Fragile Cities: The Price of Living Large

Published in the Dallas Morning News Points Section Sunday October 16, 2005

Rising gasoline prices have many people questioning their commuting lifestyle, and with good reason. Will working downtown and living fifty or seventy five miles away still make sense when gas prices are $4, $5, or $6 a gallon? Maybe “Big D” is a little too big.

Katrina and Rita have demonstrated for us just how delicate the situation is, and Bush himself has called it “fragile.” A blip in our energy supply threatens the entire system, dependent as it is on enormous amounts of cheap energy.

This calls into question basic ideas about how to build and organize cities. If everything is separated from everything else, continually further away and totally dependent on automobiles to make it function, what happens if there’s a problem with the energy supply? The whole idea rests on the assumption that oil will always be cheap and abundant, and both of these assumptions are no longer valid.

Gasoline is up 72% in the last year. Natural gas, used to heat the new homes that are twice the average size of homes built in the seventies, has risen 143%. This is not a temporary situation. Oil is no longer abundant, and many of the largest oil fields are “maturing.” Chevron has acknowledged in a recent PR campaign that “the world consumes two barrels of oil for every barrel discovered.” And even president Bush, in rare form, has asked Americans to conserve in the aftermath of hurricane Rita.

The truth is that we’re drunk on oil and intoxicated with scale. The imagined “bigness” we pride ourselves on here in Dallas is in actuality a weakness. The city marketing slogan “Live Large” is really an invitation to live precariously in a world that depends entirely on the exploitation of fossil fuels.

And insofar as our national security rests on financial stability, this dependency is dangerous. It destabilizes us politically, and we are obliged to compete globally for energy resources. With an energy hungry consumer class rapidly emerging in China, is this a game we really want to play?

The simple version of the American Dream of the post war era has been displaced by the contemporary consumer reality of monstrous vehicles and cavernous houses full of a thousand plastic objects that all plug into the wall. All of these things require petroleum.

The thing is, even if energy were inexpensive, readily available and clean, designing cities based on the idea that we should spend hours a day traveling alone in our cars from place to place is simply not good for society.

It’s not good for individuals, who are isolated in cars in a hostile, dangerous environment far from their families. It’s not good for communities, which are hobbled by the lack of walkable destinations and public spaces because the suburb is designed for cars and not people. And without strong communities, what is it exactly that forms the fundamental fibers of democracy?

It’s already bad enough. In my own neighborhood in far north Dallas people rarely talk to one another, and a cold indifference has become the “style.” Poor planning plays a large part in this dysfunction.

Dallas, rather than taking up the rear, should join other major cities in enacting forward-looking energy, planning, and environmental policies. Instead of “living large” and “thinking big” we should instead be living smart and thinking ahead. This involves more than buying a mini-Hummer, as opposed to the huge one.

For the city, it means paying attention to the land use recommendations being made by leading urban planner John Fregonese, who has done excellent work in Portland and was recently hired by Dallas. It means green, efficient building practices. It means designing the city around communities rather than freeways.

It means making a solid commitment to strengthening public life in the city so people will not feel the need to hole up in huge houses, secluded from civic participation. If public spaces expand, private ones can contract, and the distances between places and people and the energy it requires can contract as well.

It also means taking “mansionization” of older neighborhoods seriously. All over the city, smaller homes are being razed to build much larger ones. From my observations in east Dallas, this careless process often destroys existing, vibrant communities. At the same time, residents in these older neighborhoods will have to accept the idea of greater density. That’s the tradeoff. Higher density means more efficient use of land and energy.

Nationally, “thinking big” means more than encouraging additional exploitation of dwindling resources in sensitive, often dangerous areas, which is what the Bush administration proposes. Rather we should engage in a cooperative international project that focuses on real sustainability, which means thoughtful planning, conservation, and new, fully renewable clean energy sources. This is what will make us truly energy independent, more secure, and healthier citizens of a stronger democracy.

We have a responsibility to our immediate communities as well as the world to make the difficult changes now. Our lifestyle, which was previously not negotiable, is disproportionably responsible for the dangerous changes in the world climate. Americans use twice the energy per person as Japan and Europe, and ten times more than the world average. We generate 25% of the carbon responsible for climate change, which will increasingly cause serious problems not only for us but for our global neighbors as well.

The only thing that “living large” has achieved is an ever increasing separation of things and people from each other, and the creation of fragile cities dependent on a dirty, mostly foreign, finite natural resource.

I would propose we proceed with the idea of building a livable city. A people friendly city. A place where we’re not forced to drive an SUV to get a loaf of bread. A place where we love to live and where we feel good about our children growing up. Not a sprawling, unsightly, toxic place we avoid by staying home, breathing retail air, or hitting the recycle button on the car air conditioner.

New Orleans and San Francisco can easily be called fragile cities, built as they are in precarious surroundings. But if we continue to assume that things should be big and far apart and that we will always have the cheap energy to keep it all running, all our cities will be fragile in this, a precarious 21st century.