Alex Wecht ’24
As sea levels continue to rise, forest fires grow in frequency and intensity, and climate change surges, people begin to wonder how they can make an individual impact on our environmental challenges. It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands and say that there’s simply nothing one can do; But one plus one, over and over again, soon adds up to hundreds and then thousands and then millions. Lots of little decisions over time have a collective and compounding effect, so it’s worth considering what difference our own living and housing patterns can have on the sustainability of life on this planet and on the future that awaits us and our children. Let’s consider just one slice of the environmental pie, one small piece of the problem that confronts us: suburban sprawl.
Economists, environmentalists, urban planners, and a formidable host of scholars have examined this issue and probed the pros and cons of each perspective. The quest for a perfect equilibrium between urbanism and suburban sprawl is challenging and almost never-ending. The question of which setting offers a superior way of life is fraught with complexity.
Nonetheless, we have the benefit of multifaceted studies that assess and survey the characteristics and implications of life in these various settings. We can inquire, for example, into what’s healthier, what’s more sustainable, what’s more efficient, and what’s more conducive to economic development and the generation of wealth.
Proponents of sprawl argue that the proliferation of suburbs provides large amounts of available and affordable housing stock. While this may be true in a narrow sense, suburban sprawl fosters a plethora of unfavorable effects and negative externalities such as air pollution, mass deforestation, high levels of energy consumption, and overall inefficiency.
Renowned economists such as Edward Glaeser have argued that it is the city which creates an environment that promotes innovation, efficiency, happiness, prosperity, health, and environmental friendliness. In his book Triumph of the City, Glaeser maintains that cities cultivate an environment in which individuals work productively and in collaboration with each other.
Big businesses and large offices are often located in cities; as a result, opportunities for the accumulation of capital are enhanced. In turn, this aggregation fosters additional synergistic growth, as people with relevant skills and motivation will seek to optimize these assets in a central area where others are gathering to work, trade, interact, and live. Put differently, the agglomeration of producers, firms, consumers, and physical capital in cities tends to encourage high productivity and efficiency.
The urban lifestyle tends to attract larger populations resulting in a more compact communities. Journalist Justin Fox notes that “Long-held anti-urban attitudes have given way at least partially to a realization that walkable, transit-rich cities are healthier, more environmentally sound places to live than sprawling, car-dependent suburbs.”
Advocates of suburban sprawl counter by arguing that the expansive housing opportunities provided by the suburbs tend to make cities more affordable. These advocates cite studies which suggest that when cities expand upward rather than outward, they are less effective at reducing living costs. Such observers argue that it is more expensive to construct large, tall apartment buildings and other living spaces inside a city than it is to build single-family homes in the suburbs.
Notwithstanding the steep costs associated with “building up” in cities, there are still reasons why urban planners often choose to build up rather than build out. Geographical obstacles such as mountains, bays, lakes, and streams create no other option in many cities, with San Francisco and Denver serving as prime examples.
The suburbs can offer cheaper housing costs, the opportunity to own a larger home, a higher standard of living, and lower taxes; however, it is necessary that we begin to weigh the sustainability of our nation against these superficial desires.
Suburban sprawl took off in the 1950s following World War II and over the ensuing decades, and Americans readily accepted their new suburban lives. Major residential areas epitomized by the Levittown prototype became the symbol of the good life for many middleclass Americans, the validating mark of the American Dream. Architectural innovations and larger housing tracts expanded the average single family home size more than two-fold from 1950 to 1970, and nearly three-fold by 2015.
Unfortunately, there was another side to the story. The complications that arise from low density suburban developments are numerous. Suburban sprawl is accompanied by inefficiency, dependency, and environmental decay. With longer commutes to work from distant suburbs, sprawlers are forced into a heavy dependency upon personal, gas-guzzling vehicles (not to mention the time consumed by traffic delays). Moreover, as more and more people demand suburban land, massive deforestation ensues, habitats are degraded, and biodiversity is lost. While many people move to suburban areas to be near green spaces, they, in the process, destroy massive amounts of it.
These forests and natural green spaces play crucial roles in mitigating the colossal amounts of air pollution that humans produce. With climate change being what I and a largely increasing number of scientists and other esteemed scholars believe to be the existential crisis of our generation, there is absolutely no excuse to continue destroying natural carbon sinks for human pleasure.
Another irony lies in the fact that the forests which humans cut down provide the quintessential building material: wood. Over 90% of American homes are built with wood products. Also, forests play a crucial role in preventing natural disasters, acting as watershed protection and preventing soil erosion.
Urban sprawl exacerbates the environmental crisis we face by reducing the ecosystem that we rely on. It is important to note, however, that rural areas are far from environmentally pristine and will require advanced sustainable restructuring as well. Despite the large amounts of energy and material that cities consume, there does tend to be a dramatic increase in the efficiency of energy distribution. In cities, there is a more robust use of public transportation, as well as more walking, bicycling, and other fuel-efficient modes of travel. On top of this, the more condensed, efficient living spaces that are characteristic of cities are key ingredients of sustainability.
There are four features of cities that have remained consistent from the first ancient urban settlements to the current day: mobilization of labor, centralization of decision-making, innovation, and the birth of new social and cultural advances. Urban areas allow for the creation of agglomeration economies, which lead to high efficiency. All of these characteristics are additional reasons that favor cities and make them extremely useful in mitigating the human ecological footprint.
The exigency of the city versus suburb issue is one that continues to require study and attention. This is especially so given the exponential growth of Earth’s human population, and the concomitant increase in demand for scarce resources. All in all, it is my conclusion that the pros of urbanism far outweigh the advantages offered by suburban sprawl. Human sustainability is an ever-important topic that calls for effective cooperation and collaboration. Human efficiency offers the prospect that human populations and cultures can evolve in the most positive ways possible, and the city landscape has always fostered the maximum of human efficiency.
For all the effectiveness Americans have experienced in creating affordable housing amidst suburban sprawl and for all the difficulty associated with creating affordable housing by other means, our current circumstances and our future prospects both suggest a serious need for regulation and moderation.
It is this perspective that I ask you to consider when the time comes for you to enter the real estate market. Thoughtful consideration of how your own individual actions can directly impact our environment, our future, and the future of our children, ends up making a big difference. It all adds up.