PEAK OIL, SUBURBIA AND POLITICAL TIPPING POINTS

James Howard Kunstler has been telling anyone who will listen that we will, very soon, experience a shock that will force a fundamental re-thinking of how we build our cities. Kunstler is the author of Home from Nowhere and Geography of Nowhere, sharply worded polemics against modernist architecture and street design. More recently, in The Long Emergency, he has become a prophet of suburbia’s doom.
His latest argument, in a nutshell, is that, having passed into an era in which world supply of oil has entered a long decline, we face, not only sharp increases in the price of oil products, but also shortages. Once the shortages hit, we will be forced into a fundamental re-thinking of our consumption habits in general and our urban development practices in particular. Wrenching social and economic change will follow, and suburbia as we know it, as well as much of the rest of civilization as we know it, will become a thing of the past.
That’s a good way to sell books. Whether it – despite overwrought rhetoric and probably exaggerated claims – contains a kernel of sound political analysis remains to be seen. But before we dismiss Kunstler’s argument altogether, it’s worth reflecting on how quickly and easily apparently impregnable political fortresses have been known to fall in the wake of a shift of public awareness and attitude.
In my youth, I saw drunken driving, smoking in public buildings and vocal racism all flagrantly, and often boastfully, put on public display. Today, though all three are still with us, they are widely frowned upon, and strict legislation has driven them underground. “If you can’t drink and drive, how are you going to get home?” is no longer considered a funny line. In all three cases, a change in public perception was a tipping point after which legislative change came relatively easily.


