There is endless discussion in Peak Oil and Survivalist circles regarding the optimal living arrangement for an era in which transportation will be difficult, expensive, and perhaps widely unavailable, and in which all the necessities of life- food, fuel, potable water, medicine, and common consumer goods, will be outrageously expensive, and their availability subject to supply chain disruptions and commodity scarcity.
Many Peak Oil prognosticators are extremely pessimistic about the prospects for extremely large cities such as NYC and Chicago, where denizens tend either to live in the suburbs with their thousands of square miles of auto-dependent sprawl, or in super-dense city neighborhoods with their thickets of super-large, energy-guzzling high rise buildings, and many people predict that the most successful settlements will be the small towns and smaller cities, principally those that have been battered the most by the cheap fuel extravaganza of the past 65 years, that saw our cities decimated as their populations bought automobiles and moved to distant suburbs. I expect that as the desert cities such as Phoenix and Las Vegas fail, their populations will flee eastward and repopulate and rebuild these cities along lines that better comport with shrinking resources.
We here in Chicago can expect a massive influx of suburban refugees as the outer suburbs on the fringe of Cook County, as well as the collar counties, become non-negotiable for their middle and lower-middle class denizens Most of our lower middle classes (figure incomes of $25,000 to $65,000) live in the outer suburbs and exurbs, lured by the cheap houses and decent schools, and they will not be able to afford the 50 mile-each-direction commutes and multiple car ownership necessary to live in these places when gasoline prices start to rise even incrementally above current levels. In fact, they can't afford it now, thus the immense personal household debt levels that have become commonplace in this country in the past thirty years, and which render our population much less resilient and flexible in the face of the discontinuities we will face in the near future. These people will be hit first and the hardest as liquid fuels and all the goods and services dependent upon a ready and copious supply of them-in short, absolutely everything- become much more expensive, and this is already happening, as homes in the outer suburbs are losing value much faster than those in the cozy inner suburbs with their easy access to public transit and the city. Meanwhile, their better-off middle and upper-middle income brethren will be squeezed by much higher costs for everything, too, and they will be looking for convenience and freedom from the rising expense of the high-energy lifestyles of the recent past. However, many of the less affluent will cling to their homes because they cannot afford to take the heavy losses they will incur as these dwellings lose their utility and value. Most likely, more affluent middle class homeowners will be the first to recognize the inevitability of the suburban unraveling, and these people are the ones who are now making the choice to settle in the city in order to escape heavy transportation expenses and be close to work and within walking distance of retail and entertainment.
So we here in Chicago will very likely be dealing with floods of new arrivals, while we will be having problems of our own. We can be thankful that we have many people running our systems, such as our water treatment facilities and our electrical power, who have better brains than either our politicians or the Peak Oil prognosticators, and these people are aware of the challenges of maintaining essential services as basic maintenance and replacement become prohibitively expensive, which will happen as we descend the slope. Our major challenges will be to arrange things so that we can accommodate many more residents in comfort and offer access to public transit and retail, and to make sure that our public money is spent renewing our aged water and sewer infrastructure as quickly as possible, before high fuel prices drive the cost of construction and replacement out of our reach. This means that we need to immediately re-order our priorities, and stop the diversion of money towards unnecessary projects and allocate it to necessary repair and replace. Many neighborhoods that were badly beaten up in the cheap fuel years will experience rapid revivals, while others that have been extremely successful, such as our downtown areas with their dense concentrations of mega-high rise condo and apartment towers, will become extremely difficult to manage.
Therefore, I offer my personal, non-scientific assessment of a sampling of Chicago neighborhoods that I believe are the most advantageous locations for post-peak living:
1. Rogers Park/West Ridge/West Rogers Park- I don't name this neighborhood just because I happen to live in it and love it. Rogers Park has almost everything you need to live a low-energy lifestyle. For one thing, we have easy access to Lake Michigan,one of the world's largest sources of fresh water.That is is really handy should we experience problems with our water treatment facilities. Residents might want to equip themselves with home water treatment kits in order to take advantage of this priceless resource. Additionally, Rogers Park is within easy reach of 24-hour public transit, abundant retail for necessities, and most of all has an abundance of back yards, courtyards, parkways, parks, and vacant lots on which food could be grown should it become necessary. The housing is mostly 3-7 story multifamily buildings of 18-60 units, the new urban ideal, which provides support for local retail and public transit, while the area is not overburdened with high rise buildings. On the negative side, the area is burdened with elevated crime rates and a sizable pocket of deep poverty. However, the neighborhood's poorer denizens might be more amenable to the difficult adjustments and deprivations entailed in energy scarcity than their more affluent neighbors, and more willing participants in community agricultural projects.
2. Jefferson Park/Sauganash Park, ranging from well-paid blue collar to extremely affluant- this quiet safe- area in the northwest corner of the city is ideal for families who desire a single family home, yet also contains a full array of housing types, from 2-flats to large 3 and 4 story buildings. There is reliable public transit that runs 24 hours a day (Blue Line el and a couple of bus lines), and abundant retail. Transportation is difficult for many pockets of single family homes, but this is offset by an abundance of great homes at reasonable prices, and a high level of public safety.
