Why do people move to suburbia? To have kids! So no wonder it seemed boring and sterile. The whole place was a giant nursery, an artificial town created explicitly for the purpose of breeding children.
I am a little concern about reading all the news about the dead of the car. Fiat buying Chrysler and General Motors closing the Pontiac line and declaring bankruptcy is given enough stimulus and energy to some neohippie pundits to go all the month without food or water. A refreshing reading on the matter is the right-wing Driving Like Crazy from P. J. O’Rourke. He is a huge car lover, and the reading of his book’s subtitle can explain his points of view. I do not agree on half of what he says, but it is certainly a entretaining lecture.
A lot of people feel a natural hate for cars, which is as logical as hating a blender or a toaster, since car are mere appliance. This hate is even harder to understand since cars pollute so little today. 30 years ago you could smell the sunset, now the cars run so efficiently that the pollutants are going down every year:
|Cars produced 1997-||Hydrocarbons||0.26 grams/Km|
|Carbon monoxide||2.1 grams/Km|
|Oxides of nitrogen||0.63 gram/Km|
|Cars produced 96-86||Hydrocarbons||0.93 grams/Km|
|Carbon monoxide||9.3 grams/Km|
|Oxides of nitrogen||1.93 grams/Km|
The problem is not only cars. Cows produce half a pound of methane a day, and methane traps 20 times more heat than CO2. Industry pollution, deforestation, the fact that some of us live in places that require a lot of energy just to keep us alive, all these factors are as important as cars when considering polluting and greenhouse gases emissions, but cars are an easy target because they are pervasive, because they are apparently politically incorrect, and because most car bashers do not own cars.
I do not blame the cars, I blame the cities.
Yes, the cities.
More specifically, city zoning in Residential, Commercial, and Industrial.
50 years ago everybody lived either in a farm or in a city. Not a city as we understand it today, but a close array of diverse buildings, neighbourhoods, and a mix use of soil. Farms were right outside the city, they fed the city, keep the air (somewhat) clean, and were an escape for the weekends. After World War II, in North America, and in a lesser extend in Europe, the city planners decided to create highways and suburbs. Gone were the neighbourhoods, the mix use of soil, and the liveable city. People of the likes of Robert Moses decided that cities must be divided in residential, commercial, and industrial areas, effectively separating people from the places they worked and shopped. The car became an appliance.
As the developers focused in Suburbia, the cities core languished. No main street could compete against the gigantic Shopping Centres from Suburbia. The price of downtown properties either plumbed and attracted the poorest people, or skyrocket and attracted banks and highly capitalized companies. There was not place for the middle class left in the city, and people moved to suburbs because they want to have their families in a better environment. Nowadays, people do not live in the cities, just students, bankers, very rich guys can afford live in the nice areas of the average North American city, while the rest is left to poor immigrants and commercial areas. Normal people live in suburbs, as much as they may hate it. Suburbs are designed to keep away people who do not live there, so everything is 40 kilometres of everything. You need to drive everywhere, and the windy roads keep public transit restricted to a few areas. Paul Graham makes an excellent read in Why Nerds are Unpopular, and the effect of suburbia and modern life in North American kids.
The car enables people to get out of the city and live in these places “as fake as a Twinkie”. If in a society you cannot get up, at least you can get out, and the car help you do so. We need to work in making our cities liveable again, but, contrary to Jane Jacobs who though that we all should live in high-raised buildings, I still think that you can live in a small house close to downtown and walk, bike, use the public transit, or why not, drive. To accomplish this, there are two major, major shifts on urban paradigms that need to happen:
1) Stop zoning. Houston is one example on how you can have certain urban restrictions (no slaughterhouse in a primary residential area) while keeping your neighbourhoods walkable. Midtown Toronto is also an example where residential areas all have a main street that can serve all the residents needs.
2) Decentralise. Megacities will be always problem-prone. Why so many people live in cities? Because they offer options that small towns do not; but a city does not need to be Tokio or Los Angeles to offer a reasonable amount of restaurant variety, theatre, festivals, and other cultural attractions. The middle city needs to be profit from. Places like Winnipeg, Austin, or Morelia are cities located in what could be boom areas in a future if we stop clustering all the services and companies in the same cities.
I understand that cluster happens and that they may be economically reasonable, but why we have clusters of clusters like in L.A. or Mexico City? A national policy should be created to populate areas outside the big cities to ease the impact on environment and the need of suburbs and one-hour commutes.
Suburbs have a negative impact on transit, on economy, on children development, and force us to live in our cars. They are boring places to live and to growth. Yes, they are safer for our children, but I remember growing up in a city, with all the excitement and the challenges, and still coming back to a small house with a backyard and a tower of tires that were used by a myriad of cats to sleep in. There is not need to chose between an apartment in downtown or a huge house, identical to the next huge house, 30 kilometres away from were your best friend lives.