Today, Kunstler and others who argue that conventional North American urban development is environmentally and socially unsound are often heard but rarely taken seriously. The idea that it might be possible to overcome the formidable economic interests, public perceptions, and bureaucratic obstacles that support the way we are building our cities seems far-fetched. The development of North American cities is largely driven by development proposals, and developers typically propose spacious subdivisions, marked by sharp separation of residential, commercial and industrial districts – precisely the things Kunstler, and many other, more moderate commentators, decry. Developers generally prefer conventional built form both because alternatives are bound to encounter serious bureaucratic obstacles and because they know they will have no difficulty selling houses and commercial premises in the kinds of neighbourhoods people are used to. Both public perception and the law are on the side of the status quo.
And yet, what Kunstler and others propose is nothing more than the conventional wisdom of two generations ago. Until World War II, the normal way to build cities was to develop compact residential neighbourhoods, with public squares and commerce, and sometimes light industry, all within walking distance. It’s instructive today to consider how, in a few short years, that conventional wisdom encountered a tipping point that led to its replacement by modernist urban design conventions. Let’s look at that transition and see if it gives us any clues as to what the possibilities are today.
Post World War II Canadian cities have been profoundly shaped by interventions instigated by the federal government, with all three levels of government participating in a joint venture of the kind we would today term multi-level governance. At the end of World War II, the federal government feared that the return to civilian life of large numbers of veterans would trigger a housing crisis, and feared, at the same time, that the abrupt end of wartime industrial production would lead to a return of the terrible depression of the 1930s. To meet those twin threats, federal policy-makers decided on a series of measures designed to stimulate the housing market.
Since it was private enterprise that was being stimulated, the interventions of government were not always obvious to the casual observer. For example, an amendment to the federal Insurance Act allowed insurance funds to flow into housing finance, thus freeing a large pool of capital which in turn helped a generation of Canadians to mortgage their way into their private suburban paradises. The Central (now Canada) Mortgage and Housing Corporation (CMHC), a federal crown corporation, provided subsidized home loans, while the conditions on CMHC mortgages helped establish the framework of provincial and municipal planning and zoning regulations.
The federal government, through CMHC, was creating housing programs that made a new planning regime necessary. Provincial government legislation and regulations set out what was to be expected of municipalities, while municipalities passed and implemented most of the actual planning legislation. This regulatory regime, in turn, had much to do with dictating the characteristic form of suburban development: single-family homes, situated on large lots, with a large expanse of front yard looking out over a wide street, often lacking a sidewalk; a strict separation of this type of residential area from commercial and industrial development, so that residential neighbourhoods were located at a distance from shopping malls and shopping strips, and both residential and shopping areas were separated from industrial parks, where many of the jobs were concentrated.
In pursuing these policies, the federal government stimulated provincial and municipal governments to reinforce the rapidly growing popular preference for the private automobile over public transportation, to give it free reign, and to entrench it. The money lavished on suburban road-building provided easy access to locations distant from the inner city, and made large-lot housing development feasible. The clear separation of residential areas from shopping strips, shopping malls and industrial parks, which was dictated by the provincial and municipal regime of planning and zoning, assured that residents of the suburbs would become dependent on private cars for everything: trips to work, shopping and even such small errands as a run to the video store or the convenience store.
Low-density development patterns imposed obstacles on the expansion of public transit systems, which were finding it difficult – in many instances impossible – to plan transit routes capable of drawing enough passengers to make transit widely available without bleeding the public purse white. Declining transit service, in turn, further reinforced dependence on private transport. It is hardly necessary to add that the combination of growing automobile dependence and declining transit has contributed a great deal to the environmental problems we face to day.
It is important, however, to notice that all these changes took place in a few short years after World War II. By the mid-1950s, Canadian families in droves were abandoning the apartments and small-lot single-family homes of pre-war Canadian cities; neighbourhood stores within walking distance were being replaced by shopping malls with parking lots bigger than some farms of the 1930s, and streetcar tracks were being ripped up while bus service declined. A few straightforward policy changes at the federal level cascaded downward through provincial and municipal governments to produce momentous changes in our way of life and the way we use energy.
It was the fear of depression and a housing crisis – together with the fact that modernist design ideas captured the spirit of the times – that produced the political will which, in turn, enabled the federal government to take these actions. Perceived dangers, combined with changing tastes, constituted a tipping point into a new era, an era of different perceptions and a new legislative regime.
Public sentiment may be building today toward a new tipping point, an opportunity for another round of federal government action, this time to reverse some of the ill effects of the previous round. The The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change seems finally to have had an impact on public opinion, and climate change deniers are on the defensive.
Whether these changes in the public mood are permanent, and whether they will spawn public support for action on the environment and public willingness to consider working and living in more compact and transit-friendly neighbourhoods remains to be seen, but there are some encouraging signs on both fronts, in polls and in many of the market responses to real estate developments based on the principles of New Urbanism, neo-traditional design, or downtown living.
Suppose Kunstler is right, and this changing public awareness is heightened – and a new sense of urgency added – by, say, $2-a-litre gas, followed by “out of gas” signs on gas pumps, as demands for oil from the burgeoning Chinese and Indian economies gain on supply. Will the pressure from those influences be comparable to the fear of depression and a housing crisis that helped to push city planning into the era of modernist urban design? Perhaps.
If that time is coming, politicians and concerned citizens might wish to take another look at a 2003 report of the Canadian National Round Table on the Environment and the Economy entitled “Environmental quality in Canadian cities: The federal role“. That report identifies federal taxation and aid policies that could, in conjunction with the other levels of government, have serious impacts on urban land use and transportation. Alternatively – as is often the case in Canadian politics – the first flowering of political will may have to come from such provincial governments as those of British Columbia and Manitoba, which have shown serious interest in the development of a meaningful green agenda.
The last time the federal government generated political will on urban issues, we got the green fields of suburbia. There could be an opportunity now for the growth of political will that might help to give us back our cities, and the contribution those cities can make to environmental sustainability.
To be sure, under no circumstances will 21st Century cities be the same as those we left behind in the first part of the 20th Century. Barring a catastrophe of unimaginable proportions – which Kunstler seems to be contemplating with grim satisfaction – we will still be struggling to manage massive urban agglomerations, in place of the more comfortably-sized cities of yore, but finding ways of achieving more compact form and more manageable and environmentally sustainable systems of transportation should not be beyond human imagination.
••••••••••••••••••••••
Kunstler’s arguments are spelled out in:
James Howard Kunstler, The geography of nowhere: The rise and decline of America’s man-made landscape (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1993.
Kunstler, Home from nowhere: Remaking our everyday world for the Twenty-First Century (New York: Simon & Schuster), 1996.
Kunstler, The long emergency: Surviving the converging catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century (New York: Atlantic Monthly Press), 2005.
For a readable discussion of the shift in demand for housing in the United States and its significance, see:
Christopher B. Leinberger, “The next slum?” (TheAtlantic.com, March 2008), accessible at: http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/print/200803/subprime, down-loaded 7 March 2008.
The story of Canada’s post-war suburban development, and its impact on our cities, is documented in:
Christopher Leo, “The state in the city: A political economy perspective on growth and decay,” In James Lightbody, ed, Canadian metropolitics (Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman), 1995, ch 2.
See also the link above to the NRTEE document that proposes new environmental policies, and, for more history, take a look at:
Humphrey Carver, Houses for Canadians (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1948).
John Sewell, “Where the suburbs came from,” in James Lorimer and Evelyn Ross, The Second city book: Studies of urban and suburban Canda (Toronto: James Lorimer and Company), 1977, 10-17.

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