Urban planners sometimes use the concept of the transect to categorize different kinds of envirnoments. For example, the Loop in Chicago is at one end of the spectrum and Montana is at the other. Absolutely everything can be placed somewhere along a continuum from most urban to most rural. Stilettos are exactly the right footwear for a wedding held in a grand ballroom downtown. Rubber boots are the better option when slopping pigs on a farm. But stilettos in the mud or rubber boots at the wedding? It wouldn’t end well in either situation. These are transect violations. This isn’t merely an aesthetic taxonomy. At its heart the transect is about identifying functionality and performance.
The more complex a place is the more productive and dynamic it is. Cities have a high metabolism and thrive on great flows of people, energy, materials, and innovation. This is where opportunity and culture are most abundant. But concentrated population centers require endless bureaucracies to manage the complexity, are expensive, and can be exquisitely vulnerable to disruptions of all kinds. City people pay a premium and trade off most of their independence in exchange for a high level of activity.
Living in an off grid cabin in the back of beyond buffers you from a great deal of the obligations, complications, and risks associated with big cities. A truly rural life offers personal freedom and privacy. But country life is necessarily simple and excludes many economic and cultural opportunities. And living in splendid isolation has vulnerabilities of its own.
The sweet spot is the traditional small town where the transect is greatly compressed. A simple Main Street with modest two and three story buildings offers the advantages of urban life. A short walk away are quiet residential neighborhoods. A bicycle ride down the road offers a bit of nature and productive farmland. Go a little further out and the transect will ramp up again towards another town. This is how the entire world was organized throughout most of history, because it’s an arrangement that effectively balances productivity with costs and available resources at the local level.
Suburbia came to dominate the twentieth century during America’s economic high water mark. We built homes and businesses randomly across the landscape and connected everything with endless roads, pipes, and wires because we could. We had the money, we had the cheap abundant raw materials and energy, we had the desire, and there was no competition from the rest of the world. But all that has changed and the suburbs are not well suited to the physical reality that’s coming.
Suburbs are the stiletto in the mud or the rubber boot at the wedding. These places are every bit as dependent on complex supply chains and costly bureaucracies as high rise apartments in the city center. Yet they aren’t anywhere near as dynamic or efficient. These homes only pretend to provide the freedom and privacy on offer in the countryside, but they lack the underlaying productivity and self reliance of genuine rural life. Try painting your house an unapproved color, or opening a shop in your garage, or building a granny cottage in the back yard, or keeping a few hens, or planting a veggie garden in the front yard and see how long it takes for the HOA and/or municipal authorities to rein you in.
Over time the suburban landscape will adapt to some version of the historical model with clusters of compact efficient productive activity surrounded by farmland. That’s what works in the absence of external subsidies, cheap fuel, and easy credit. How we eventually get there is anyone’s guess. I suspect it’s going to involve a whole lot of kicking and screaming all the way.