Is this the future of Lexington’s suburbs?

Suburbia is nothing but a way of life built on consumption, underpinned by cheap energy.  Is it any wonder that suburbia as we know it began in this country, during the time when the US was the world’s oil super producer?

Now however, as energy gets ever more expensive and with the unfolding climate disaster, can we afford to live a life of thoughtless consumption?

Here’s a sketch of a typical Lexington suburban area.   Low density, big houses, lots of well manicured landscaping.  This is all about consumption. The luxury of consumption.  It has become an American birthright – “the American way of life is non-negotiable” as one elected fool once said. (Click for big view)

Nothing here is productive.   That was the whole point:  the suburban ideal was to be the respite from all things productive.  It was a great vision.

But what if?  What if the cheap energy that let us create a lifestyle of consumption is coming to an end? What will become of suburbia then?

Well it is happening, brought about by the end of cheap energy due to peak oil and the overwhelming need to do what we can to mitigate climate destruction by using far less fossil fuels.  How we adapt to these two facts will be the central points for the rest of our lives.   The great transition of our time is moving away from a consumption economy to one based on production.  Because of this, everything will change.

The growth economy has ended.  Cheap energy powered that.  With the end of economic growth, we’ll see the end of debt as well.   Without economic growth and debt, our governments will be compelled to scale back enormously.  As Crosby Still Nash and Young once sang:  “we’re finally on our own.”

But the burbs will still be there – what will become of them?  Can they make the transition from consumption to production?

Here’s a sketch – showing the same view as above –  of the possibility for Lexington by mid-century.  This is the OPTIMISTIC view. (Click for big view)

Instead of an English country landscape, we have an agricultural-industrial landscape.  Nearly every square inch is put to some productive use – producing energy, food, value added products.  All the ornamental trees are gone, replaced by Hybrid Poplars which can produce fire wood in a little as four years.  Gone are lawns, replaced by gardens, barn yards, fish ponds, orchards.   People take raw materials and make them into needed items.  Some properties become reclamation yards, recycling the waste of suburbia.   Houses have become super insulated, and heated by new fire places.  Many families are likely to share each house, and tenants are housed in new small dwellings.  The government’s ability to maintain such gold-plated infrastructure as wide, little used streets has disappeared.  Instead, the paved surfaces are dwindling, with the remainder being put to some productive use.  A small market stands on the corner where once grass reigned, where folks can meet, trade, sell, buy.  In much later years, as the cityscape evolves, this is likely to become a plaza.  Life here will become intensely more local – hyper local – over time.

Essentially, this version of the future means that we have come full circle back to the times when life was about production, not consumption.  This vision will be scarey to most people, myself included.  Very few of us actually produce anything and it sure seems like I’m too old to start learning.  But that doesn’t change the new reality.

The fact is, we only get this future if we have enough virtue and courage to admit that reality.  If we don’t, then a future much less optimistic awaits us.

Look around you with a new set of eyes:  what is productive in our city?  What is wasteful consumption?  What productive replacement could there be? How will you fit in?

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “Is this the future of Lexington’s suburbs?

  1. Danny

    I wrote a series of articles for NoC that looked at this in terms of how Lexington subsidizes food production. I stopped writing them because nobody in the city council to whom I sent them, nobody in the local food movement here in Lexington, nor anyone else said one word about the 5 articles and 7000 words written.

    The suburbs are not the problem currently. Downtowns are. That’s where the unproductive sites of consumption have moved (as wealth has begun to leave the suburbs and flow back into the city). Imagine if, instead of the money thrown at WEG and Rupp and Distillery consumption districts, the city began to subsidize people growing their own food in their own suburban backyards, to be sold at neighborhood (ie, not downtown) markets. It’ll happen; it’s just a matter of whether this city–and its so-called leaders in the city council and food movements–demand it to happen. That certainly hasn’t been the case in this city. I see instead an attempt by such leaders to attach themselves to the current downtown consumption zeitgeist in hopes of getting a few cool crumbs.

  2. Another aspect of this is the fact that the drawing looks to be based on nearly quarter acre lots and these type lots are found in our subdivisions developed from the early ’50s through the early ’70s. The majority built since then are much smaller while the houses are larger. Many lots currently in the suburbs will not sustain a garden to feed a reasonable sized family. The suburban net density has increased yet the gross density has not, those “gold-plated infrastructure” entities that you speak of take up the rest. Not only will the streetside stands be there but so will the neighborhood commercial spots now lacking from these non-walkable areas. The streets may well be the packed gravel to which they degenerate when they can no longer be paved with petroleum products.

    • Yes – I envision that much of the newer suburbs may only have value as reclamaition areas – lots are not large enough to grow much food, the top soil was scraped off, and the shoddy construction of the houses will make them unable to be retrofitted for energy conservation and generation. So I expect a migration back to the center – where neighborhoods that could support farming and energy generation will become much more dense.

      • Danny

        Who exactly is moving and where? Census data from 2010 for Lexington show most non-UK city neighborhoods de-populated and de-densified (as whitey moved in, I’m guessing), while certain suburban neighborhoods ringing the city became more dense. In other words, it seems there were different migrations afoot.

  3. Danny, I don’t think that it is a matter of who has or is moving since Lexington typically trails in trends such as these. It is a question of who will move or need to move in future. I can see many who will refuse to accept that a scenario such as Steve’s could occur and will fail to plan for its possibility. If it does come later they will not be prepared in any way.

  4. Danny

    Agreed on Lexington being behind on most things (especially when the comparisons are larger cities by several factors), I don’t think Lexington’s trailing by much here. People are moving downtown–it’s wealth that’s moving in mostly, which mirrors national trends. And the people moving out, also seemingly mirroring national trends, are the poor. (This is also consistent with Europoean cities, where places like Paris are loved for their urban walk-ability and sophistication, but have suburban slums ringing them.)

    To me, the question isn’t ‘will people see the light’; it’s what groups of people are seeing (or are economically capable of acting upon) the light. This city, with no real push-back that I can see by white social activists who have the ears of power here, seems bent on catering to specific people moving into town. So we praise liquor stores getting shut down on North Limestone, but devote x millions of TIF funding to create a Bourbon Consumption Zone in another. I think that’s the failure in city preparation regarding demographic changes that we need to be talking about.

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