Everyone hates the suburbs. The End of Suburbia argues that suburban life is not sustainable and that the end of the oil economy will cause a disastrous end to the suburbs. Author James Howard Kunstler claims that the suburbs will become the slums of the new era and that a design movement called New Urbanism will bring a new, sustainable urban era. But why will the suburbs become slums? And does New Urbanism really offer hope.
In building our modern metropolises we have constructed a binary view of nature. A view that places nature far outside the city. Nature, to the city, is a wild, uncontrolled space that we willfully do not understand. It is, as author William Cronon put it, “very much the fantasy of people who have never themselves had to work the land to make a living—urban folk for whom food comes from a supermarket or a restaurant instead of a field, and for whom the wooden houses in which they live and work apparently have no meaningful connection to the forests in which trees grow and die.”
Suburban development in post-war North America was an attempt to flee from unnatural urban centres and reconnect with nature, but a very specific type of manicured nature. The suburbs embody a social project to turn the North American landscape into a picturesque English garden that keeps the wild side of nature at a distance.
New Urbanist neighbourhoods, unfortunately, embrace an equally skewed view of nature. Vancouver’s Olympic Village, a LEED certified New Urbanist neighbourhood, uses nature in two ways. First, by using the LEED certification, the city has recognized that our living in and building of the city have an impact on nature. Nature, then, is something other than the city. Second, the design allows a controlled form of nature into the city in the form of trees and storm water drainage. Although this New Urbanist neighbourhood has taken nature into consideration, it still keeps nature contained and at a distance.
If energy prices continue to rise, and we see apocalypse that The End of Suburbia predicts, we will not only have to reconsider our vision of urbanity, but we will also have to reconstruct our view of nature. In the film Kuntsler suggests that in the slum suburbs of the future we will see multiple families living in one house and farming in their front yard. He states this as if it is a horrible thought. But why is this horrible? Are we so distant from nature that we can no longer see ourselves actually working the land?
In the future of city building we will not be able to build pastoral suburbs that attempt to reconnect with nature and metropolises that separate the wilderness from the city will ultimately be destructive to our environment. To build living spaces that are inhabitable and sustainable, nature will have to come to life in the cities. Although the car-centred suburb may not be sustainable, the suburb might be. Perhaps, one day, our suburban utopias will become walkable neighbourhoods that are home to front-yard community gardens and garages converted for manufacturing. Perhaps living and working in nature does not have to be so far from the city that we forget what it is like.