The BMW Guggenheim Lab recently dismantled its mobile laboratory in New York City, and after two exciting months it is vital to reflect on the conversations and ideas that were sparked by its discussions, lectures, workshops and screenings. This impromptu laboratory / forum / classroom, free and open to the public, was situated on the corner of Houston Street and 2nd Avenue in a sliver of a lot in First Park in the Lower East Side of Downtown Manhattan. Since August 3rd it has hosted charged discussions focused on architecture, urban studies, environmental concerns and community participation.
On October 5th, the lab hosted the screening of The End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream (2004), directed by Gregory Greene and produced by Barry Silverthorn. With brutal honesty it presents the threats of our current lifestyle, particularly the suburban lifestyle, and the displacement of the long established tradition of “American Dream” by way of its ecological ramifications.
Read on for more on the documentary!
The film walks us through a brief history of the development of the suburb, from its early days in the beginning of the 20th century to its explosion in the post-war period. According to the film the suburbs promised “country living” but without any of the amenities that rural life affords – no farms, no vast open fields, no isolation from society. Instead, what had developed was a “cartoon of country living” – separated by a “six-lane highway” with the ever-increasing “expressway”.
This manufactured lifestyle has always had an unsustainable trajectory – and the hosts of this documentary tell us exactly why this is. It is called “peak oil” and it has been a hot topic for debate among scientists who have now established that the question is not “whether” we have reached peak oil but “how” to address it. The theory of “peak oil”, in simple terms, is that point at which the rate at which we have been able to extract oil from the Earth has reached its maximum efficiency, and from that point on the energy to extract the oil will be higher, making oil more expensive to extract and distribute. Therefore, “peak oil” makes the reliance of the oil-consuming automobile the main ecological and economical stress of suburban sprawl.
With everyday needs – school, work, shopping, entertainment – spread so far apart by the very nature of the ideal of “country living”, personal cars are the only means of transportation viable in an area where the population density is relatively low. This means that consumption of oil is incredibly high – and unnecessarily so – because we have alternatives, namely, the city. Researchers and scientists, urban planners and designers are addressing the need to transition from this dated way of living, once fueled by cheap oil prices of the 1950s and the desire to consume, into the ecologically viable option of density and localization of goods and production. The solution is putting people within reach of their needs and providing infrastructure that supports this whether that be by walking, biking or public transportation.
All of this will require government participation through subsidies, incentives and research: the same structure that fueled the explosive development of suburbs in 1947 that was supportive of the car industry.
But the real question is what would become of these suburbs if people heed the warning and successfully begin to transition to urban centers? Will the suburbs remain as the auxiliary to city living; in that case what would their roles be? Can they transition into farms, parks, research centers? Or should they remain as is with investment into efficient transportation systems both local and regional that connect them back to one another and to major cities? How should we deal with the latent energy that these built up suburban developments are harboring?
The End of Suburbia brilliantly points out the flaws of our current way of life and the gluttonous overconsumption of energy and resources which cannot be sustained for future generations. Hosted by Barrie Zwicker. Featuring James Howard Kunstler, Peter Calthorpe, Michael Klare, Richard Heinberg, Matthew Simmons, Michael C. Ruppert, Julian Darley, Colin Campbell, Kenneth Deffeyes, Ali Samsam Bakhtiari and Steve Andrews. Directed by Gregory Greene. Produced by Barry Silverthorn.