Thursday, June 21, 2007

Ghost Cities

Forbes speculates on which cities will be gone by 2100. Venice is sinking. Mexico City is sinking too, and doesn’t have enough drinking water. Naples will be destroyed by volcano, and San Francisco by earthquake. Detroit is doomed because it’s…well, because it’s Detroit. Timbuktu will be swallowed by the desert, and Banjul, Gambia by the sea. And so on.

Flagstaff, Arizona must be relieved that it’s not on this list, given that it's running out of water. Tokyo's not on the list either, even though it takes 45.2 million acres of habitable land - about 3.6 times more than Japan actually has - to sustain it in the style to which it's become accustomed.

Meanwhile, Robert Bruegmann boldly challenges the conventional wisdom with yet another paint-by-numbers pro-sprawl article. You get the feeling that he was paid not by the word, but by the fallacy.

If sprawl is the outward spread of settlement at constantly lower densities without any overall plan, then London in the 19th century sprawled outward at a rate not surpassed since then by any American city.
We did it before, and we can do it again! Never mind the difference between 19th-century sprawl in London, and 21st-century sprawl in the desert West. There was sprawl then, and there’s sprawl now. Sprawl was attacked by effete intellectual snobs then, and it’s attacked by effete intellectual snobs now.

See how much you learn when you’re willing to look at the Big Picture?

Bruegmann goes on to paint a pretty picture of low-density cities powered by renewable energy:
[I]t is quite possible, with wind, solar, biomass and geothermal energy, to imagine a world in which most people could simply decouple themselves from the expensive and polluting utilities that were necessary in the old high-density industrial city.
Does that mean that renewable energy could power high-density cities? Not on your life:
Even if all urban dwellers the world over were brought up to "ideal" urban consumption standards--say, that of a Parisian family living in a small apartment and using only public transportation--it would not reduce energy use and greenhouse emissions, since it would require such large increases in energy use by so many families who today are so poor they can't afford the benefits of carbon-based energy.
Heads he wins, tails you lose. And you better not argue, unless you want a knuckle sandwich from the Invisible Hand:
[T]he reason it has become the middle-class settlement pattern of choice is that it has given them much of the privacy, mobility and choice once enjoyed only by the wealthiest and most powerful.
This is exceedingly cute stuff. If we need to change our energy policy in order to create “sustainable” tract housing along freeway corridors, it’s a simple matter of waving a magic wand. But it’d be fruitless, and possibly dangerous, to go against the political, social, and economic forces that govern sprawl…even though they overlap in certain important respects with the ones that govern our energy policy.

Bruegmann is preferable to Joel Kotkin, because he admits - sort of - that sprawl is land-intensive. But he can’t quite grasp that this makes it an issue of local, national, and global resource management: we’re simply informed that there’s “plenty of land” to allow for everyone in the West to have a single-family home (and, presumably, to provide all the materials needed to build and maintain millions of new homes).

As for water…who cares? It falls from the sky, gratis and free of charge!

World without end, amen.

(Photo of Rice, California via Walking in LA.)


Tena said...

This is so damn scary.

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