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Revisiting ‘The End of Suburbia’

June 20, 2008 Media, STL Region, Suburban Sprawl 24 Comments

Back in January 2004 a documentary came out on the topic of peak oil. The title? The End of Suburbia. Produced in 2003 this film was out prior to Katrina (2005), An Inconvenient Truth (2006) and President Bush’s realization at the 2006 State of the Union address that we are “addicted to oil” At the films release in January 2004 gas was barely past a national average of a buck and a half. Mainstream media and the general population ignored the warnings offered. Alarmists, they were labeled.

The plot was simple, most Americans live in suburbia (aka sprawl) and much of our economy depends on new construction and thus the continuation of sprawl. That continued sprawl only works when we have cheap energy. Again gas was at a buck fifty at the time. The warning signs were all present — the fact we’ve never produced (or consumed) more oil. You see Peak Oil is not about running out, it is about reaching that high point in the production bell curve. Four years later I think we are at or beyond that peak point.

The producers have edited the 78-minute film down to 52 minutes and placed it on YouTube for all to enjoy:


I’ve yet to see the follow-up film, Escape from Suburbia, but it is at the top of my Netflix queue. Here is the trailer:


High gas prices are only the beginning. Higher food prices are already starting. The longer we as a society hold onto suburbia as the idealized American dream of a house in the ‘country’ the worse the transition will be. The good news is all those big front yards without street trees will be great for growing food. Although depending upon how much oil based chemicals (fertilizer & weed killer) were used I’m not sure I’d want to eat it.

Media reports now frequently talk about walkability, the housing bust in suburbia, and how many baby boomers are moving to urban cores for a lifestyle they never had. Locally we saw the collapse of Pyramid Companies downtown but we’ve also seen reports on suburban home builders with too much land and too few customers. Several of these big production builders have closed their doors as well. If you live in one of these unfinished subdivisions don’t look for new neighbors anytime soon, the supply of lots is well beyond expected demand. Much of the land bought for development into residential sprawl will remain undeveloped and in time will be returned to agricultural uses. The leap frog development patterns we’ve seen for the last decade are permanently over. Finished. Done.

The next decade will be a tough one as we transition from an economy centered on cheap energy to one that functions amid high energy costs.  It is not going to be pretty or quick, it will be slow & messy.  The poor will be impacted but to be honest they have less to lose and are more accustomed to facing adversity.  It is the guy with the million dollar starter McMansion that stands to lose what he thought would be a sure fire retirement plan.  The upper middle class will have a hard time adjusting.  Many of the rest of us are already starting to adjust, but will we be ready?     If not get ready because we are entering the period that will be known as the end of suburbia.


Currently there are "24 comments" on this Article:

  1. john says:

    In a democracy like ours, majority rules. If the majority wants more and cheaper oil, how will leadership respond? The end of suburbia or the selling of our corporate assets and public right-of-ways to negotiate/improve our position to feed our dependencies/addictions? The transition, even if a super majority could agree on a common goal, will unleash nasty political battles and territorial rights fights few can imagine. Yes we have painted ourselves into a corner…thank goodness we have MOdot and the New 64 on our side.

  2. john w. says:

    I don’t think the majority is that stupid. It is that selfish, sadly, but not that stupid. Sprawl cannot be sustained, and this has been known for decades. The obese man continues to eat a diet he knows is dangerously unhealthy but he loves eating and indulges himself despite the numerous and well-understood warnings, simply because HE CAN. Following his heart attack, the obese man changes.

  3. Chris says:

    The problem with American politics is that the American consumer is never blamed for doing anything wrong. Can you imagine a politician actually saying that Americans’ current use of our resources is not only a bad idea economically, but flat out immoral as well? Everyone who participates in the suburban lifestyle (including myself at the moment) is to blame for high gas prices and the pollution that chokes American cities. Until the average American is called out for his or her wastefulness, nobody will change.