3. Lincoln Square/Ravenswood/Albany Park- medium-to-high density, easy access to retail and public transit, many different types of housing from cheap apartments to large, beautiful single family homes. Access to the Chicago River. High level of public safety
3. Old Irving Park- an area of fine, large old homes on large lots big enough to farm,with access to the Blue Line, and short distance to retail.
4. Belmont-Cragin- high density area with access to public transit and dense retail. Medium to high density with many cheap apartments and small, inexpensive homes.
5. Wicker Park/Bucktown/Logan Square- Medium density area close to urban core with 24 hour transit nearby and dense retail.
As we can see from the sampling above, Chicago by and large is, by virtue of the way it is built, designed for much lower energy use than current levels and it and other Midwestern cities will have many instrinsic advantages in the post peak era. This city, like most older Northern cities that were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries and its original arrangements- clusters of high density housing and industry close to the city core- were those necessary for a pre-technological society. It was located on a major water body for access to water transportation and fresh water supplies, in an area of the country that contains the world's finest farmland and gets generous rainfall. It is well above sea level (about 500 feet), and enjoys close proximity to other Midwestern and Mid-Atlantic cities. However, many neighborhoods will be severely challenged, mainly because they are built to be reliant upon copious quantities of extremely cheap energy. I'm thinking mostly of the inner city neighborhoods that are densely packed with thickets of mega-scrapers of 30 stories or more. These buildings have much higher internal energy loads per square foot because of their reliance on elevators, water pumps, and need for large numbers of personnel to keep the buildings running properly. These neigbhorhoods include:
1. Downtown/Near North/Streeterville/South Loop- Thankfully, these neighborhoods are mostly inhabited by high-income people with large amounts of disposable money. They're going to need a lot of money to keep their super-high buildings functioning properly, for this area contains more really large (40 stories or more) high rise condo and apartment towers than any other in the city. These neighborhoods are advantageously located in the midst of dense retail and have access to better pubic transportation than any other part of the city. However, there is no possibility of growing edibles there. Worse, a massive percentage of its denizens are "yuppies" who rely for their high incomes on the very types of jobs- advertising, FIRE, law- that will see drastic attrition in a shrinking economy, and these middle income people will not have the wherewithal to meet rapidly rising energy costs in massive buildings into which most of them are shoehorned. While the True Rich, those who have ample fortunes and live in the best buildings in that area, will most likely be able to cope with escalating costs, many people in this area will lose their incomes just as their buildings become outrageously expensive to operate, and the end result is likely to be many empty and half-empty high rise rentals falling into decrepitude, and vastly compromised public safety and comfort.
2. Lincoln Park/Lakeview- These neighborhoods are a lot like downtown, with way too many really large residential buildings. Offsets are excellent transportation and a lot of retail. But their support base, like that of downtown neighborhoods, is due to erode rapidly as the economy shifts to lower energy consumption and occupations that were dependent upon a high-consumption economy disappear. This is another area with no possibilities for local food production beyond a few tomato plants on balconies.
3. Uptown- This area has an immense concentration of low-income housing, including CHA high rises and "flophouse" single room occupancy hotels, along with more non-profits serving challenged populations than almost any other neighborhood on the north side. While the alderman, Helen Schiller might be more amenable to projects that enhance the area's sustainability (i.e. fish farms), her progressive stance is more than offset by her willingness to tolerate disorderly populations and criminal activity. The large Asian population is a plus, for these people are often recent immigrants who live much more frugally than most Americans and are more likely to be involved in running local sustainable business. For example, the large garden at the corner of Kenmore and Ainslie is owned by a private individual who supplies many local restaurants with produce grown there. So this area is a very mixed bag.
4. Edgewater- I love Edgewater and it is probably my favorite North Coast neighborhood all around. However, this neighborhood has a number of liabilities when viewed in terms of sustainability. Most of these liabilities line Sheridan Road and are at least 25 stories high, and inhabited mostly by moderate-to-middle income people, including many extremely elderly folk, who could find the cost of keeping these buildings with their prodigious energy demands functional ratcheting out of reach as fuel costs escalate. On the plus side, the neighborhood has easy beach access, excellent 24 hour public transportation, and prolific retail featuring the necessities of life. Additionally, local zoning authorities have established a height limit of 7 stories for new buildings. Edgewater high rise dwellers need to think about how they will run their elevators in times of power outages and hyper-expensive electricity, and whether the proposed windfarm off Edgewater Beach will be capable of carrying their energy-intensive buildings in the possible absence of reliable baseline power generation.
I've only discussed some of the north side neighborhoods. The south side of the city, which contains half the population of the north side but twice the land area, presents a whole different array of problems and possibilities. While the area is beset with widespread poverty and joblessness, it is also the site of many promising experiments with local agriculture and boasts a number of large community agricultural stations and community gardens.