Chaotic, But Smart

8 thoughts on “Chaotic, But Smart”

  1. I remember listening to our Public Works Director explaining that even with our (temporary) local sales tax, we cannot really afford to fully maintain the streets and roads in our suburb,

  2. Hard to ignore the “colour” but I get your point. And there’s historical parallels in the U.S. of course (ramshackle Old West cabins, etc.)

    The key takeaway is that these are small plots and small scale developers all doing their own thing in an incremental way over time. Nothing to big to fail or replace. But how do we get back to that in a way that’s attractive to the average American?

    The whole form-based code thing seems promising. I really like this visualization because it’s a very typical suburb: https://vimeo.com/89351836

    1. Personally I don’t believe that most American residential subdivisions are going to change much – at least not in the thickening and densifying manner often suggested by New Urbanists. Commercial centers and strip retail might flesh out a bit in spots along a Main Street model… maybe. But the opposite strategy is much more likely.

      Re-ruralization is far cheaper and easier for a cluster of single family homes on quarter acre lots. “Chaotic, but smart” can work in reverse as a response to contraction and decline. As infrastructure fails and property values convert to a “physical usefulness” basis rather than a “speculative financial” basis we could see market gardening and small scale homesteading work nicely at a low price point. City water could be replaced with private wells and/or rain catchment. City sewers could be replaced with private septic systems and/or outhouses. Not all the cul-de-sacs and collector roads need to remain perfectly paved. If people learned to live with fewer bells and whistles a few solar panels could keep the lights on. A wood stove or solar greenhouse addition could keep things warm.

      1. How easily can you go in reverse though? How feasible is it to rehabilitate land covered with concrete slab/foundations, swimming pools, driveways and asphalt streets for agricultural purposes?

        Wouldn’t it also be relatively likely that the private buildings will remain as the infrastructure is downgraded? Overall American population is expected to grow over the next decades and I’m not sure cities are willing to handle an influx of population resulting from both that population increase AND a depopulation of the suburbs.

        1. “How easily can you go in reverse though?”

          It’s incredibly easy and absolutely free. People move away, property is abandoned, local government atrophies, and nature moves in to reclaim the space. It’s called Detroit.

          “Overall American population is expected to grow over the next decades.”

          The population of the US will grow for a little while longer and then begin a long slow decline over the coming century. Fertility rates are at or below replacement levels almost everywhere on the planet at this point. We’re just digesting the last few decades of growth before we begin to contract.

          “I’m not sure cities are willing to handle an influx of population resulting from both that population increase AND a depopulation of the suburbs.”

          Cities (as defined by metro areas like Houston, Atlanta, and Toronto) have already absorbed almost all of the continent’s population. The countryside is pretty much empty at this point. Within those metros the successful suburbs will sort themselves out in to two basic camps. There will be suburbs that become more productive by intensifying and becoming more urban. And there will be suburbs that reinvent themselves based on a renewed connection to productive agriculture or other rural activities. The suburbs that do neither will likely see their public infrastructure decline along with the quality of life. They will be the new slums.

          1. Actually Detroit has spent a lot of money demolishing homes and cleaning up the lots. Detroit has seen its number of housing units decline from a peak of 553,000 in 1960 to 349,000 in 2010, of which 80,000 were vacant and many of which have likely since been demolished. Estimates are that it currently costs $16,000/house to do so. Do the math, this took a lot of money.

            If we’re talking about just letting abandoned buildings get overgrown, with vines creeping up the walls, trees sprouting in the gutters and weeds opening up cracks in the pavement, then yes, that’s free …if we’re ok with the area retaining a dystopian look for several decades (or even centuries?). If we’re hoping to see it transformed into a more typical agricultural though, there will be significant clean-up costs involved IMO.

            As for total population of the United States, it will eventually decline, but that might not be for a while. Global fertility rates (2.36) are slightly above replacement (2.33), although admittedly barely, but there is a significant lag before that translates to overall population loss. Population growth at any given time would be more tied to fertility rates 1-2 generations earlier, and that’s not taking into account rising life expectancies. Assuming civilization doesn’t decline, it’ll probably take 50-100 years for world population to stabilize, and there’s a good chance the United States will have net in-migration for a while too since it has fairly abundant resources (farm land and water for starters) by world standards.

            1. My understanding of the situation is that the systematic demolition of individual properties by local authorities in recent decades occurred during a period of great prosperity. This was driven more by concerns of legal liability and paid for largely by transfer funds (directly and indirectly) from state and federal sources. The future may be characterized by less abundant resources with a more hands off approach. Defunct properties may simply rot. Will such properties transform into wheat fields right away? Nope. But over time the forests and prairies will return on their own.

              Population trends will run their course in due time. A century is a long time for an individual human. But for a planet… it’s a blink of an eye.

              1. Detroit has underlying problems with restoring agriculture: massive heavy metal poisoning. I wouldn’t eat anything grown in Detroit unless the land was certified “cleaned”.

                This is an important point. If you have a fairly “clean” suburb it’s not so hard to return it to agriculture — rip out the concrete slab with a backhoe, get going. If on the other hand you have heavy industrial contamination there’s a much larger problem. The work of the EPA on Superfund sites is extremely valuable.

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