The Politics of the End of Suburbia

Cross-posted from

The economic conditions that supported the tremendous growth of North American suburbs during the last half of the 20th century – cheap energy and the modern industrial production system – appear to be undergoing a sharp reversal. What do these signals of the future mean for the suburbs and the demands that will be placed on politicians asked to respond to these changes?

You don’t have to be a peak oil theorist to recognize – as James Smith, CEO of Shell UK has – that “the era of easy oil is over”. The reality that we are not going to ever return to an age of cheap oil is just starting to sink into the consciousness of the marketplace, electorate and policy-makers. Scenarios of a serious supply crunch and $200 a barrel oil are no longer on the fringe.

The Freakonomics blog at NY Times recently held a quorum inviting a small group of smart and opinionated experts to imagine the future of American suburbia in 40 years time. The responses vary from James Kunstler’s “the suburbs have three destinies, none of them exclusive: as materials salvage, as slums, and as ruins” to the more hopeful “Suburbia will be flexible, it will be smarter, and it will be hybrid” of John Archer.

What about in the Toronto region?

In the Toronto area context Toronto Star writers Christopher Hume and Phinjo Gombu have been considering these same issues in the GTA: Downtown density will prevail over slums of suburbia, A planning headache, 50 years in the making; Reinventing Suburbia.

One of the primary issues facing the suburban electorate and their politicians are the very real economic hardships that expensive oil will bring to the suburbs.

The cost of living is increasing with the cost of transportation. Ontario’s industrial economy is being hit hard. The investments necessary to reconfigure how we plan and build and how we move around the sprawling megalopolis are staggering. The required shifts in 50 year-old cultural mindsets and behaviours may be even more difficult to make. The very instruments being suggested to help pay for some of this – road-pricing, congestion charges and other carrots and sticks – are political hot potatoes unpopular to those being asked to pay the price or change their behaviour. There are economic winners and losers, and where the money flows, politics is sure to follow.

Can our politics cope with what is being asked of it? Can we move beyond the us vs. them dynamic across municipal boundaries to a greater sense of shared destiny and community across a vast city-region? Can our institutions adapt? Can we solve the wicked problems that will surface during a period of rapid change and uncertainty? Will our suburbs become slums and ruins or smarter and hybrid?

These are questions that we’re looking to our community of readers to help answer. What are the political fault-lines of suburbia’s adaptation, re-imagination and renewal?

Photo by Rosanne Haaland.

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