In Green Metropolis, a new book that has been getting a lot of attention lately, cities are held up as models of environmental sustainability. While this may seem counterintuitive to some, residents of dense cities have a much smaller environmental impact that those living in suburban or rural areas. The fact is: city residents use less gasoline, electricity, water, and land than the average American.
A city's small environmental footprint can be traced back to one characteristic: density. Density allows residents to travel shorter distances to their daily destinations, thereby using less energy. Because distances are shorter, it becomes possible (and pleasant) to walk or bike. Because of the higher concentration of people and jobs, mass transit becomes practical and efficient (and driving becomes less practical and efficient). Dense apartment buildings are less wasteful than suburban McMansions, which tend to use much more energy and water. Lastly, dense cities use much less land, bringing farms closer to the city center and allowing us to set aside more land for natural habitat and recreation.
But in communities across the country, density is basically outlawed. In most cases, developers are only allowed to build single-family homes on large lots. Conservative pundits may argue that suburbanization is solely the reflection of individual choice, but in reality people don't have much of a choice--apartment buildings just aren't allowed by law in most communities.
From an environmental perspective it is important that we are able to embrace density as the country continues to grow. Most of the buildings that will exist in 25 years haven't been built yet. If we continue to develop in the same wasteful way we will have to work all that much harder just to achieve the same standard of living. Put another way, if we can build more efficient communities--communities that use less energy and land--we will have much more wealth to devote to other things that make us happy and healthy.
But how do we overcome the socially ingrained opposition to density? Or, to flip the question on its head, how do we challenge the idea that there is only one version of the American Dream, one that is surrounded by a white picket fence? We need only to think back to last year's presidential election, when Sarah Palin argued that small-town residents were the real Americans, while city dwellers on the coasts were perceived as some sort of alien species.
In an interview, David Owen, the author of Green Metropolis, was asked how we can change the way Americans consume energy. Owen states that we will have to "make driving distasteful in one way or another" in order to get people to start taking public transit or their bike. But this is hardly a way to get people to support density. Since the automobile will be with us for a very long time to come, the important thing is to get people to choose to use the train or to walk to the store, even if they have a car available.
Part of the trick will be to get people--especially families--back into cities where their carbon footprint will be smaller. Speaking about New York City, Kaid Benfield says that we must "address perceptions of inferior public school quality and a lack of public safety, which diminish the city's ability to attract and retain residents to its efficient lifestyle." Cities have been making progress on this front, New York City's crime rate is the lowest since records have been kept in the 1960's, but the perceptions remain (never mind that you are more likely to be killed in a car accident in Houston than murdered in New York City by someone you don't know). Over at the blog The Urbanophile, Aaron Renn says that the environmental argument will not be enough to shift population growth from suburbs into cities.
"Much of the call to return to cities is based on doom and gloom. If we don't all radically change our lifestyles the planet will end or some such... we've got to take a different path to create a new, positive aspirational narrative about the good life in America, one based around urban living, that we can convince a large number of people to buy into."
But cities have the deck stacked against them. The urban crime wave that began in the 1960's and culminated in the mid 1990's was largely the result of the nation's abysmal policies toward African-Americans--from slavery to segregation to racial discrimination--that set the stage for urban unrest. The same circumstances, coupled with massive federal investments in automobile infrastructure, led to white flight, depopulation, and the erosion of city tax bases.
In addition, cities must contend with federal policies that favor the suburbs. Urban economist Ed Glaeser argues:
"Cities shouldn't have to face a policy deck stacked against urban living. Urban firms and residents shouldn't have to pay a disproportionate share of the taxes needed to care for disadvantaged Americans. Suburbanites shouldn't get a free pass on the environmental damage created by a car-based lifestyle."
Other federal policies, from the mortgage interest rate deduction to the imbalance between highway funding and mass transit funding, put cities at a distinct disadvantage. But despite these disadvantages, the country's most productive areas are in cities.
Another strategy to reduce the country's excessive energy consumption is to make our new and existing suburbs more like cities. This means embracing the principles of smart growth and transit-oriented development. The key is to provide a variety of housing options, commercial space, and public amenities located around rapid transit stations. Directly adjacent to the transit station, densities are very high. But as you move away from the station, densities are gradually reduced. If you want a single-family home, you will have to trade off proximity to the transit station.
But of course, cities and suburbs first have to reform their zoning laws to allow this type of development to occur, and federal transportation dollars have to be there to support the construction of rapid transit systems. But the gains in productivity and efficiency will be worth the effort. A less wasteful nation is a wealthier nation.