It’s a staple of summer disaster flicks: the scene of a panicked populace trying to get the hell out of Dodge. Or, after the bomb is dropped, a band of bedraggled survivors picking their way out of smoking ruins, hobbling along a shattered freeway littered with dead cars, empty except for the decaying remains of their occupants.
It’s all good fun in a movie like The Book of Eli.
But Escape from New York is also just a movie after all.
These days, in the real world, people aren’t fleeing the top cities like New York, Paris and Shanghai. Instead, they’re pouring in. And who can blame them?
In the United States alone, winning cities still have a lot to offer: Hot jobs with investment banks or at top medical centers; Foreign films, indie rock shows and used bookstores with quirky cafes; Ethnic restaurants, ethnic festivals and ethnic markets; World-class museums, art galleries and universities; And a hefty dose of people watching.
But for an increasing number of homesteaders, greenhorns and back-to-the-landers, the excitement of being right at the center of things is outweighed by the growing challenges of living in a megalopolis in an age of permanent economic decline.
As a weakened economy starts to rub up against the natural limits of life on Earth — such as peak oil and climate change — the biggest cities with populations above a few million may become less and less attractive places to live. Here are the top three reasons why: high costs, crowding and vulnerability to climate change.
1. Going, going, going…broke
So far, only rusted-out industrial towns like Detroit and Stockton, California have gone broke to the point where they’ve had to cut back big on municipal services such as schools, streetlights and police. By contrast, even in today’s tough economy, somehow New York, Chicago, San Francisco and other glam cities have managed to look more sparkly than ever.
City Hall may be covered in marble, the convention center may be booked solid through 2025 and corporate profits may be up. But ordinary workers in today’s winning cities could still be going broke, due to high costs for housing, energy, insurance, parking and incidentals required to keep up with the Joneses. As the most attractive cities become playgrounds for the rich and privileged, the middle and working classes are being priced out.
And while essentials like food and water may still account for only a small part of a megacity dweller’s monthly budget, in a peak-oil future of higher energy costs and strained water resources, pumping in water and trucking in food from hundreds of miles away will start to break the bank, requiring more and more families to have to choose between putting food on the table and paying the (rising) rent.
2. Crowd on in, there’s room for everybody
Even as megacities become more difficult to afford, they’ll continue for some time to pull in desperate immigrants and wide-eyed strivers from rural areas. It will take decades for reality on the ground in expensive, dead-end megacities to halt a century of get-rich-quick wishful thinking pushed along by continual advertisements for the allures of big city life in the form of movies and TV shows set in cultural and shopping capitals such as Los Angeles and Miami.
Even as the Internet allows more and more people to work outside of big urban centers, the advantages of “clustering” for certain technical and white collar jobs will continue to draw in highly paid professionals to Wall Street, Hollywood, Silicon Valley or Boston’s Route 128 biotech corridor.
And because corporate offices will require receptionists, janitors and window washers while upscale families will need maids, dry cleaners and nannies, big cities will also continue to attract low-paid workers, who will find themselves either relegated to a shrinking urban ghetto or to cheap suburbs further and further away from their jobs in town.
3. Hot today, hotter tomorrow
Everybody’s heard of the urban heat island effect, where lots of pavement and lack of trees can cause cities of one million people or more to get up to 6 degrees higher than surrounding rural areas during the day — and up to 22 degrees higher at night. With climate change, big cities could get hotter faster than everywhere else making it even more expensive to live there because you’ll have to run the AC more.
This will be especially true in the new cities of the West and South that were only made possible by air conditioning and cheap oil. Sunbelt sprawltowns such as Las Vegas, Houston and Phoenix — which recently sweltered under record 119 degree temperatures — will experience increasing numbers of heatwaves which may ultimately make them unlivable for children, the elderly and others susceptible to heat stroke.
But Boston, New York and Washington won’t be spared. More temperate megacities will also suffer hotter, stickier summers, requiring more AC. That will drive up electric bills and stress already overtaxed power grids, likely ushering in an era of brownouts and widespread blackouts as in 2003 — in turn, disrupting business and adding yet more costs.
In an economy where energy is no longer cheap, both suburban McMansions and high-rise condos could become the slums of the future. But at least you can grow a garden at the McMansion. In the high-rise, when the power goes out in a big storm, the doorman has fled, the elevators stop and you don’t want to walk down 50 flights of steps because the grocery stores are out of food, you’ll be stuck eating beans from a can on your Corian® countertop by flashlight.
East Coast cities will also have to contend with a future of increasingly weird weather, with regular repeats of the two deadly storms of 2012 — the derecho and Superstorm Sandy. As hundred-year storms start to hit every decade (or more often), many coastal cities will lose some of their most valuable waterfront real estate to sea-level rise.
Your small city future
Sounds bleak, doesn’t it?
Well, don’t despair. If you can’t abide suffocating in traffic on the 405 in L.A. or shelling out $4,000 a month for a studio apartment in Manhattan, and if you want to enjoy a future that’s more resilient in the face of rising energy costs and climate change, there is another way. Consider these alternatives to the megacity:
- One of those rust-belt cities like Cleveland or Pittsburgh that lack the luster of New York or San Francisco but are both affordable and located safely inland. Many of these cities have enjoyed a partial recovery that has reduced crime while increasing livability. And talk about resilience — their lower density offers more space for growing your own food (even parts of Detroit are coming back, thanks to the grit of their residents and their urban farms).
- If you’ve got the money, you can join George Soros and other rich guys in selling your gold and buying farmland. Urban retirees with more modest net worth may be able to afford enough land to start a hobby farm. Young people can apply for a farm internship or a fellowship at a rural folk school to learn skills and make contacts to help them get back to the land.
- A few dozen small cities like my hometown of Staunton, Virginia (pop. 24,000) offer the best of both small town and big city: no traffic, low crime and high quality of life with enough cultural offerings including live theater, ethnic restaurants and an edgy art and music scene, to keep you busy every Saturday night. And while small cities lack big corporate offices or government agencies and thus offer few high-paid jobs, they’re friendly to Internet-connected telecommuters and entrepreneurs alike who appreciate the low costs and charm that small cities offer in spades.
— Erik Curren, Transition Voice