    By the way, I think your idea of turning suburban lawns into new millennium “victory gardens” is awesome. Too bad that most subdivisions in the ‘burbs have homeowner agreements that ban large gardens.

  4. john w. says:

    Chris, I believe that is what most high priests of environmental sustainability have been preaching, but often the comedic smarmyness of certain invidividuals (and ones I admire greatly) in critical examination of our insatiable gluttony has turned off those who would otherwise be willing to listen to grounded reason. The negativity-tinged commentary of many movement figures (such as Kunstler, et al), if not luminaries (Gore, et al), leaves a lot of those content to consume themselves to death (Read Neil Postman’s book- you’ll enjoy it) dismissing the grounded reason as more batty manure from the lunatic fringe, all while declaring that the American way of life is not negotiable.

  5. Mike says:

    Equating the death of suburbia with high energy prices misses some or much of the mark. I live in a suburb–Kirkwood– that began in 1851, when the railroad began to move west from St Louis–and it wasn’t cheap energy but “healthful air” and railroads that brought the people here–tickets were expensive at first, but people still came. What may happen now is complex–more jobs may move from the urban core to the outskirts/suburbs/etc., more public transit (rail, preferably–you don’t see too many suburbanites on a bus)might finally connect such places as Chesterfield with the rest of the area (BTW, I agree with Baton Bob about Chesterfield), and perhaps more folks will move in–but that last is the slowest move of all in terms of time and likelihood. Expanding public transit will happen second, but I bet jobs will move first. Don’t expect mass migration back to the city–that is a pipedream! You’ll see some, but I bet people will buy smaller cars first and hope they can find jobs out where they live; second, until the St Louis Public Schools improve, don’t expect any large numbers of people with children to make the shift in. And older, inner ring suburbs like Kirkwood and Webster will see increased demand for their housing–and you already see the effects of big infill projects in Kirkwood, sadly tearing older, usable houses down to build to the lot lines and create big homes. But I think rising energy prices will just push people to Priuses or Civics rather than make them move. Again, this phenomenon is not recent–in 1851, Kirkwood was the Lake St Louis of its day–

    [slp — suburbia is the auto centric mess often found in newer suburbs, or in shopping centers like the ones at Kirkwood Rd & Big Bend.  Kirkwood is a fine example of a streetcar suburb. Suburb does not automatically mean suburbia. ].

  6. john w. says:

    There is absolutely NO comparing historic inner-ring, railroad suburbs like Kirkwood and Webster Groves to the sprawl of West county- None. While those way out in the ‘burbs will indeed try first to find less impactful (to their pocketbooks, not the environment) means of sustaining their current way of comfortable life, it’s more likely the kids of those who currently own property out in the hinterlands that will make repopulation of the cities a reality. A pipe dream? Hardly. I seem to remember some folks laughing off the notion of a fixed-rail transit system in St. Louis as a pipe dream. I like riding that pipe dream to work each day. It’s awesome.

  7. Nick Kasoff says:

    1. Don’t confuse short-term issues in the real estate market with long-term problems with suburban development. Once the mortgage market returns to equilibrium, suburban development will resume.
    2. There are many ways to adjust to suburban living. Moving to an urban area is only one of them. People can also buy cars that get higher gas mileage, work closer to home, or carpool. They will do all of these things long before they move from St. Peters to U City.
    3. Subdivisions strictly prohibit growing anything but grass and shrubs in the front yard. In another life, I tried to grow a few tomato plants in a tasteful bed in my front yard in suburbia. I got a letter from an attorney.
    4. Expanding transit is NOT the answer, any more than expanding highways. In fact, expanding transit is a foolish move, bankrupting our transit system in an attempt to serve areas whose physical design is hostile to transit, and whose residents won’t use it no matter how expensive gasoline gets. Stop trying to develop transportation options to the distant suburbs, traffic will build, people will find it inconvenient, and they will be less likely to live there.
    5. There are many other important shifts which have nothing to do with where we live, which will result from more expensive energy. Transportation will shift from truck to rail. More companies will offer “work at home” options. People will watch videos on pay per view or rent from Netflix rather than driving to Blockbuster. SUV dealers will be drowning in inventory while MINI Coopers are backordered (already happening).

