Post-Carbon Buffalo-Niagara, WNY

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Buffalo’s Advantages vs. Challenges in Weathering a Post-Carbon Future

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In an energy-starved future, some parts of the country and bound to do better than others.

In the sun-scorched Southwest, summers are intolerable without air conditioning running all day and cheap fuel for cars to zip the population down freeways every day so denizens don’t have to actually walk anywhere in the 100+ degree heat. In addition, water resources are getting pretty depleted in those parts. Support of large urban populations in the deserts is unsustainable! End for story.

The Southeast offers a great growing climate throughout the year, but the intensely muggy summers are quite daunting for those used to the comfort of climate control all day long. There is a good reason most of the old South was primarily agrarian before the industrial and modern ages.

The Midwest and Northeast are certainly not in the clear. They offer sine their own annoying problem when it comes to adapting to a low-energy diet. To keep warm in the winter months, fuels must be burnt to keep homes warm. Currently the fuel of choice is natural gas, a fossil fuel resource which is likely entering the initial stages of terminal decline, just like oil. Many of the drafty, detached wood frame houses in Northeastern and Upper Midwestern cities were built with coal furnaces in the late 19th-early 20th century. Back then coal was super-cheap and furnaces could be cranked without cost being much of a concern. Over-sized suburban houses are even worse. Conserving heat much more efficiently are attached masonry houses (see: row houses, brownstones) and apartment buildings which are abundant in the old coastal cities. Areas with a large stock of these building types will have a definite advantage in the days ahead.

Buffalo’s housing stock is mostly wood and detached. Most people living in an old Buffalo flat or house will have plentiful stories regarding sky-high heating bills in months like February. Since March of this year, natural gas commodity prices have more than doubled. Next winter in Buffalo will surely be punishing on its residents wallets. “Downgrading” back to wood stoves and coal furnaces may sound unspeakable within the context of our society’s techno-cultural meme, but sticking with natural gas or heating oil for keeping warm will be downright unfordable for many of limited means, (and many of the soon-to-be unemployed among the current ‘middle class’) short of massive subsidies.

Despite the problems Buffalo (and the Great Lakes area in general) faces with fossil fuel shortages and a limited growing season, our region offers many advantages over the warm, “boom” areas of the US which have taken their sprawl-based “growth” for granted these past decades.

Below, I’ll outline a brief list of advantages and challenges the Buffalo region will face in a post-carbon future.

Advantages

  • Our urbanized region is relatively compact in land area compared to other larger metro areas across North America. Plenty of productive farmland can be found within only 15-20 miles from the city center.
  • Natural water port. This goes without saying. When long-haul trucking becomes uneconomical, we’ll see a return to water transportation.
  • A great architectural and historical legacy. Buffalo is blessed with a splendid stock of architecturally-rich buildings in the city’s urban core. Having an established “sense of place” will help instill greater civic pride in times when it’s needed desperately. Connecting all the historic buildings is a tight network of streets which once supported a dense, bustling city and could do the same once again.
  • Intact rail infrastructure. Even though many rails have been neglected and ripped up over the more recent decades, many of the beds/ROWs remain in place only needing modest upgrades in order to adequately host rail service.
  • Hard working, down to earth culture. Much of the Buffalo area’s population still has an honest, hard-working blue-collar sensibility which prioritizes family, friends, and community over ephemeral “needs” like material status, career climbing, and overly selfish behavior in the name of “personal success”. This provides a sharp contrast to the 60-hour-per-week, rat race, white collar professional workers who define the nation’s “booming” metro areas.
  • Radial road network that connects the region’s towns to the urban core. Many of Buffalo’s postwar suburbs, even though unsustainable in a post-carbon world, are well connected by arterial roads which radiate from Buffalo’s downtown core.

