Suburbs once seemed like a good idea to politicians and the people that moved there, but the downsides to suburban sprawl became clear in a few generations: long commutes and the pollution that goes with them, loss of farmland and forests, increasingly large houses with increasingly large carbon footprints. But will the refocus on transit-oriented, densely-populated cities post unforseen problems for the next generation? In Orion Magazine, James Howard Kunstler suggests that the mistake we're making is huddling in bigger, taller cities that won't be resilient when energy pressures make running them too expensive.
Kuntsler's article lumps a bunch of different potential pitfalls of current trends in urban design together, but I'm sympathetic to the idea that we're doubling down on cities like New York and L.A. that are Too Big To Fail while paying less attention to people-sized cities like Pittsburgh or Ithaca, NY. Even big cities that recognize the challenges ahead don't necessary pursue policies that react rationally. New York City must know that it's almost inevitable that the sea level will creep up on the city's edges: it's fighting hard to tamp down its carbon emissions. But the city is simultaneously pouring money into redeveloping its waterfront. Kuntsler argues that in big cities, investing in density is just as foolish: How are all those people going to get food when there's no cheap oil to fuel the trucks that distribute it throughout the city? It's not crazy to imagine that my kids will wonder why my generation chose to invest in cities clearly heading for trouble instead of nurturing smaller, more malleable cities in more resilient places, where local food, for example, can come from within a 50 mile radius (Ithaca) instead of a 400 mile radius (New York City).