City, Country, Suburb? It Isn't Where You Live, But How You Live There.

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switters's picture
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City, Country, Suburb? It Isn't Where You Live, But How You Live There.

While buying some land in a rural area, building a house, installing solar panels and a greywater system, and growing 100% of your own food is may be feasible for some, this vision is completely out of reach for the vast majority of people.  All of that takes capital and time, and quite a bit of both, which an increasingly large number of people simply don't (and won't) have.  Furthermore, it may not even be desirable for some who have the resources to do it.

Sharon Astyk, one of my favorite writers on these topics, has long argued that most people won't be living in a groovy eco-village off-the-gried somewhere in the country, but instead they'll be "adapting in place".  That means folks will be making do with where they already are, instead of moving to a new place and starting over.  She argues that life will be viable in the city, country, and even (gasp!) suburbs, but that it will look very different in each place.

Below is an excerpt of her excellent post City, Country, Suburb? It Isn't Where You Live, But How You Live There.  I highly recommend reading it.

City, Country, Suburb? It isn’t Where You Live, But How You Live There.

I’ve had a lot of interesting discussions lately with various people about optimal locations.  First, there was the large city dweller who talked about his fear of living without access to land in a city.  Then there was there were the two news stories that suggested both outer suburban and rural dwellers were (surprise!) suffering more from high gas prices than those who live in population centers.  Finally, there was Kunstler’s latest screed, more gleeful than usual, about the death of the American South due to high energy prices.   So I thought it was worth taking on a topic I’ve written about before – whether to live in cities, suburbs or in the countryside in an increasingly energy depleted and warming world.  And the answer I’m going to give you is that IMHO, all of the above have possibilities.  But a lot depends on how you – and the people around you – choose to live in a place.  Or maybe it depends on what kind of person you are – or can become.

Despite much debate on this subject, I’d argue that many, perhaps even a majority of cities, suburbs and countrysides have a future of some sort.  What’s important, though, is that in every case, those futures are very different in ways they aren’t right now.  That is,  right now there are differences between the three, but they are easily overcome. It is perfectly possible, though miracles of cars, delivery trucks and online purchasing for city and country dwellers to have very similar frames of reference.  One may live in an apartment, the other in an old farmhouse, but they can vacation in each other’s neighborhoods, share the same frame of reference by seeing the same films, the same shows (one travels for this), wearing the same clothes, eat much the same diet, etc…  Now they may have different priorities, and there are distinctions, but the differences are comparatively small, and easily overcome if that’s one agenda. 

We are about to enter a period in which the differences in way of life between urban, rural and suburban are going to be magnified dramatically.  It will no longer be possible, for example, for city dwellers to have a “country place” far away, or for people to move out to the country and keep the amenities of suburban life.  So the question becomes – how do you want to live?

There has been a lot of lively debate about the merits of suburb, country, city – much of it, I think, far too polarized.  For example the powerful impact of James Kunstler and the (otherwise excellent) film _The End of Suburbia_ have effectively led a lot of people to simply dismiss the suburbs.  And yet many suburbs have approximately the same population density as 19th century large towns that supported considerable infrastructure.  Now in many cases, because of the ridiculous zoning laws, there is no such infrastructure, but large suburban houses and garages are appropriately sized to create it – interstitial businesses will spring up rapidly as people can no longer afford to shop, and zoning laws will be overthrown.

Let me be clear, I agree entirely with Kunstler that suburbia was a tremendous misallocation of resources – I think the project of the suburbs was deeply flawed.  Where I disagree is in the idea that we should now abandon them – that we must.  In fact, I think we must not, simply because industrial agriculture is increasingly disconnected from producing real food for real people.  As more and more Americans get poorer and are priced out of food by rising energy prices, we will absolutely require suburbia to keep fed – that arable land, much of it superb farmland – has to be brought back into production.  And since we won’t be commuting from the cities, we’ll be living the houses.  Yes, it would absolutely have been better to build better houses and design better- but that doesn’t make suburbia uninhabitable.

The same thing is true with cities – cities of 1 million or so have existed for a very, very long time.  I have my doubts about whether cities of 8-10 million will be sustainable in a world with high transport costs, but I also have no doubt that most cities, which were established for reasons – because they sit in a useful or valuable place – will continue to be cities, even if their infrastructure changes and their population reduces in the longer term.  Manhattan and Chicage and LA all do have a future – but it is important to be able to live within the kind of future they do have, and within the limitations of urban centers. 