Challenges

  • The suburban domination of the Buffalo region. There is a popular bias against urban living stemming from a longtime prejudice against the city’s poverty-stricken underclass. Most of the region’s population lives in suburban areas that were designed only for the automobile. Several generations thus far have grown up and lived knowing no lifestyle outside the confines residential subdivisions, parking lots, office parks, and shopping malls. The concept of walking to a grocery store or cycling to work is a foreign concept to many suburbanites and even some city residents. Many of the region’s “good jobs” are stranded out in suburban office clusters which are only accessible by car in any sort of convenient fashion.
  • Lack of mass transit service infrastructure throughout the greater region will leave many suburbanites stranded in the event of fuel shortages. Not only that, but when gas prices get high enough many people won’t even be able to afford fueling their cars.
  • Buffalo’s cold winter weather poses many challenges from an energy perspective. Natural Gas, like oil, is a declining resource which most households depend upon for heating.
  • The Buffalo area has a prolific car culture which is further emboldened by the relative lack of traffic congestion. During times of oil abundance, heavy road congestion has been the only incentive for metropolitan regions to fund transportation and living alternatives like mass transit and high density urban developments. Buffalo’s lack of population and economic growth has left our region’s overabundance of high-speed roads relatively un-congested. Buffalo is known well as “the 20 minute city.” People here have had little reason to seek out alternatives since the roads are usually unimpeded. The coming energy shocks might be too sudden for people here to smoothly transition to other ways of getting around without nasty social turmoil.
  • Socioeconomic fragmentation. Ethnic tensions, racism, blockbusting, and xenophobia drove much of Buffalo’s old working class from city neighborhoods and into the suburbs decades ago. There remains much animosity and fear suburbanites hold toward their ancestral urban neighborhoods which have since devolved into crime-ridden ghettos for the most part. It remains to be seen what will happen when the car-dependent suburbs become unworkable in light of fossil fuel shortages. Many suburban families will either have to relocate to urban centers or move to a rural town and labor on a farm.

Written by Z. Prometheus

July 9, 2008 at 9:16 pm

Energy Depletion & Buffalo

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That’s what this blog will be all about.

Climate change, food shortages, dwindling crude oil supplies, social strife, geopolitical chaos….those are but a few of the nasty symptoms of a great problem that’s begun to rear its ugly head over the past few years.

Basically, there are too many people on this planet. Most citizens of the wealthy, “first world” nations live incredibly energy-intensive lifestyles, especially in North America, that are straining the natural resources which enable this comfort and convenience-based, high-octane living to be possible in the first place. Most citizens of industrialized nations take for granted the energy-rich resources like fossil fuels which allow machines do effortlessly do the work which would otherwise require multiples of human laborers to perform.

Amidst all the fun and games, our hometown, Buffalo NY is a shrinking, post industrial city that has largely been forgotten by the global economy over the past 50 years, despite being located within the most powerful and prolific of the “winner” nations of the industrial and modern eras.

Right now, as we speak, demand for crude oil is outstripping supply, as the expanding middle classes in rising, overpopulated nations like China and India wish to join the high-consumption party America has enjoyed for decades. Most Americans are still oblivious to this ugly truth and they have no idea that down-scaling the way we live will be mandatory for most of us, not just a trendy “green” lifestyle choice.

This blog will be about how Buffalo and its surrounding region can and will cope will this emerging reality. Our largely suburban-based economy and way of life will have to be re-arranged into a much more energy efficient format. (see: picture below) This means that businesses (whichever ones may survive) will have to relocate for suburban office-parks back into transit-friendly activity nodes like downtown. This means the people who wish to maintain urban livelihoods will have to move back into the city and live in walkable, transit-accessible neighborhoods. Suburbanites who wish to maintain some semblance of “country living” will actually have to live in the country and engage in the age-old occupation of farming.

this lifestyle requires zero fossil fuels to operate

The challenges to adapt are daunting as hell and no one knows for certain when a great crisis (like a severe economic depression or war) will hit that will force these issues all onto the table at once. We hope to lay out as much information and ideas as possible using this blog.

Written by Z. Prometheus

July 5, 2008 at 5:14 pm

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