I recently submitted this essay to Dissent Magazine for a scholarship contest. I have been accepted to the University of Maryland and the University of Pennsylvania, and if I want to pay for it, I need a lot of money.
The United States is facing a blizzard of societal problems at the moment. Our central cities are falling apart, while suburbs eat what’s left of our productive farmland. Neighbors never meet each other unless they’re angry. Our economy is run on energy that comes from outside of our borders that could be cut off at any moment and, at any rate, is running out fast. Americans are the fattest people on the planet, due mostly to a sedentary lifestyle. Public transportation helps the most needy people in society, yet most of our funding is poured into highways for commuters. To say that all of these problems could be solved by only one solution would be ludicrous, but they can all at least be addressed by one issue: better city planning.
Various movements, including New Urbanism, Smart Growth and Transit-Oriented Development, are trying to do that very thing. All of these focus on greater residential densities, mixed land uses, and making sure that walking, biking, and public transit are at least as feasible as car travel, if not more so.
This addresses the before-mentioned issues in a number of ways. The best place to start on all of this is where it is already somewhat existent: current cities and towns. Although many of our major cities have been gutted of their mixed uses, transformed into oversized office parks, the basic framework is there to turn them into high-density, mixed-use centers, with people living, working, shopping and playing downtown, all within walking distance. When peak oil hits, all the people that commute via car won’t be able to live in the suburbs and work in the cities, so they will either have to work closer to home or live closer to work. When this happens, our metropolitan areas will contract in geographic scale, but they will densify around certain centers, most of them traditional cities and towns.
The separateness of the suburbs has led to a certain type of sociopathy. People never get out of their cars and talk to their neighbors. They get in their cars, pull out of the garage, drive to work, spend most of the day in a cubicle, drive home, pull into the garage and get out of their cars while barely so much as talking to another human being. This is why people create rules in HOA’s to maintain civility, because no one has the gall to actually talk to their neighbors or worry about how their actions might affect others. When your neighbors are closer to you, and when you all walk to get anywhere, you’re bound to run into each other and have a conversation. Who knows, you may even become friends and start walking to the pub together.
When we start to run low on oil, it will bring a massive shock to our economy. We will no longer be able to rely on international shipping and long-haul trucking to bring us goods from across the world. We will have to live on a much more local scale. We will need to grow our food within a closer proximity to markets, preferably within cities so that those living there can also benefit from the greenery and the cleaner air. We will have to manufacture our products within our communities. People with manual labor skills will become much more important in our society, since it will again become more reasonable to fix things that break than to buy a new one at Wal-mart. We will become much more intimately aware of where all of our products come from and who they are made by.
It’s amazing how much money people spend on their cars, only to get fat from having no incidental exercise whatsoever, and then spend even more on gym memberships and fad diets trying to lose all the excess weight (although there are many in America who opt to just stay fat). We’d all be a lot better off if we just lived a life that gave us exercise. If it were safe, pleasant and timely to walk or cycle, America would be in much better shape. Again, with peak oil, we may be forced into a world where this is the case, so we might as well be ready for it when it comes.
Some critics of New Urbanism and Smart Growth say that suburban sprawl is the byproduct of the free market and that it illustrates what people really want, but it wouldn’t be at all economically feasible if it weren’t for government intervention. The suburbs were the weekend retreat of the elite until after World War II, when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were created to help returning veterans get affordable mortgages (these two may be dismantling themselves as we speak, so it may not be entirely necessary to intervene). Sprawl is also a product of expansive highway building. No one would live in the suburbs if they couldn’t get to them, and for every dollar states pay towards new highways, the federal government pays nine. Public transit and rail have never gotten this kind of funding. Unlike in Europe, where many freeways went around cities or turned into grade-level boulevards within them, American cities have been cut up by freeways, creating barriers to non-car movement and walling certain neighborhoods off from the rest of the community, as with Pittsburgh’s impoverished Hill District. With peak oil fast approaching, we need to be ready to use what fossil fuels we have on the most efficient forms of transport. Public transit can move more people, and in some cases do so faster, than single-occupant cars, and while using less fossil fuels.
The greatest changes to this system need to be made at the top. Most city planners are familiar with New Urbanism and Smart Growth, but are unable to implement policies due to public inertia. The federal government could help by dismantling programs that favor cheap mortgages in the suburbs over city development (if there’s anything left to dismantle in the coming years); fund public transit and rail projects at least at the same level, if not more, than highways; and discourage single-use zoning, the land use law in most American cities that doesn’t allow the mixed uses found in traditional cities. If we do this, we can save our cities and our farms, make better neighbors, be prepared for peak oil, be healthier, and allow for those in need to have better access to transportation options.