Saturday, January 08, 2005

Oil and the Future of Urbanism

The Associated Press is reporting that the idea of "peak oil" is moving into the mainstream. The "peak oil" thesis, according to the article, corresponds to the belief that global oil production is on the decline and that policymakers need to urgently address what could become a significant crisis.

I am not sure how "mainstream" the peak oil thesis is--at least from the perspective of its articulation in the dominant political discourse--but certainly knowledgeable observers (including independent analysts contracted by the US Department of Energy) believe that there is cause for concern.

The article reports on a recent conference on the subject held in Yellow Springs, Ohio where the keynote speaker, Richard Heinberg, argued that the crisis:
"means the undermining of the whole way of suburban life that has been developed in America"

As a remedy, some participants argued for what curiously sounds like a revision of Frank Lloyd Wright's Broadacre City. According to the article, one participant "sees the suburbs being replaced by small, self-sufficient communities - many in the country - that use alternate energy sources and grow their own food."

The immense appetite for fossil fuels in North America is certainly unsustainable. However, the "back-to-the-land" remedy seems insufficiently capable for being the basis of sound public policy.

An article posted in the Pittsburg, KS Morning Sun entitled, "Agriculture for Urbanites," presents a possible opening for developing a sustainable urbanism. The main focus of discussion is how agriculture is being introduced into the curriculum of urban schools. While any attempt to "ruralize the city" is as futile as Wright's vision to "civilize the countryside," plans that creatively connect people with sources of sustenance may engender new types of thinking that blur distinctions between "urban" and "rural," causing a type of urbanism to emerge that recognizes the importance of ecological health in the development of metropolitan areas.

This type of "new urbanism" would eschew both the nostalgia of "back-to-the-land" movements and that of the Traditional Neighborhood Design paradigm to create urban forms that address the realities of shrinking energy supplies and long-standing patterns of land use in such a way that is germane to a sensible response to emerging urban challenges.

(Linked to Outside the Beltway)