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Thinking about Jeff Rubin and his idea that peak oil will change our cities back into a small urban village

May 11th, 2012 · 75 Comments

Jeff Rubin is someone who is influencing city planning considerably these days.

The former CIBC chief economist lurks in the minds of planners as they contemplate his Peak Oil scenario. I’ve heard people in both Vancouver and Toronto say, for example, that one of the reasons to preserve industrial land close to central cities is to be prepared for a point when driving loads of stuff in from the exurbs becomes too costly to sustain.

So I pay attention to him and, like any good mushy sort-of liberal who came of age in the 60s/70s, I’m instinctively inclined to buy his arguments about Peak Oil and the way the escalating cost of oil-based energy will reshape our society and our cities.

But one line in his recent Globe article, excerpted from his latest book The End of Growth, struck me as really offbase. (Here’s the whole article, for as long as the Globe will let you look at it for free, ha ha.)

As he argues that the way to get people to reduce their energy use, as Denmark has, is to drive them into it by charging incredibly high prices (not by building windmills or bike lanes alone), he writes: “Replace inexpensive oil with triple-digit prices and cities will eventually shrink back to their original bike-sized urban cores.”

Um, no. That’s the kind of utopian thinking I hear from too many city-thinkers, who fondly imagine that someday, everyone will move back into a city that looks something like Bologna, which you can walk across in about an hour max or bus across in 20 minutes.

That might be true if we kill off 80 per cent of the people now living and go back to the kind of world-population level in place around maybe, oh, 1850. But that’s not realistic for the moment.

The only other option to pack 10 times as many people in today’s cities back to a little urban core is to bulldoze those existing city cores and build a forest of towers. Scarily, this is what I hear some city sustainabilitists (the new utopian and dogmatic Le Corbusiers of our century) tiptoeing towards in their arguments these days.

For the moment, I don’t see that happening either.

It would be more helpful if the Jeff Rubins of the world would stay away from this kind of hyperbolic future, which ultimately doesn’t make for good planning. As long as population levels are the same or growing, which seems to be our fate for at least this century, the solution is not to dream that everyone is going to move back into some charming but yet impossibly dense central city.

1. Some people just don’t want to. As much as I love the busyness and density of the central city, I get that not everyone is like me. Planners and thinkers should too.

2. There isn’t enough room, even if they all did want to.

So better if planners/big-ideas people figured out how we could connect people better to all the things they need to do — shop, enjoy themselves and, most importantly, work — without envisioning it as everyone moving back into a 10-square-kilometre area.

I’ve seen planners figuring out the live/shop/play thing, but not how to reduce the live/work commute yet. Maybe focus on that.

(By the way, for your reading pleasure, two other critique of Rubin’s other ideas here and here.)


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