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Forward to the Past

Feb 10, 2012
Forward to the Past

by Catherine Calvert, Director of Community Sustainability, VIA Architecture
Photo: Seattle’s Denny Regrade (credit)

There has been much discussion about Peak Oil and the ways in which the increasing scarcity of fossil fuels will affect the way we live in the future. The basic premise is that our days of abundant cheap oil are over, and that our entire lifestyle of consumption, freewheeling mobility, and comfort needs to change drastically now in order to avoid extreme and sudden hardships in the future. With a limited supply of oil available (maybe 20 years according to the most pessimistic views), we’d better put what we have left to good use – this would mean investment in noble purposes such as construction of public transportation projects, and a move away from frivolous uses such as leisure motoring and shipping disposable goods around the planet.

We at VIA think a lot about these problems, particularly the issues relating to mobility and infrastructure. Some of us may learn to grow our own food, ride bicycles, knit sweaters to keep warm, and avoid shopping at big-box retail stores – and there is much to be said for relocalizing our habits and grounding our lifestyle in the real and substantial. But these strategies will only go so far, and they are not available or suitable for everyone; we can’t all live in Belltown and feed ourselves locally in February, for example. If we’re going to be increasingly reliant on public transportation, we need to prioritize these projects for the resources they need to be built and maintained as using fossil fuel becomes increasingly challenged.

This image that appeared in Pacific Northwest Magazine a couple of months ago (1) was startling. It was taken in about 1906, during Seattle’s first “regrade” of downtown. Look carefully … what do you see? Earthmovers and hydraulic excavators? No, actually a horse and wagon, and a steam shovel, likely powered by coal, or maybe by wood. Not a drop of petroleum in sight.

Images like this of the Denny Regrade project remain startling to our modern eyes because of the project’s sheer scale and audacity.. To literally move Seattle’s downtown hills out of the way because they were inconvenient — did we really do this? And without the internal combustion engine and heavy machinery?

While it’s clear that going back to the horse and buggy days may not solve our mobility problems, we do believe that creative thinking and focus can pull us away from relying so heavily on the technology we’re currently taking for granted. The people in that photo were able to accomplish big feats without iPhone apps and without internal combustion engines- why can’t we, as advanced as we are as a society, brainstorm ways to go back to basics and not rely so heavily on fossil fuels? We were able to move mountains without it once – what could we accomplish today if we really had to?