The countryside suffers most from transportation costs, small tax base and lack of jobs - it is reasonable to believe that high energy prices may eventually result in deliveries ceasing to be made to rural stores, that rural towns may find themselves unable to pay for plows in winter and schools, and that job losses will reverbate more severely here. It become plausible to think that such shortfalls might begin comparatively soon.  And for those who live in the countryside and have enjoyed the advantages of city jobs, suburban amenities, etc… this is likely to be a rough transition.  But that doesn’t mean we will abandon the countryside – being able to eat creates tremendous incentives to keep some lines of connection open.

In short, I think it is most important to talk about how to live in the suburbs, or the city, or the country in a low energy future.  I think that may be more productive than extended screeds against one model or another.

The countryside may be likely to suffer first and deepest from the shortage of fuels and loss of services.  Now there are (and I am overgeneralizing here) two broad groups of people living in the country right now.  The first is made up of the rural poor and working class, farmers, homesteaders and country and those who want to be countr people – that is, people with ties either to land or other people in rural areas.  The other group are exurban commuters who may have hobby farms, keep horses (not all people with hobby farms and horses fall into this category, obviously), or built McMansions out in the pretty countryside when gas was cheap, but who have no particular tie to the area, and strong ties to suburban style amenities.  They have either gotten these amenities by encouraging rural towns to use their growing tax base of exurban commuters to provide them, or by driving distances to where they are available. 

Now the harrowing process of energy costs, high unemployment and low salaries are likely to drive a lot of group #2, the exurban middle class, back towards population centers.  Some will stay and become part of group #1, or find some other way to do well in the rural areas, but most of them will probably pick up and move in the coming few years, dropping tax bases, leaving a lot of empty housing, and in otherwise emptying a large part of the rural landscape.  This change is likely to have two big effects.  The first is that the exurban middle class (who often moved out as far as they did because they couldn’t afford good housing nearer population centers) will be competing with poorer urban residents for housing now – that is, they are likely to displace lower income people from cities and out into the countryside in a process of gentrification.  The second is that the tax and service base of rural areas is likely to simply collapse.  Many of these areas were pressed into making changes that won’t be sustainable – large multi-town district schools, for example, are simply going to be impossible to afford busing for.

On the other hand, group #1 probably won’t move, and shouldn’t.  They are (not universally, but often) lower in income than the departing exurbanites, but they are also better adapted to their place. The thing that makes it possible for most of the rural working class to get along where they do is that land prices are comparatively cheap – and they are going to become more so for at least a while.  In many ways this may be good – some of the buyers for the foreclosed McMansions are likely to be extended families, people who were already living together by necessity in trailers, and who now can live together in a four bedroom house. Universally my rural neighbors are extremely handy, and if they can’t afford the foreclosure, would be happy to help build an addition onto their trailer from the scavenged pieces of the McMansions as well.  The un-gentrification of rural areas may actually have some benefits.  The same is true as absentee property owners of rural land sell or rent their holdings – some of these may be purchased, others simply reclaimed if left unused long enough. 

The other thing that group number 1 often has are family ties – social connections that mean that Grandma takes care of the baby while doing their crappy low wage jobs, and then they take care of Grandma, rather than putting her in a home.  These ties are going to become increasingly valuable. Yes, the cost of gas is going to be troublesome, but rising prices for food, firewood and fiber will partially offset this, and in general, these places haven’t even begun seriously economizing.  Yes, it is presently illegal to put 8 people in your pickup flatbed and drive to the Walmart for morning shift.  How much enforcement do we expect there to be as the rural police departments can barely afford gas?  I’m guessing not much.  Rural dwellers are suffering now because of high food prices and energy prices, but they have barely begun to use mitigation strategies – in most rural areas, the jobs are all in one or two locations, as are the supermarkets.  It will not be hard to put together large carpools and taxi services.  The problem is that as yet, no one has figured out that this is a permanent situation, so the adaptation process has not begun. 

The same goes with growing food – yes, many rural dwellers don’t grow gardens.  But they are often not very far removed from people who did, and they probably hunt, and they often are very resourceful. Living in the formal economy, it is often very hard to do more than just get by – living in the informal economy can actually be much easier in rural areas, where there are natural resources to build upon (or exploit – but hopefully that will be kept to a minimum). 

 My expectation is that many of those displaced from cities will probably be recent immigrants, many not very far removed from agricultural livelihoods as well.  There are likely to be some difficulties with this transition, and some hostility on both ends, but in the end, I suspect that many rural dwellers will find that they have a considerable amount in common with their new Mexican or Somali or Hmong neighbors.  I anticipate some trouble here – and some surprising alliances.

