Thursday, June 23, 2005

city, suburb or country? the pros and cons

I've been reading through the threads of various bulletin boards (see a list to the right) on the topic of where is the best place to live if there are disruptions of the social network as a result of peak oil: city, suburb, or country? Each location has its proponents and detractors. I wrote down the salient points of their arguments as I read. Here is a compilation of the pros and cons of each:

City: PRO
more likely to have a progressive population than the burbs or the country
things are in walking distance so you won't have to depend on gasoline
you can get to work without gas
you can get food and supplies without gas
there may still be public transit
the homes makes a small footprint on the land
when people have similar views you are more likely to get cooperation
the economic power of cities will divert food and goods to the city
the transportation hubs of the cities will divert food and goods to the city
small cities without suburbs and with a greenbelt nearby could grow their own food
cities with harbors will be able to participate in interstate and international trade
cities on the coasts will be able to fish the seas
bottom line: cities will be a good place to be if there is a "soft landing"

City: CON
cities can't grow their own food (although in Cuba rooftop gardens supplemented food sources)
many cities have a ring of suburbs that use up farmland
many cities have a ring of suburbs that make farmland more distant from the city center
sanitation could become an issue if garbage collection stops
higher density increases the spread of disease if health care fails
rationing, unemployment or hunger could spark riots
people will have to leave the city for the country to get food becoming refugees
bottom line: cities will be a bad place to be if there is a "hard landing"

Suburb: PRO
more land than in the city for planting food and raising chickens
room to develop home-based businesses
room for boarders or multi-family occupancy
easier to retrofit with solar panels, etc.
individuals can make organic, incremental and adoptive changes without waiting for approval from a group
when people stop commuting to work because gas is too expensive the neighborhoods will be revitalized
bottom line: suburbs will be a good place to be if there is a soft landing and you can resolve the employment issue and can walk or bike to the market

Suburb: CON
there may not be enough land to be self-sufficient
the soil is not good enough to grow on
too much of the land is paved over
it is too far to commute to work without gas
homes were built with cheap energy in mind
telecommuters will be outsourced
mortgages cannot be met with cottage industry
food and supplies are too far away
neighborhoods aren't walkable (not on a grid pattern)
there is no public transit
hungry city dwellers will come to the suburbs
bottom line: suburbs are a bad place to be if there is a hard landing and may be too far from work or market if there is a soft landing

Country: PRO
there is enough land for growing food
there is enough land to support livestock and work horses
it may be more possible to harness renewable energy sources
it is easier to be self-sufficient
it is far from rioting, etc. in the city
you will already be established there if there is a need to move to the country
bottom line: the country is a good place to be if there is a hard landing

Country: CON
it takes several years to learn how to farm
it takes several years to develop the soil for organic farming
newcomers could starve with one crop failure
neighbors may be conservative, fugitives, extremists, drug dealers or just city folk with really big yards
isolation can be a problem especially if you can't drive to see friends
there may not be a local market for non-farm labor
non-food goods and supplies may be hard to get or transport
markets may be too far away to buy from or sell to
refugees from the city and suburbs may inundate
lawbreakers may steal your crops or animals
bottom line: the country may be a bad place unless you are already established there


baloghblog said...

I am banking on upstate, NY, in a small city. (which I guess is a combination of the three.)

My home is in the suburbs, but only 4 miles from downtown, and 1/2 mile to the nearest grocery store. We are on a bus line, and 1/3 acre (of clay! uggh.. soil)

Unless you are going to start now, I wouldn't choose the farm. You'll be isolated, and completely dependent on yourself. The city seems risky to me, especially the bigger ones. Even with the benefits of public transportation and higher imports and exports, there will be many more people fighting for the same thing if there are shortages.

Click here to see my essay on the subject and let me know what you think. Maybe it'll inspire you to do a community assessment of where you live.

Liz Logan said...

Thanks baloghblog for your analysis. I agree. We're looking for an intentional community that is already established and is aware of PO. Maybe I'll do a post about our search. I'll check out your essay.

UNplanner said...

Well call me a doomer. Cities of most any size are doomed in any scenario other than a slow managed decline, where we come together as one people and re-allocate our remaining energy supplies in an orderly manner to all.

Yeah, right...

With that fact in mind, I think unless one develops a warlord personality, amasses a cache of weapons and a fortified base of operation, urban living will be a very deadly experience. The city is the pinnacle and nexus of "modern civilization" with everyone utterly dependent on everyone else. Way too many people live removed from the environment from which they depend on, with many cities dependent on resources imported from hundreds of mile away.

Here in California, 6-7% of the TOTAL state electrical consumption goes to moving water from point A to point B. And that doesn't even count the countless number of diesel, natural gas or electrical farming well pumps.

