The Future of Our Cities

By Ryan Ariel Simon

During the Twentieth Century the United States transitioned, along with many others, to an urbanized society that included the centralization of commerce and population. Following World War II, the United States also suburbanized based on the widespread availability of personal transportation, and the highway system. Population centers then detached from jobs and commercial centers.

It either was a serious lack of planning, or seriously short sided planning, but either way it was a great mistake. Either way it meant a massive and unnecessary usage of natural resources.

We should not wait until we are forced by global disaster, and a crumbling economy built on non-renewable energy resources. We can right the mistake of decentralization into suburbs with smart and innovative planning, but there are many tough issues we must address.

The following are several.

Water Availability

The availability of cheap energy has meant water can been easily, and unsustainably, pumped to population centers far from natural sources. There are many poignant examples of a disaster waiting to happen.

As a Northern Californian I feel I should address a problem in my own backyard. The California State Water Project that supplies a significant portion of Los Angeles’ water needs, burns energy pumping water 2,000 feet over the Tehachapi Mountains — the highest lift of any water system in the world.

The amount of energy used to deliver that water to residential customers in Southern California is equivalent to about one-third of the total average household electric use in the region.[1]

The positioning of ten million people in the Los Angeles River basin, a largely semi-arid desert, has made this necessary.

The Average Net Electricity use of the California State water project is 5.1 Billion kilowatt hours of electricity[2]. What will happen when the energy supply increasingly scarce? Will it still be considered prudent to spend our scarce energy resources bringing in water from far away to support certain communities?

A different problem awaits many coastal nations with limited water supplies, specifically in Africa and the Middle East and Dubai is one example. Dubai’s water comes from desalinization plants run entirely on a supply of cheap crude oil, without which the costs would be astronomical. IPS news reports that:

“The six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries have an urbanisation level of about 85 percent. As a result, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, is the world’s second largest consumer of water per capita after the United States. Its average daily domestic consumption is 353 litres (80 gallons) per person compared to 425 litres (96 gallons) in the U.S. (AEM 2007)”

Without these plants, the water supply could never support the aspirations of the up and coming global cosmopolitan center that is Dubai.

Food production

Cheap energy also brought about the so-called “green revolution” which created crops ill suited to local environments. They are heavily dependent on petroleum-derived products, and increased irrigation, leading to further water depletion[3].

These genetically modified seeds are dependent on pesticides for their survival and they do not adapt to local environments like their indigenous cousins. They are also highly invasive; they destroy crop diversity in major global food staples such as corn, wheat, rice, barley, and oats, posing a dire problem for the future of many ecosystems.

Additionally, the lack of natural diversity can cause an entire harvest to be wiped out if insects or other natural disaster attacks it.

One band-aid after another is applied to an imported crop instead of using natural techniques to improve the resilience of native species.

Comparative advantage is a term for a global trade practice whereby countries specialize in particular commodities because they are able to produce them more cost efficiently.

It will have to cease if every country is going to be self-sufficient in food production to feed their populations, the international transportation will simply be too expensive.

In theory this practice is supposed to reduce opportunity cost for a country’s economy.

In practice loans from global financial institutions naturally come with strings, rarely take into account local culture or ecology, and assume importing food will be viable financially.

Economic and Population growth

A consumption-driven economy fuelled by cheap energy allowed the US to have sustained long-term growth throughout the Twentieth Century. Fueling the growth of the suburbs were city planners who make the assumption that 3% economic growth would occur forever, despite the fact that a finite resource underpins that growth.

The miracle of economic growth has provided Americans—and citizens around the developed world—with a “culture of affluence.” This culture has long included the option to work in suburbs far away from home, and from the resources that sustain their lifestyles, a practice that must end.

Rapid economic and population growth was achieved by myriad of policies light on big picture planning, and heavy on consumption of once cheap and free flowing resources.

General Motors’ early twentieth century strategy is one well-known historical example. They bought electric urban light-rail systems all around the country, then they pushed for federally built highways on which their busses could run. Massive sub developments would ring nearby major cities, and GM’s busses would cruise back and forth from these newly built suburbs

None of this growth or infrastructure would have been possible without the presence of an extremely cheap and relatively efficient energy source: crude oil.

Alternative Energies

There are many creative solutions available to solve the problem of sustainable planning. There are many renewable energy sources that could replace a significant amount of the fossil fuel consumption. In the United States however, Ethanol is not one of them.

Ethanol has long been touted as the greatest alternative to petroleum in the US, but unfortunately its benefits are largely political, providing a godsend to politicians seeking support in the Iowa caucuses.

Ethanol is a feasible alternative fuel for a country like Brazil, which already has massive production of more efficient sugar cane ethanol industry. The corn-based ethanol from the US is a different story all together.

To begin, corn-ethanol based biofuel is a much more efficient energy source than its sugar-cane based cousin, which cannot feasibly be imported to the US because of tariffs in the US market. Brazilian sugar-cane ethanol has an efficiency ratio of 8-to-1, i.e. the energy output is eight times higher than the energy inputs. Gasoline by comparison clocks in at just 5-to-1 says an oil-industry engineer at R-Squared Energy Blog. The US Department of Energy states that “The most recent findings show that corn ethanol fuel is energy efficient and yields an energy output: input ratio of 1.6” (DOE 2007). Industry experts predict that number will increase very slowly if at all, given that most corn ethanol in the US is heavily dependent of petroleum products. dark

Although there are many renewable energy sources that can help offset the Peak Oil crisis—a phenomenon where oil’s efficiency ratio will drop below 1:1—some geologists and energy experts have warned that no combination of renewable energy sources can replace the sheer amount of energy output the world currently attributes to petroleum-derived products. John Busby, a British scientist with background in power generation, chemical manufacture, agriculture, and food processing, along with experience in the economies of the developing world, wrote The Busby Report, an independent guide for the energy future of the UK. In it, he writes that:

“…with the dwindling of global oil and gas reserves, international competition for supplies of coal, the demise of the indigenous coal industry together with the gradual termination of nuclear power mean that in order to be secure from the consequences of external events, the UK has to rearrange its economy to run with only around 25% of its current energy consumption.”

