Suburbia DOA

May 17, 2008

I see a lot of people gleefully predicting the demise of suburbia – dependant as it is on the car for it’s full functioning, but I wonder where do we think all these people are going to go?

If overseas examples are anything to go by the first thing that happens (think Cuba and the Soviet Union) when food gets scare is that people start growing food on their own property. I saw David Holmgren talk a few years ago and he pointed out that the old style quarter-acre section was large enough to feed an entire family. He regretted the fact that most of these sections have since been cut in half and now have two houses where their used to be one, but we need to recognise in our haste to usher in a new future that this doesn’t make them utterly useless.

It’s highly unlikely that anyone will be 100% food self sufficient even if they have enough space. In reality people will grow a proportion of their food at home and buy or barter for the rest. And if there isn’t enough space within the confines of the property there’s going to be a lot of park and road space available for other uses as soon as the local council sees the writing on the wall. Permaculture has already shown us how to grow food in small places, and how to repair dead soil, al we need now is the motivation and that’ll come soon enough.

I’ve also seen the suburbs bemoaned for their lack of community but this is mostly because of the car. As soon as daily car travel is taken out of the picture and as soon as adults are at home for the day, and most likely their children too, the suburbs will be a different place.

The suburbs feel kind of dead now but they’re not going to die – if anything they’re probably going to undergo a kind of rebirth. People will very quickly go back to relying on their neighbours for company and mutual support, they’ll start working from home and who knows – all that space currently used to shift cars around might be put to a better use. Given the (admittedly unlikely) possibility of a sensible local council we’ll might yet see roads given over to some kind of food forest or other commons type of space with council just focus on maintaining the footpaths on either side. Who knows, we may even have markets and other communal events springing up at old intersections. It’s hardly like old-style zoning rules are going to be any use to us.

And YES, I realise this is an idealistic view I’m presenting here but it’s actually a hell of a lot more useful than a months’ worth of doom-blogging. I mean we’re all going to look pretty stupid post-crash when people start asking “so if you knew this was going to happen why did you do nothing except standing there saying ‘I told you so’.

Which is the effect of a lot of the doom – it reduces us to numb spectators. How often do doom-bloggers wonder aloud about why people don’t follow their advice, all the time unware that it’s the constant stream of doom that’s got us in it’s glare.

And YES I realise there is a lot of planning for the future going on already but as I said I still think there is a lot of staring into the headlights of the oncoming train too; “Yes, I think those are the headlights coming into view now. Yep, it’s definitely them, they’re getting pretty bright now – just like I said they would…


James Howard Kunstler is a great writer but my biggest criticism of him is that a lot of his solutions are aimed at the level of local or central government – which, ironically enough is kind of naïve of him. Government is the instrument of the status quo, it’s job is more of the same – not change for the sake of the little people. Should be pretty obvious really.

What our communites are going to need in the future, are a few voices of reason – a few people in each place who have thought about what the future is going to be like and have latched on to the few things that are going to help the people in their street or suburb get through the times ahead. They certainly aren’t going to be need a bunch of peakniks saying I told you so – although the peakniks are going to need a stable community in their area if they really want to increase their chances of survival.

Timing is crucial too – it’s great to have a few bright ideas but pushing them before their time will just lead to burn out. It’s probably too early even now for most other people but the most important thing to remember is that the last people who are going to get this are the ones who our culture typically looks too for leadership.

Crash-aware people are going to have to provide leadership in creative non-institutional ways by doing things like starting up seed-saver and permaculture groups and generally whispering in the ear of people who are ready to listen that we need to support everyone in the community if we want to feel safe.

People have also got to be careful to drop the coercive, bash-them-over-the-head-with-the-news approach that our culture usually produces and provide what I tend to think is genuine leadership – which is to say creating a vision and a direction and waiting for the support to grow in behind it. (This concept of leadership is probably the major area of failure for activists today – but that’s another blog post).

For me this lesson about what community consists of has come courtesy of a fateful shift of house. In our new ‘suburb’ we’ve got friendly neighbours on both sides and over the road – two of whom we knew before we moved in. There are lots more families down the street, also I have a work-mate 4 doors down and a few other faces I recognise beyond that. It’s a marked contrast from our last place where we lived in the usual sought after situation of isolation from our neighbours and a nice view. We’ve moved to a less sought-after area but have ended up with more of what we actually need – it feels like a good place to be.



  1. […] « Suburbia DOA Doom, Gloom and Ka-boom! May 23, 2008 A few weeks ago I posted a quote from a Bill […]

  2. […] know I rarely post now but I just had to put up a note about an post I wrote over two years ago, Suburbia DOA. There’s been a bit of noise about Jeff Vail’s article Rescuing Suburbia in which he […]

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