February 1, 2011

Return to Nineteenth-Century Patterns

Again, a very different fictional scenario to consider in the light of planning land use for the next few decades.


The economy was just about to turn the corner, and then... oil prices climbed to new records, bringing $10 a gallon gasoline. The economy was just about to turn the corner, and then... electricity prices climbed to new records, as customers raced to buy electric cars. The economy was just about to turn the corner, and then... natural gas prices surged, as shale gas wells turned out not to last as long as forecast, and demand for natural gas had climbed to feed new oil plants.

By 2022 gasoline and equivalents were floating between $21 and $26 a gallon. Even with smaller and more efficient cars, houses that had made wonderful sense when gasoline was $1.50 and even good sense when gasoline was $4.50 now seemed impossible, except as farmhouses or off-grid retreats. The colleges in the area continued to operate, but as pedestrian zones served exclusively by buses. Downtown Ithaca doubled in population, but the permanent population of Tompkins County shrank overall as residents moved to more energy-efficient urban settings.

The impact on Dryden was grinding and relentless, with residents unable to sell houses for nearly the prices they had paid for them. The costs of paving and plowing drove the Town to return many roads to dirt, and to consolidate greatly reduced plowing operations on the remainder with the county. Horses, sleighs, and skis kept large areas of the town moving in winter. Coordination with TCAT kept buses coming to smaller neighborhoods in Dryden, including Yellow Barn and West Dryden, as well as along the main state highways, but the population of the town had fallen to 10,000 in 2020 (from 14,000 in 2010) and would fall further to 5,000, roughly its population in 1950.

While demolition was a more common project than construction, and consolidation of parcels more popular than subdivision, a few areas held on. The villages of Dryden and Freeville resumed their historic roles as distribution centers for their surrounding countryside. The hamlets, especially Varna, managed to hold their own. They didn't grow, but they didn't shrink very much either. Stores, though small stores, returned to Varna, as the five-minute drive to East Hill Plaza grew to cost $8 by car or $2 by bus.

Other neighborhoods faced more difficult challenges. The 2012 zoning for Ellis Hollow, Bethel Grove, and Etna allowed no retail, and it wasn't until 2018 that these areas were able to get a year-round local grocery store. The 13/366 overlap subsisted on the remaining traffic flows, but efforts to create highly efficient super-dense housing in the former NYSEG building stalled for years as zoning that prohibited any residential use and then financing questions buffeted the project. It finally opened in 2025, highly efficient but with a much higher vacancy rate than planned.

In 2023, the Town abandoned zoning, concluding that the vision supported by the decade-old plan was unsupportable in the current crisis. The high cost of energy would govern development, much as it had in the 19th century.

Other zoning fiction here:

If you have stories you'd like to tell (or see me tell), let me know, in email or in comments.

Posted by simon at February 1, 2011 7:42 AM in , ,
Note on photos