Although this will be a momentous challenge for Britain to undertake, the alternatives are far worse. To do no long-term planning for the coming difficulties would invite catastrophe and chaos as essential functions of the country simply shut down, think Iraq, 2007. The smarter our future planning is, the less likelihood these potential “water wars” will occur over the resources of coal and oil on a global scale. As far as the U.S. goes, our situation is no easier than the U.K.; in fact, it may be more severe. Britain does not suffer from decentralization and suburbanization, if anything we have farther to go them the UK.[4]


The question we should be asking as a society is not how can plan to keep our lifestyles the same, what we should be asking is how can we re-plan our cities so that the transition from cheap oil can be made less-jarring, without mass rationing or conservation. The planning of our states and countries should have conservation and sustainability built in. Because we allowed city planners and the federal government to decentralize our society without an eye on the long term, we have more work to do for the coming transition.

To transition from a global economy in the world and a decentralized US society there are two important concepts. We can transition from a suburban society with New Urbanism, a movement dedicated to transforming our communities into walkable, neighborhood based development, what the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU) calls “transforming growth patterns from the inside out.” This will help reduce energy use by reducing transportation energy costs by working and playing closer to where we live. The Local Government Commission is another New Urbanist group self-described as “local elected officials, city and county staff, planners, architects, and community leaders who are committed to making their communities more livable, prosperous, and resource-efficient.” Whether or not these organizations are effective, this philosophy is the one that is needed to bring cities into the future.

A modern version of Localism, what British Labour Party MP Alan Milburn called “making services more locally accountable, devolving more power to local communities and, in the process, forging a modern relationship between the state, citizens and services”, will be dedicated to increasing local self-sufficiency in the areas of food production and commerce. One country has done an excellent job in many ways, developing government-run produce gardens in cities across the island. Although Cuba is by no means a model society in many ways, it is a great example of a place with limited resources creating a model project (Washinton Post 1999). It shows the innovation and future planning can come from any source in the modern world.






2 Responses to “The Future of Our Cities”
  1. bravesirryan says:

    Laer. Urban renewal does have its issues, but not every city has crumbling infrastructure, many are simply underdeveloped. One of the main points of urban renewal is adopting primarily mass transit within the city borders, in addition to prioritizing walking and biking, and minimizing personal transportation use to address congestion and pollution. Also including updated and efficient systems in new houses may be cheaper, but we cannot keep building in the same fashion by expanding outwards and outwards far away from job centers without developing mass transit links and implementing conscious plans ahead of time. The paradigm which has seen home sub-developments arise out of nothing followed by roads and commercial centers must end. As for Southern California you are partially right. There is no plan to depopulate the area, which cannot occur in a free society. Additionally, while LA has implemented one of the best water conservation regimes in the county, new water infrastructure plans cannot follow old patterns such as the new water bonds propose to do and increase pumping southward. This new bond includes provisions that are just a redux of the failed California Peripheral Canal Act from 1982. As for the history of Southern California, before you characterize the development of LA as “the choice of millions of people to move to Southern California, stay in Southern California and invest in Southern California” I suggest you read the book “Cadillac Desert,” watch the PBS film, (a story about the California Water Wars) dramatized by Jack Nicholson in the movie Chinatown. The positioning of ten million people in the Los Angeles River basin WAS partially an concerted effort by private individuals to enrich themselves through real estate development by securing water rights through criminal acts. In other words, it was not purely free choice but intentional municipal policy to expand the city. “The opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct provided the city with four times as much water as it required, and the offer of water service became a powerful lure for neighboring communities. The city, saddled with a large bond and excess water, locked in customers through annexation by refusing to supply other communities.” (1) While the Southern California population may provide sales and income tax to the state, they do it with northern water, and the housing boom and bubble in the south is now responsible for the majority of foreclosures in the state. (2) History is history however, what I am suggesting is more conscientious planning not revenge for the past.


  2. Laer says:

    Re-energizing the urban centers has its own problems. Cities are congested which causes more pollution than occurs in a job-balanced, well planned suburban center. Cities have crumbling and undersized infrastructure that will need replacement, at greater expense than the cost of extending new infrastructure to new areas. Cities have massive amounts of older, energy- and water-inefficient homes and businesses, which require costly insulating, replacement of HVAC systems, toilets, fixtures etc. These replacements are more expensive than the installation of low-energy, low-water-use systems in new houses, office buildings and factories. Where will the money for all this come from.

    Unless there’s a plan to depopulate southern California, which cannot occur in a free society, we will still have to expend power to move water to the southern portion of the state. We will certainly be moving less water as greater conservation occurs, but it will still be a sizable expenditure of energy.

    There’s also the matter of choice. You said, “The positioning of ten million people in the Los Angeles River basin …” as if it were some bureaucrat’s decision to do so. It was not. It was the choice of millions of people to move to Southern California, stay in Southern California and invest in Southern California. It’s a good thing they did, because the Southern California economy supports the rest of the state, exporting sales tax, property tax and other revenues to northern cities that are fiscally dependent on the continued robustness of the Southern California economy.

    The problems you outlined are real; the solutions are anything but one-dimensional and simplistic.

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