  8. john w. says:

    Providing suburban connections to existing transit networks is perfectly plausible, and of course already exists in neighboring metropoli for us St. Louisans to go visit and observe. Expanding the current Metro system (light rail and buses) to the far-flung county suburbs is not the answer, and like our current system of levying taxes to pay for certain municipal services and public schools, expansion would only spread available resources too thin to adequately serve the payers of those taxes. I despise the suburbs because of how incredibly selfishly they consume exponentially more resources than compactly developed civility and burden us all with the cost, among a few other choice political points, but the destructive irresponsibility of this pattern of ‘growth’ is atop my list of justifyable complaints. If, when the mortgage market returns to equilibrium, suburban Americans simply return to their selfish and wasteful ways and suburban development resumes, then we’ve proven that as a nation we’re incapable learning much from our experiences. What a shame.

  9. Jim Zavist says:

    Suburbia is also a matter of perspective. For many people, “downtown”, especially as an employment center or a shopping destination, is an anachronism. Like (too?) many people, I live in one quasi-suburb (SW city/Lindenwood Park/23rd Ward) and work in another quasi-suburb (the fringes of “downtown” Clayton). My daily, 10-15 minute commute takes me through Maplewood, Richmond Heights and Brentwood. And on some days, it even includes using Metrolink. In “my world”, this is a shorter and easier commute than heading to downtown St. Louis. Am I bad, anti-urban? I don’t think so.
    This wasn’t a conscious choice to shun the traditional urban core, rather a series of choices and opportunities, an evolution – Where can we find the best housing value? Where can we find the best jobs? Where are the job offers coming from? As Mike correctly points out, jobs are an incredibly important part of the whole equation. Whether it’s Mastercard in St. Charles County, Monsanto in Creve Coeur or even for an increasing number of marketing and management functions of that St. Louis institution, A-B, the city is becoming less and less of a player in where companies choose to locate jobs.
    Will suburbia continue to evolve? Yes. Will it be easy to provide public transit? No. Will its residents continue to drive? Yes. Unfortunately, there is no one, single, right answer. People will continue to make choices, about values and budgets, about schools and safety, about perceptions and realities, about fears and jobs. Remember, even downtown St. Louis once had log cabins and dirt streets – the challenge will be making sure that doesn’t happen again . . .

  10. Jim Zavist says:

    And while Denver is doing a lot of good stuff, the challenges remain – from today’s Denver Post: “Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper has stepped in to ease tensions between landowners and city planners over how to develop the 4,500-acre Gateway area near Denver International Airport. This past spring, 23 [large] property owners in the area rebelled against Denver’s Department of Community Planning & Development, arguing that city officials were forcing an unworkable new-urbanism approach that emphasized pedestrian-friendly, densely compacted residential areas within walking distance of retail. The landowners wanted more flexibility and objected to a street grid pattern the city had developed. The planners had improperly divided some tracts of land and prevented suburban-style housing in some instances, they said.” (http://www.denverpost.com/news/ci_9654669)

  11. william kruse says:

    I don’t see that the landowners in Denver have much of a choice, since Euclidean Zoning was declared constitutional in the 1920’s, and has repeatedly been upheld as a valid state police power ever since.
    Countdown till my Stl return=40 days!

