Mar 092011

When I was a boy my family used to joke that crows didn’t fly in Vestavia. Our suburb, like so many others, had a knotty system of streets that made direct travel impossible, and zoning that made driving a necessity. My high school was less than 2/3 of a mile direct distance from my house, but it was a two-mile drive down a road that became pretty backed up around 7:45 AM. Of course nobody rode the bus. Suburban living allowed my brother and I to go to a good school, live in a big house, and play in the woods frequently as we grew up. It also used a lot of gas.

I recently finished reading Green Metropolis [Amazon] by David Owen, a book that I enjoyed in part because it told me so many things I already agreed with. Cities are often derided for being big and dirty, and this is true, but because of their size, their dirtiness per capita is substantially less than that of the suburbs. Owen models his argument off New York City, noting that its residents use less electricity per year than people living in any other part of the country, and produce greenhouse gases at a rate 67% less than the national average. Large multi-unit buildings use heat more efficiently than drafty, oversize suburban houses, and small apartments discourage tenants from acquiring (or keeping) junk they don’t need. Mixed-use neighborhoods encourage people to do much of their travel on foot, and public transport combines with the sheer inconvenience of using a car to discourage driving.

The American environmental and conservative movements may seem to have little in common, but both romanticize a life close to the land and far from the city, albeit for different reasons. Their mutual straining has, without question, been environmentally ruinous, producing the unsightly sprawl that swaddles cities like Atlanta and Washington D.C. like a spreading tumor. The result is misery and waste: hours of productivity lost to endless commutes, acre upon acre of ugly strip malls moated by asphalt, and vast quantities of duplicated infrastructure tea-partying suburbanites don’t want to pay taxes to maintain. All this so people can work two jobs to pay off mortgages they can’t afford for drafty, energy-inefficient houses much larger than they need and enormous water-sucking, pesticide and fertilizer-coated lawns they won’t even let their children play in anymore because of skin cancer and chemicals and sexual predators.

Owen shares my skepticism of popular idiocies such as ethanol, a technology that still consumes more energy than it produces and is only likely to work if we tear up the suburbs that made it necessary in the first place and repurpose the land for agriculture. He also justly ridicules much so-called “green” architecture and LEED certifications that don’t accurately measure a building project’s environmental costs. As he notes, environmental assessments of buildings rarely acknowledge that windows are inherently wasteful of energy, or that elevators are one of the world’s most efficient forms of mass transit.

Yet, there is much to criticize in Owen’s work as well. He derides the phenomenon of tiny “urban” cars, and in the case of New York alone that might be justified. But such vehicles may be helpful, perhaps even essential, to re-urbanizing areas like Atlanta, where lack of efficient public transportation and an unfavorable climate would make city living unbearable for much of the year. Owen acknowledges that efficient cities like New York often came to be that way due to geographical accidents, which does little to guide us towards solutions that might allow us to recentralize America’s sprawled-out suburban dystopias. Although Owen easily enough points out the factors that made city living seem unappealing to him, he has trouble converting that recognition into recommendations that make cities more palatable to the suburbanites who fled them long ago.

The simple fact is that New Yorkers don’t use less energy or produce less greenhouse gas because they’re uniquely virtuous. They’re energy-efficient because they’re forced to be that way by the nature of the place where they live. No quantity of “green” appliances, extra insulation, solar panels, or corn ethanol will ever suffice to make suburban living efficient enough to challenge the environmental benefits mandated by city living, even if every household in America was convinced to adopt all these measures. Our national addiction to cars and big houses will be the ruin of any plan for energy independence or sustainability. Any comprehensive plan for meeting these goals will require some degree of re-urbanization (or de-suburbanization), and that means finding some way to make city living more appealing, more economical, and more convenient than it currently is. That’s a hard sell, and Owen knows it, but he doesn’t seem to have any idea how to close the deal.

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