It is easy to imagine that the woman who was interviewed had no further desire to live in Windy Ridge after a stray bullet went through her son's bedroom and into her own. But what are her options? Who in their right mind would like to buy her house at a price that has even a teneous connection to what she paid for it only a few years earlier? 

The sad story of Windy Ridge is repeated a year later in the story of Lehigh Acres, Florida. In early 2009, houses were sold for a fifth of the top prices three years earlier. Besides drugs, marihuana cultivation and scrap thieves, hunger and desperation is becoming a growing concern among those who remain. Houses have started to be sold again, but average price is ony 45 000 $ - one third of the costs of building the houses. 

In Windy Ridge and other areas where (many) homeowners have been evicted, you finally reach a breakpoint or a tipping point; when a sufficient number of houses stand empty the whole area changes, crime increases and those homeowners who remain become trapped in a vise as they can’t get a “decent” price for their houses and move on. Leinberger’s article is based on the premise that even before the subprime crisis exploded, Americans' preferences for housing was slowly changing. After 60 years of migrating to the suburbs (further and further away from the city), the pendulum started to swing back. The consequences are that many suburbs that currently still look nice are "living dead" and face a bitter fate. Their fate is similar to many American inner cities that in the1960s and 1970s declined into becoming slums with high crime rates, poverty and decay. This in turn accelerated the flight away from the inner cities for everyone who could afford to get away. 

The triump of the suburbs began in earnest after World War II. Escape from New York (1981) portrayed the city's low-water mark - the city was in such a state of decay and so unloved that nothing remained but to put up a fence around it and turn it into a prison. Today, the city has instead become hip through TV shows like Seinfeld, Friends and Sex and the City. 

But what will happen with all the scattered "McMansions" that exist today? If we take Desperate Housewives’ upper-middle-class "Wisteria Lane" and downgrade it one or two levels, where does that leave us? It is possible to imagine a suburbian cul-de-sac makover - from a handful of scattered houses to a "real" street with houses and shops that you can walk between without a car. Or perhaps you could tear down a few houses and build a nice park? Neither proposal will become common for a couple of different reasons. First, they are costly. Second, you would have to buy many plots and houses at one sweep, something that is difficult if only a few owners object to the plan. Third, there are currently major political and legal obstacles to implementing such projects. Fourth, the existing infrastructure is not well adapted to denser settlements. 

A more likely scenario is that prices in (certain) neighborhoods continue to fall until they hit rock bottom and the houses are purchased by families with very low incomes - or they might be bought and subdivided so that each house can accommodate multiple tenants. Some might become cheap hotels (flop houses) where you can rent rooms by the day, the week or the month. Still, it is difficult to see how those living in a distant suburb can earn a living when they are stranded far from the city, from jobs and even from the nearest supermarket. Another problem is that today's American suburban houses (even the bigger and nicer houses) are cheaply constructed and will not last that many years without extensive maintenance work. 

The neighborhoods best positioned to survive more or less unscathed from the scenario above are those that are economically prosperous, situated close to the city or along rail tracks or that are near a walking-friendly suburban center. 

In an article from this year
, Leinberger points out that the problem is deeper even than the number of foreclosures and that it can take a generation or longer to work through the societal changes that so far have only started in the United States. About half of all Americans want to live in detached houses (in suburbs), but 80% of the U.S. housing stock is currently situated there, while only 20% is situated in cities or city-like environments ("walkable urban arrangements"). Since we replace houses only slowly, it can easily take up three decades for supply and demand to become balanced, and a study shows that there may be more than 20 million empty homes in America's suburbs 15 years from now. Just as Kunstler argued already 15 years ago, Leinberger says the U.S. has built too many houses, to much office and retail space and all of it situationed in the wrong places:

”For the owners of that retail or housing space, every dollar that they invest will be money they don’t get back. That is another definition of a slum. There’s no incentive to invest in a slum. So here you are. You buy a 4,000 square foot house [370 m2] 40 miles [65 km] outside town. You think, wow, I got great value. But when the roof begins to go, you just patch it, because if you put a new one on it’ll cost $20,000, you’ll still be at the same selling price. So, why do it?”

There will be losers. And, yes, this is junk we’re putting up now. What’s the life expectancy of particle board and plywood under even the best of circumstances? So you have a suburb full of flimsy houses in the middle of nowhere, with no incentive for upkeep. That’s an ugly situation.”

Leinberger's text reflects the main current trends in the United States, but the joker in the deck is of course peak oil. If energy becomes radically more expensive, it is an even worse idea to live far away from everything and everyone, and the painful process of restructuring living arrangements in a whole society will be even faster and cause more harm and suffering. What do the trends above mean for us here in Sweden? Our houses are smaller and are built more densely in our residential suburbs. We also have better public transportation, even in suburbia. I would in any case, personally, for sure not buy a nice house far away and make myself totally dependent on having one or two cars to get to work or the grocery store.

This text was originally published in Swedish on June 11, 2009.

1 comment:

  1. In both the U.S.A. and Canada the good news is that the population has been moving from the country to the city in droves.
    Resources and infrastructure can be much more readily provided for a population in the cities than one that lives in rural areas.

    Currently in North America generally, 80% live in municipalities , even though you estimate that of that 80% , only 20% live in "city like" environments.

    I recently moved from a small town to a slightly larger one. In my previous home there was no access to natural gas via pipeline, and there was no high-speed internet. There still is not.

    It will not ever become economical to service the thinly distributed population.

    In my new home , the municipality has the exact opposite of the population density of Canada.

    In our municipality the population is 20% urban and 80% rural.

    This farming community has been here for a hundred years and generations have lived in the same houses on the same streets.

    We like it that way.

    We hope to survive in a new energy reduced society by adapting.

    Just how we do it is one of the main topics of interest as the community continues to change.