What will not be possible is for rural dwellers to live the way they do now – families will have to do subsistence work, most families will have to go back to one earner status (because they can no longer afford transport costs), which should be possible as property values begin to fall.  The shift will be difficult and painful, and particularly hard on the elderly, but it will be possible in many cases.  That is not to say pleasant, or that many people won’t be ground up and spit out in the transition, but it is possible.

Living in rural areas will mean being comfortable with a degree of isolation previously unknown to those who went there – you won’t be taking the kids to soccer practice and swimming lessons – you may not be able to afford them.  Many of the amenities that once made exurban towns seem like suburbia in the country will disappear.  You will *have* to get along with the neighbors – you are going to need to work together to get enough gas to afford to truck your produce into the city.  You will have to be very comfortable with fixing things yourself, making do and adapting to shortages.  Meeting your own needs becomes more important when every trip to the city is begrudged, and won’t be repeated for a month or more. 

(Continue reading here.)


Damnthematrix's picture
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 10 2008
Posts: 3998
Re: City, Country, Suburb? It Isn't Where You Live, But ...

"While buying some land in a rural area, building a house, installing solar panels and a greywater system, and growing 100% of your own food is may be feasible for some, this vision is completely out of reach for the vast majority of people.  All of that takes capital and time, and quite a bit of both, which an increasingly large number of people simply don't (and won't) have."

Hmmmm.....  that DEPENDS.

In our case, we upsized to downsize. Our 1 3/4 acre farm complete with state of the art solar powered energy efficient eco house is worth LESS than our previous city dwelling, and by selling up and moving, we are now virtually debt free. Would have been debt free had it not been for the crazy building bubble pre-crash when the cost of EVERYTHING went up as the price of oil skyrocketed from $20 (remember those days...!)

My wife and I were dicussing our move just yesterday and what a fortuitous idea it was (were definitely lucky in buying our land for $49,000 just days before the market went ballistic and sent its market value to $200,000!). There is NO WAY I would stay in the 'burbs right now.... I know not all towns/cities are the same, but whenever we [rarely] go back to Brisbane we are amazed we ever lived there so crazy it all seems... My wife said she thought she'd miss Brisbane, but she doesn't, one iota. In fact, not even the friends we have there..... we've made brand new ones here who are far more in touch with reality!!!

Even on our small acreage, we are not only able to grow all the veggies we need (seasonally, of course), but also have milking goats and dozens of fowls. Try that in town without someone complaining. Now we have critical mass with our birds, we can eat one or two a week (will kill another duck this morning), can't remember last time we bought meat, and as I wrote elsewhere, our meat is waaay healthier for you than intensively farmed crap from the shops.

I think the people who stay in towns will be the ones who will be part of the dieoff I'm afraid (, either ignorant of the looming crash, or lacking the skills to survive (or unwilling to adapt) or staying put thinking this is only temporary and they're going to make a killing by buying gold..

I like Sharon Astyk too, but nobody, not even her, is always right!  I too may be wrong of course, before anyone jumps down my throat for being arrogant!


Wendy S. Delmater's picture
Wendy S. Delmater
Status: Diamond Member (Offline)
Joined: Dec 13 2009
Posts: 1988
Sharon's article is great.

Sharon's article is great. Thanks for posting a link ot the entire thing.

A main take away for me was the whole suburban zoning issue. I purposely resettled to an edge-of-rural suburban commuity on a large lot, near main rail transport lines...but the main issue for me was zoning. She's quite right that restirctive zoning can kill self-sufficuiency. Our area has literally NO zoning laws, and lots of people with very useful PO skills working out of their homes. It also has a large homeschooling population.

I also agree with the "extended family" part of her post. In our case my husband's parents are considering moving from Alexandria VA to a small townhome nearby, and my son has moved here to help with preps and such. He's the main muscle behind our twice-as-large-this-year square foot garden, and the strong young back who made our unfinished attic into storage space. If things get really bad we've offered to take in another son and his wife - they have very useful post-peak skills as well.

The other main thing she highlighted was the isolation of individual families in each suburban home. We tried to overcome that with Christmas cookie deliveries to get to know our neighbors and start to build community. The nucleus of a core of skilled professionals is emerging: an EMT, hunters, ex-military guys who can do security are the emerging core of our neighborhood. Places like our subdivision will do well only if we give up the 'each home is an island' mentality, but in our area that attitude seems to be crumblnig.

Kuntzler''s wrong to write off the South or suburbia. People are waking up.


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