Suffocating Suburbia: Sustainability and the City
In a recent interview, Alex Steffen of Worldchanging, walks us through the possibilities and pitfalls of sustainability in the 21stCentury.
When we think about the future and sustainability two common pitfalls present themselves. Either we believe that technology will save our western lifestyle without any changes on our part (other than buying a more efficient car). Or we could believe that technology is the bane of the environment and we should all become Amish. Steffan would argue that neither is true, nor realistic.
Technology of course plays a vital part in the process to making our planet sustainable again. Renewable energies, organic farming methods, telecommuting, biodegradable plastics…it all helps. However, with a growing global population and levels of air pollution that are already too high, our life-styles have to change, but not to an agrarian existence, rather to an urban one. And here is why.
Lets take America as an example. Americans are the most carbon-producing citizens worldwide with a national average carbon footprint of almost 21 tons per person p.a. However, not every American is producing21 tons. Indeed few are. Most are producing far more. The average is restrained by America’s carbon frugal city dwellers. The disparity of carbon production between Sub-urban/non-urban dwellers and urban dwellers is dramatic.
The national average for urban dwellers drops by over half to 8.21 tons per person per year. NYC’s dense building and comprehensive transport system (subway and feet) have it down to a shiny 7.1 tons, making it both an urban and environmental golden child. What this means in reality is that every sub-urban and non-urban American is using as much resources as 3.5New Yorkers. If this was a sinking ship rather than a sinking planet, we would just throw suburbanites overboard like Jonah. But since it’s not and we can’t deposit them on the moon, Steffen suggests a far more optimistic solution:Bright Green Cities of the future. Modern re-urbanization.
It seems like an impossible task to re-urbanize a nation and a planet. Almost half of Americans live in suburban housing, diligently pursuing the American dream of big house, big yard, big cars, big refrigerators…big everything. But this wasn’t always the case and the last time there was a big migration, it was for the same reason as Steffen proposes today: the pursuit of green.
In the 1950’s Suburbia was seen as a green alternative to the smoky city because there was more green in-between the houses. Whilst we all know the importance of green space, the suburban lawn has become the bane of environmentalists. Because, with all that space, comes equally roomy carbon footprints.
It is true that whilst the cities of today are greener per capita, they also have higher concentrations of people and so that means higher concentrations of pollution. Except at sunset, smog is not an attractive incentive to move to the city. Steffen agrees. Cities need to be redesigned to fully utilize all that wonderful green technology and rethought to accommodate modern society.
Suburban society is built around the car and cars, however“green” they are to run still take huge amounts of energy to produce in the first place. They also encourage sprawl, which means more land usage, more roads, more energy-intensive concrete and less efficient use of space for all that non-intensive organic farming we need to foster for our growing population.
Steffen’s city planning is based on making the car close to redundant. By recreating ‘local’ – local housing, businesses, schools, parks and entertainment, the amount of movement needed on a daily basis is vastly reduced. Since the daily commute is one of the biggest contributors to global warming it seems a good place to start. Steffen also talks about the benefit to families to forgo the two hours commute and have parents home earlier. He also talks about a renaissance of community that will be promoted by urbanization.The move to the city needs to benefit the family and young children. It means better schools, lots of activities and lots of open spaces. Soon living an isolated sub-urban existence away from all the cultural stimulation and good education of the city center will make it far less appealing to families. The danger is that suburbia becomes so unattractive that it turns into less desirable, low-income ghettos. Steffen is keen to not just move problems around, but redesign, reuse, rebuild and invest for long-term planned sustainability.
It is not only the death of suburbia that will save us,there will be changes across our lives that we need to embrace. Maybe we don’t get bad tasting tomatoes out of season, but we do get good tasting ones in season. Maybe we can’t fly everywhere, but we can breathe. Maybe we can’t eat meat every day, but we can eat chemical free food. Maybe our children will have to live in cities, but they will get to live.
Lets be a part of the solution. Lets move on global warming.
By Sarah Bainbridge of Living Generously http://www.livinggenerously.com/
Sarah Bainbridge is a vital part of the Living Generously team. She liaises with Charities, writes articles and develops the project! Sarah has spent time in India working with communities impacted by the Tsunami and is passionate about social justice. Currently living in California, Sarah loves life, lakes and coffee…not necessarily in that order!