  12. Jeff says:

    Very good post. I was able to see the whole End of Suburbia Movie myself a few years ago. I actually am a product of Suburbia but fortunately live within walking distance of Ferguson MO which is an “inner ring” burb. I couldn’t begin to understand how to live in one of the “outter rings” like the outter areas of Florissant. I visited and I felt depressed. Everything has to be done by CAR. I am glad I have been making the shift since 2003 to just maintaining one vehicle for our family. I walk, bike or use transit (Metro). I do carpool with friends and family too. I hope to possibly share this video at our church some day since we can do wifi. This film came out a few years back and I am already seeing things occure that they mentioned (slums in the outter rings, political instability, food prices increasing just as quickly as gas). I told one person I know about both Metro and MODOT soon running out of funds and they acted like they didn’t even know! I actually am sad this happened but it will be the ones who are changing who will be the leaders for the ways to get out. I will be voting Democratic for the first time and mainly because I know they are pro-transit and will try to end this phoney war.

  13. Jason says:


    Great post- I agree with the majority of it and have seen portions of the movie. I also agree with what Jim is saying. Suburbia will always be there, but it will evolve. The longer it takes us to find alternative ways to power our individual automobiles, the more it will change. The biggest change will be people either working closer to home, or living closer to work. These places that will see continued growth and prospertiy will be those that have things other than just houses. They will be walkable cities and neighborhoods with services close by. This does not mean urban, but it does harken back to the traditional neighborhood designs. People are afraid of urban- especially in the midwest. The difference today that we didn’t have back then when the majority of people lived in dense urban areas, is communication and diversification. People no longer have to live in the central core to prosper. Prime example. Prostitution. Yes I know, but hear me out. Believe it or not, there are internet porn stars out there that can live in the middle of nowhwere and have people pay to see them via the internet. This could never have happened back in the 1920’s (for more reasons than just the internet obviously). They have taken something that used to be on urban street corners, and moved it down a dirt road on 40 acres. This is a drastic example, but it proves a point. More and more people are able to telecommute and find new ways of working that break traditional molds. Desperation fosters ingenuity and makes people get creative with their income and living situation, but I digress. In the end, it is the end of surburia, but not in the sense that people will be moving back to urban areas in droves. It merely means that the definition of suburbia as we know it will cease to exist.

  14. john w. says:

    Jason, I think that’s the ultimate point. There isn’t enough ROOM for every individual currently living in suburbia (and assume the population trajectory, for the purposes of this point, is usual) to suddenly decide to move into the historic core of existing cities. I will always argue for the repopulation of our inner cores, but there is simply not enough space for that scale of influx. It’s not a reversal of exodus back into the city so much as it is a change of base form, and though you may not think it will be urban (geographically), it will certainly appropriate many physical characteristics of, as you have mentioned, traditional neighborhood designs. Those traditional [fabrics really, slow grown and not by design] neighborhoods are urban when you understand that urbanity includes the residential grids necessary to support the business and industry of populated cities. Kirkwood, Maplewood, and Webster Groves are good examples of urban form in this sense, and of course it’s good FORM that we pursue, not atypically high densities and tall buildings. Imagine Ballwin, Chesterfield and (insert your west county ‘burb of choice here) adapting to more sustainable FORM by appropriating the features and qualities that have historically endured in Kirkood, Webster Groves and Maplewood, and you are imagining what I believe most urbanists will agree is sustainable.

  15. Jesda says:

    Anyone who can’t afford to live in west county because of $4 gas couldn’t honestly afford to live there to begin with. Some people, particularly 20somethings like myself (but not me) and retirees are moving back into city centers for convenience and culture. But, 30-and-40somethings wanting to raise their children prefer to do it in the suburbs, away from crime and congestion but near well-financed schools and shopping centers.

    I don’t see sprawl as a problem — land is plentiful and cheap. Take a road trip. I’ve logged 40,000 miles in the last couple years exploring this wide open nation, seeing everything from LA and NYC to Mount Rushmore and the Oregon coast.

    The problem is Americans living far beyond their means in communities they can’t afford, driving luxury vehicles they purchased with their home equity loans that also could never honestly afford. The last resort is when credit cards pile up and there’s no choice left but to downsize. This is the primary cause of a supposed “end of suburbia”. Folks living well within their means are doing fine in America, but unfortunately that accounts for too few.

