Would $200 a barrel oil impact our cities…you bet

CNN reports on the Motor City’s attempt to radically revive itself

A couple of interesting stories are coming out of the current global recession which I think might help to shed some light on the potential impact of $200 a barrel oil. In Detroit, they are currently bulldozing complete neighbourhoods in what they hope will be an attempt to save their city through higher densities. As you are likely aware, Detroit has borne the brunt of the current recession more acutely than almost any other major urban centre in North America. The local unemployment rate is sky high, and people have simply packed up and moved out of town by the thousands.

Two summers ago, the price of oil shot up to $150 bucks a barrel. Many economists argue it was rising fuel prices along with several other factors which helped to send a number of economies into a tailspin. In the case of Detroit, $150 a barrel oil doesn’t really help to support an auto sector which remains hardwired on its dependence of cheap fossil fuels. It was this set of economic conditions that helped to drive the final nail into Michigan’s economy.

Meanwhile across the water in Ireland, they too are talking about bulldozing complete neighbourhoods. The difference is many of these homes have actually never been lived in. The homes have been appropriately dubbed "Ghost Estates". Someone has even created a website that can help you locate these properties. Here is how Conor O’Clery from the Global Post described them:

In Ireland, with a population of four and a half million, 300,000 homes are lying empty, according to a recent academic survey. Many of them are in clusters of almost-finished houses, built in fields that were rezoned for development in the madness of the housing boom. While bankrupt developers have left the housing developments unfinished, banks are keeping empty grand hotels open to prevent them from becoming, well, ghost hotels.

From afar, many of these ghost estates look as if they are finished, but up close you find no cars in the driveways, no curtains in the windows and no sound but the wind stirring the weeds in the yards. In the cities the wind fairly howls through the open floors of unfinished apartment blocks, such as the skeleton of a 14-story building put up in Sandyford Dublin by the developer John J Fleming Construction.

What we have are two very different cities facing very different circumstances when it comes to their housing stock. Yet both are contemplating razing entire neighbourhoods as a solution to what ails their cities. While these may appear like isolated examples of what can happen when you combine poor planning with a bad economy, you shouldn’t feel like your city is immune.

Detroit could well be the canary in the cold mine when it comes to the future of what cities in North America will look like over the next 100 years. That’s because for the most part, they are all planned and built on the premise of abundant and inexpensive fossil fuels. Even the advent of more green cars and trucks is not a panacea. That’s because most of the current "green" vehicles are dependent on fossil fuels to produce the electricity they run on. More electric cars means more fossil fuels are required to operate and manufacture them.

So what happens to North American cities when the price of oil heads north again (which it will) and perhaps hits $200 or more per barrel? What happens when vast areas of our urban centres with little or no transit are faced with skyrocketing living and commuting costs? We may see more of what we’re witnessing in Ireland and Detroit. Will people vacate their properties and head closer to the centre of the city where there is easier to access jobs, shopping and other services? What will this do to housing prices in the core areas if they choose not to densify any further? All good questions.

Watching two jurisdictions facing very different, yet very similar scenarios when it comes to "ghost" neighbourhoods is not only fascinating, it should be a caution to other urban centres. It wouldn’t take much more than expensive energy to suddenly turn some of our most affluent and attractive single family neighbourhoods into the hollowed out communities we’re viewing in CNN’s report. What do you think? Is tinkering around the edges with community gardens, backyard chickens and electric cars going to save our cities from expensive oil prices? Let us know by leaving a comment.

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  • birdghost 12700

    Quick! Tear it all down or average people might find affordable housing and not live out their lives as debt-slaves to their central bank! Or even worse; homeless people might find a home that no one wants and start living there! The horror…
    What a great example of government backed false scarcity to push up prices and keep people poor.
    Densification = Manorialism
    “More electric cars means more fossil fuels are required to operate and manufacture them.”
    Same deal with bikes, blogs, and computers, are you proposing we ban (tax into oblivion and remove necessary infrastructure) them along with these evil electric cars? Unless of course they’ve already started welding the bike frames with pixie dust, lubing the chains and bearings with tofu, and attaching the new pixie tofu bike to a server to make pedal powered eco-blogs.. Did I miss that article?

  • huh

    First Mike is praising a bunch of Portland hippies for removing concrete. Now you are talking about the perils of high priced fossil fuels. What’s going on here? Is all of Gregor’s green talk starting to rub off on you guys? Is there nobody left that believes all this enviro bafflegab is nothing other than what it is, bafflegab!

  • Bill McCreery

    I’m not sure what Ireland has directly to do with oil prices. Although they played a factor in Dublin’s demise, there are other bigger ghosts in their closet. And, you didn’t say they were densifying. Knowing Ireland a bit, I think not.
    Even Detroit is a huge leap to Vancouver. Detroit has been a failed city for generations. This isn’t the 1st ‘desperate attempt’.
    Vancouver has been making essentially good decisions with respect to transit planning & delivery, density, mixed-use since 1973 when we stopped the freeway system that would have us become Seattle North. We have City Plan & the Livable Region Plan, the Agricultural Land Reserve & so on.
    What we haven’t done is moved as quickly as we could [not withstanding we are ahead of most North American cities] or spent enough [we have to live within our means & political will].
    Vision has it’s own agenda. And, panic seems to be the central theme. We don’t have to panic. The basics have been in place since the 70s. What we need to do now is fine tune & improve on the enviable urban living model already in place.