Fighting the scourge of suburbia
By Terry Pender
James Kunstler delivers his keynote speech during a conference on city building yesterday in Guelph.
Suburbanites and their car-dependent lifestyles are headed for an unprecedented fiasco with the end of cheap oil, a leading expert on energy depletion told a conference here yesterday.
James Kunstler told hundreds of delegates to a gathering organized by local activists that the suburban sprawl which characterized city building across North America since the Second World War is a tragic mistake that will end badly when "the cheap oil fiesta" is over.
"Suburbia is the greatest misallocation of resources in the history of the world. Why? because it is a living arrangement that does not have a future," Kunstler said to 600 delegates from 40 communities across Ontario.
The author of several books on urban issues was a featured speaker at a conference called Amazing Possibilities: Leading Practices in City Building for the Future.
The conference was organized by the Guelph Civic League, a grassroots organization formed after the last municipal elections that aims to increase voter turnout and reduce the influence of developers and property speculators on City Hall.
Kunstler's predictions about suburbia have profound implications for the cities of Waterloo Region, which are dominated by car-dependent suburbs. In the City of Kitchener only about 18,000 people live in the traditional, pedestrian-oriented areas of the central neighbourhoods out of a population of 204,000. In Waterloo Region there are 390,000 registered vehicles for a population of 490,000 and some of the worst air quality in the country.
Low-density suburbs where residents need cars were only made possible by cheap supplies of oil, Kunstler said.
"These methods are deeply entrenched in the officialdom of planning, and in the universities, and in the practices of the traffic engineers," Kunstler said.
"And all of these things, by the way, trump real-urban design because they are basically concerned with the happiness of the automobile and not the happiness of human beings," Kunstler said.
There will be little change until circumstances compel city councils, developers, urban planners and individuals to behave differently, he said.
"We have entered a permanent, global oil crisis that is not going to go away. It is going to change everything about how we live," Kunstler said.
"The trouble is, having made all these billions, perhaps even trillions, of dollars in investments in an easy-motoring utopia we are going to have a very hard time letting go of it," Kunstler said.
There will be a tremendous political battle to maintain the unsustainable because of what he called "a psychology of pre-investment, which prevents people from letting go of the things they have poured their collective wealth into."
But that's exactly what the Guelph Civic League wants voters to start thinking about. The league wants to show voters there are better ways of building cities than suburban sprawl, Tony Leighton, head of the Guelph Civic League, said in an interview.
"What that involves are leading practices in city planning, energy use, and heritage conservation in other cities," Leighton said.
The two cities that the league holds up as cutting-edge examples of smart urban-planing are Markham, Ont., and Port Moody, B.C. Both are building city centres and neighbourhoods that are urban villages where residents can get everything they need without driving a car.
About 36 per cent of eligible voters cast ballots in Guelph's 2003 municipal elections. That's a much higher turnout than in any of the cities of Waterloo Region, but Leighton said the civic league wants to increase the Guelph turnout to 50 per cent in this fall's elections.
Patrick Condon, a University of British Columbia landscape architect, was another featured speaker at the conference, who detailed his seven principles for building sustainable neighbourhoods.
According to Condon's principles:
Every dwelling should be no more than a five-minute walk from retail outlets.
There should be different types of housing at different densities on each street.
All dwellings should face the street to promote social interaction.
Cars should be stored in the back of lots off unpaved lanes.
Streets must be patterned on a grid or modified grid to disperse traffic congestion, and public transit should connect the neighbourhood with the surrounding region.
Streets should be narrow and shaded by trees to save costs and provide a greener, friendlier environment.
Preserve the natural environment and promote natural drainage of rainwater.
The best neighbourhoods in North American cities were built before the Second World War and feel like areas dominated by single-family residences, but in reality there is a variety of housing that includes duplexes, triplexes and small apartment buildings, Condon said.
The problem is such neighbourhoods are older, and evolved before current zoning laws forbid the mixture of housing types, Condon said.
"The best streets and neighbourhoods in cities are now illegal," Condon said. "We did much better planning in 1920 than in 2006."
To sustain public transit there should be 10 dwellings per acre housing 45 people, Condon said.
Cities must retain those things that make them unique -- their architectural heritage and natural features, said Glen Murray, the former mayor of Winnipeg, now a University of Toronto instructor and consultant.
"It's the first thing we give up. Instead we want to build cinder-block buildings to stretch our tax dollars that our children will have to tear down in 20 years," Murray said.
Place-making is more important than ever because the world has changed; there are the local economies of cities, and the global economy of international markets, Murray said.
Eighty per cent of the goods and services produced in the Canadian economy comes from four urban regions in Canada, Murray said.
And that 80 per cent is largely products of our intellects and imagination -- the knowledge economy, Murray said.
Cities with a culture of tolerance, creativity, diversity and an attractive environment will be the winners in the global competition for knowledge workers, Murray said.
So when city councillors want a new public building they should not just figure the costs, but calculate the paybacks and benefits, Murray said.
City leaders must realize it is the interaction of land-use, transportation and culture that creates wealth, Murray said.