    As for transportation, I love cars. Its a hobby of mine bordering on obsession, so I’m more inclined than a typical American to drive anywhere at any cost, and I actually find long commutes quite relaxing. If you can’t afford the gas, then its time to pack your things and move to where there’s mass transit. That just leaves less crowded roads and shorter lines at the store for me.

    I’m often tempted to move further west, further away from people. I don’t care much for humans, so the less of them I have to deal with the better.

  16. john w. says:

    “Land is plentiful and cheap”. Substitute that with “oil is plentiful and cheap”, and you see what has brought us to where we are today.

  17. James R. says:

    Ok, Jesda. Let’s make it simple. The world is producing 84 million barrels of oil a day. The world demand, according to Warren Buffet, is 86.4 million barrels a day. Conventional crude production has been flat since 2005. Demand already exceeds supply, which is why the world has turned to unconventional oil like tar sands and increasingly to heavy sour crude, both of which are extemely difficult, costly, and energy intensive to refine into gasoline.
    The US consumes 20 million barrels a day and imports about 70% of that. The two ‘great hopes’ everyone has been talking about, ANWAR and costal California, are estimated to hold at best 21 billion barrels each. At 100% extraction (not possible) that’s just over 5 years of current US consumption. But it will be 5 to 7 years before they produce anything and will take years to ramp up to full production, which at best would probably be a couple of million barrels a day. There is no way conventional domestic oil can even come close to providing energy independence.
    We’re not out of oil, we are out of cheap, high quality, easy to get oil. And there is already more demand than oil to go around. $4 gas is just the beginning, and it doesn’t matter how much you are *willing* to pay if gas simply isn’t available. And even if gas is available, and you are willing to pay $7, 8, $10 per gallon, what does that mean to the cost of trucking food to the grocery store, or to deliver the mail, or to make all the plastic do-dads our society is dependent on?

  18. Jim Zavist says:

    Ran across this book – don’t know if it’s any good or not: Suburban Transformations
    Publisher: Princeton Architectural Press, New York, http://www.papress.com
    Price: $40
    Suburban Transformations takes a look at what has gone wrong with suburban development and how it can be reversed. The author’s research focuses on how to work with what already is built, the natural landscape and community characteristics to turn poorly designed suburbs into livable, sustainable communities with character and identity. Paul Lukez’s method integrates multiple paths for future planned development while remaining flexible, depending on a community’s desired focus. The book also focuses on carbon dioxide emissions, preserving and integrating the landscape, and improving the overall lives of inhabitants.

  19. john w. says:

    There is a copy of this book in the office, and the Lewis Tsurimake Lewis-like illustrations of the imagined possibilties are rich and fascinating. This book is abviously appropos of this discussion thread, and I’ll have to make some time to read it now.

  20. MB says:

    You are quite possibly one of the most pathetic individuals that I have ever heard of. Do you have nothing more to do than search the city for minor sidewalk issues that most major cities would scoff at if you brought them to their attention? Have you ever been to Chicago? New York? Do you get such a kick out of harassing young people trying to make a living? You are a condescending prick and need to leave everyone else alone. Improve your life, by improving your life, not fucking with everyone else.

  21. Jim Zavist says:


  22. John M. says:

    MB, here I had just written a decent response to you somewhere else in regards to valet parking and now i find you in here insulting a man who is in fact doing a great deal with his life and improving things along the way. Steve has put together such a great resource for observations. He is not claiming to be writing scripture, just his opinion and in some cases “expert” opinion. Slow down, you might actually learn something.
    Your reaction here borders on a cliche internet posting of the frustrated angry guy.
    Anger is okay but yours as indicated elsewhere is misdirected, yet again. I too, inject way too many feelings in my written word, which is why have steadily learned to slow down and try to formulate arguements. Sure I still write way too many words, but it is even worse when spoken, so consider yourself spared from the worst of it.
    I hope you improve your discourse with others, because you really are missing out on things by holding everyone in contempt.

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