Take away the food, water, and basic livlihoods of most urban dwellers and you have a HUGE problem on your hand. Massive government involvement would absolutely be mandatory to keep order, something our federally funded military seem unable to do in Bagdad (another city short on the above mentioned resources...) Without any order you have the recipe for violence, disease, famine and ultimately die-off.

Suburban locations would only fare slightly better. Farming in the suburbs? Not practical for most locations. The only real difference between the suburbs and the city is proximity between other individuals. Urban areas have remarkable densities. Suburbs on the other hand have much lower population densities, which should afford the residents some protection against violence and pandemics. The lower overall level of human contact (due to increased physical distances) would likely make it harder (but not impossible) for the desperate to over-run someone's subdivision or to transmit disease to the inhabitants. On the other hand, the increased isolation of suburbia would raise the possibility of death by starvation, exposure (heat or cold), thirst or domestic violence.

Ultimately, I believe that in the end, suburbia will end up being abandoned (and scavanged for recyclable materials) rather than linger as a shadow of itself.

Your assesment of the rural location is accurate. Most people do not have any concept of farming or rural life. But here is the rural area's saving grace: low population densities. Life in the country will almost certainly be miserable, tiring and isolating. But thanks to the fact that population densities remain low it IS still possible to eak out a basic existance when push comes to shove.

So in the end I believe that the countryside will be the best location. Not by choice but by default...

This really should not be too surprising when you think about it. Look back through human history. Where are the suburbs? Where are the big cities? Outside of a few examples (ancient Rome) they simply did not exist. The vast majority of human existence was spent toiling away in the countryside. At best small settlements dotted the countryside, but for the most part people lived close to the land. Without the benefit of cheap and available energy, "modern" urban and suburban living would just not be possible.

Without a new source of energy, we will be forced back to our historical roots by default.

Sorry for the bum assesment on things, but I just do not see any other way that our high energy existance and all of its trappings can be maintained.

Liz Logan said...

Thanks UNplanner for your thoughts. I am leaning to the country as well. Hopefully with others.

Anonymous said...

The UNplanner certainly has spent time concluding the points he has made. However, I am going to argue that many of them are based on U.S. living arrangements, as well as our ideas toward urban, suburban, and rural life.

The idea that rural areas have low population densitites is accurate in the U.S.A. However, this low population density is dependent on high population densities in cities and suburbs. In other less-urbanized countries, the low population density that the UNplanner claims is the "saving grace" to other countries does not exist. Rural Bangladesh, for example, has areas with population densities up to 2000 people per square mile, a density on par with many suburbs (and especially many semi-rural suburbs).

For example, the idea that the Chicago suburbs are all dense places isn't true--many Chicago suburbs have "rural" densities, especially the upper-class ones. Barrington Hills, for example, has 140 people per square mile, similar to the density found in rural Illinois. Obviously, Barrington Hills people do not farm their large estates, but this is cultural, not essential.

The next idea that seems to appear hear is the idea that "settlements" appear separated from farmland. In many other countries, such as China and Russia, however, there is food grown in every town, and even the big cities. Shanghai grows more then half of its vegetable needs, and 60% of the vegetables grown in Cuba are grown in "settlements," not in the countryside, according to the Post-Carbon Institute. This is not farming, but it is gardening. Farming is not the only way one can cultivate crops--gardening is possible as well. World War II also is a good example to show that it is possible to grow food in backyards, even in suburbs. No, farming did not take place, but gardening sure did.

Also, some cities do have fields inside their city limits. One particular city is Indianapolis, Indiana. Indianapolis is unique because many small towns and rural communities and suburbs were incorporated into the city, but did not lose their lower density.

Then there is the notion of "isolated" country life. This is what has made country life so unappealing for many people. In reality, this "isolation" is specific to some, but not all rural areas, even in the U.S. Here's an example. I know someone who lives in rural Minnesota and farms. The homes are quite close together. But the density is low because there is a lot of land between the homes. So this rural life is not "isolated," but is still rural.

I think another thing that needs to be acknowledged here is that the "suburb" theory is based on the idea that suburbs consist of lawns and rely on imported food. But if lawns were cultivated, then they would be scattered country settlements, not suburbs. Farming is not practical, but gardening is, and history does support this claim.

Also, the survival in the countryside is based on the assumption such area is arable. Not all countryside is arable--look at rural Nevada, or other areas where agriculture is not necessarily practiced--like forested parts of rural Illinois.

History also supports the claim of cultivation in cities during collapse (as one historian put it well, cattle grazed in the Forum while Rome fell).

Bottom line: This advice might work in the U.S., but it might not work in other countries.

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