Ghost Suburbs

This fantastically interesting site cataloguing defunct (mostly during the nationalized years) railway stations in Britain started me thinking about how nature re-absorbs our work so quickly, and then about the next historical oddity in this vein: ghost suburbs.

By this, I mean vast swaths of energy-intensive, and aesthetically demented, urban sprawl that may soon be the next victim of changing priorities. I am here supposing that the late fossil fuel crisis will provide enough incentive for the middle classes to abandon the suburbs and return to the traditional cities and towns of the pre-automotive era. It may not happen this time, but rest assured these crises will pass in waves, each more dire than the last, until we wean ourselves from fossil fuels. We may still drive fuel-cell or battery-powered vehicles, but the fact is it’s energy-intensive to drive everywhere. If energy prices continue to rise, eventually the stubborn car-folk will start moving back to the city centers, and after a generation of grumbling, relearn how to live on a human-scale. Cars may well be used like trains: as a means of getting from one city/town to another. Once you’ve arrived at your destination, the car is parked until you leave. Frankly, at that time, I think most travellers will find it preferable to take the train – no traffic, less energy use (i.e. cost), and more time for personal entertainment.

What tickles me about this transformation is picturing the millions of square miles of shopping centers, eight-lane roads, vinyl-clad carbon-copied houses, exurban mid-rise office towers, and single-use franchise-saturated malls left to nature to slowly disintegrate. Can you imagine what it would look like twenty years later? We’ll zoom past it all on our high-speed intercity trains (private, of course) and wonder how people lived like that for so long:

“What did you do if you didn’t have a car? What if you needed food?”

“Did architects really think vinyl-siding was attractive?”

“Look at the signs. All the stores and restaurants are the same in each center. Didn’t they get bored of that?”

“How did the fuel companies convince people to pump their own gas, when everyone knows the fumes are toxic?”

You and I will be old-timers by then, and we’ll try to explain the mindset of today’s suburbanites. Though we will have seen the car-people try their best to infuse their asphalt wastelands with the vitality of real cities, the ruins will look to our children as decrepit as downtown Detroit.

Perhaps the main shopping malls will serve as focal points for the generation of new cities. Developers may build, as they are now, residential and office towers on the perimeter of and on top of the malls. Slowly, the expansive parking lots that dissever buildings and uses from each other will be in-filled with houses and business – the stuff of life.

Still, if one ventures out from these mall-cities of the future, they will see the asphalt lots turning into gravel, the shopping centers overgrown with weeds, and nary a car in sight. Without any two-ton monsters to pollute their lungs and mow them down, our wanderer and his children might get a game of footy going. It will be unspeakably peaceful and remarkable.

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