Easy enough, right?
But changing the living arrangements of tens of millions of Americans who have been living on stagnant wages isn’t as easy as simply changing their tastes in geography. Sure, cities are getting more and more desirable for young, creative Americans, but how many can afford to stay in the city when they start a family and need to move out of their closet-sized studio? And can you blame the couple that wants their own, personal patch of green without having to wake up the sound of garbage trucks and revelers at 4 AM?
The suburbs, more and more, resemble that escape hatch from the pressures of city life. (My temporary move from Brooklyn to Newport Beach has caused a crisis of conscience. I’m almost anxious thinking about how much easier everything is here compared to NY.) It’s the easy way out. Walking 5 blocks to the dirty, either freezing or boiling subway to wait for a train and get to the crowded and overpriced grocery store, or hop in your car, drive five minutes, and not have to carry your groceries more than 60 collective feet. Yes, there are days when I wish for the suburbs—I can hear the collective groan of my hardened urbanist friends now.
But more often than not, we here at Radials understand the severe inefficiencies and inequalities that the suburbs breed, from economic to environmental to demographic. They can’t be unbuilt though, so here’s a list of what of current problems and potential fixes that our low-density dwellers can drive in the near-future:
1. Energy and Resource Use
Vertical living relatively easy on the earth: hot water is typically communal cutting out the need for individual tanks for every 3 or 4 people, electricity distribution is concentrated as is potable water infrastructure and heating, and smaller abodes typically mean less intense energy use. You’re also squeezing more people into less space allowing goods and services to be more efficiently parceled out—you’d be surprised how much those fleets of mail and garbage trucks affect the environment through their collective emissions when they have to go house to house instead of building to building.
Most of the efficiencies that can squeezed out of the suburbs are in transportation-related improvements (much more on that later) but there is still ground to be broken on immobile energy technology. Solar water heaters have been installed on top of 30 million households in China and the technology has gotten to the point where the panels operate under less than heliophilic conditions. District heating, where temperatures for thousands of homes can be regulated by a single, centralized plant, has been embraced by countries in Europe and Asia and plants are increasingly turning away from fossil fuels in favor of alternative energy. The best part: neither technology is density dependent. You can have your yard and trimmed hedges and nosy neighbors and still heat your house and your showers without the inconvenient plume of carbon dioxide.
(Note: I am not addressing alternative electricity sources for the suburbs here on purpose. There are quite a few choices out there on the market but none of them have been terribly successful and are almost universally price out anyone outside the top quintile of income brackets unless you’re an enterprising electrician with some spare solar cells lying around. As reductive as this sounds, the market will (with some help from choice subsidies) end up dictating the next step in residential energy production after fossil fuel production becomes either exorbitantly expensive or morally unsavory. The question is more about time horizons than innovation at this point.)
2. Environmental Degradation Due to Development
There’s an amazing amount of resources that go into building detached houses individually, but even more disturbing is the volume of destruction that developers produce when they build clusters of tract housing. If you’ve ever traveled through the American west (Arizona and California especially; Las Vegas for true suburban dystopia) you’ll have seen the razed acres dotted with Version 1, Version 2, Version 3, etc. of a given set of prefabricated houses connected by curving asphalt and cursory greenways and bordered by a shoddy brick barrier or, in a nod to Czarist Russia, wrought iron gates.
Suburban development harms the environment for a pretty simple reason: they’re new. New buildings, even if they’re built out of recycled pizza by a hemp clad all-vegan construction crew and go LEED triple platinum, still leave a foundation-sized footprint and, as the well worn theory goes, used always trumps new when it comes to the environment. Those negative impacts are magnified when firms decide to build sub-developments in geographies that are, outside of millions of dollars in resource infrastructure, generally uninhabitable. Thousands of people were never meant to live in the Nevada of Arizona desert, so why are we building sprawling ranch houses with lush green lawns outside of Las Vegas and Tucson? Well, because we keep buying them.
Once again the secret to improving the environment is in the economy. When you buy a house in the ‘burbs, you are buying a final realization, a product of brick and mortar and sweat and engineering without having to pay for the externalities associated with the your home—the miles of pipe sucking water from an overworked aquifer, the stretch of concrete from your garage to a major onramp, etc. The non-inclusive (and often, non-monetized) costs are called externalities and there has been a decades’ long clamoring to capture these costs correctly in the form of excise taxes. The argument has generally been focused on drivers who have been paying a paltry $0.184 in gas taxes to the Federal government for two decades—even conservative economists say that it doesn’t even begin to capture the true cost of driving.
So what if we actually made developers and surburbanites pay the true cost of that immaculate green rectangle and spare bedroom? It sounds coldly practical but monetizing and penalizing for environmental degradation is among the only ways to actually influence development and consumer actions; if you want to move to the middle of the desert and expect a constant source of freshwater where there just isn’t any, then you (and the firm that built your home) should have to pay for more than just the infrastructure, you should have to pay what it actually costs the environment as a whole.
If there’s one thing about living in suburban California I’ve learned it’s that driving is a necessity. The nearest grocery store is 1.5 miles away, my brother’s school is another 5, and the majority of jobs are between 10 and 50. There’s a bus system on main thoroughfares but, in what seems like a complete slap in the collective face of urban planning and/or simple logic, residences aren’t on any of the main thoroughfares. Getting around in these brands of suburbs is 100% car dependent that even a doubling or tripling of transit infrastructure would still only provide a marginal decrease in the proportion of families needing more than one car. Transportation in the suburbs is not a structural problem, it’s a geographic one.
As we’ve discussed at Radials recently, petroleum prices will ebb and flow with futures traders, Middle East chaos, and general demand. $4 per gallon gas isn’t enough to change driving habits significantly nor is it enough to spur ambitious and ubiquitous pursuit towards alternative methods of propulsion. The general consensus, though, is that oil production will peak and begin a relatively swift decline especially as the economies of India, China, and Brazil step up their demand for light sweet crude and Americans will eventually be looking down the barrel at $10 or $12 gasoline—more than enough to drive major automotive manufacturers towards something other than combustion engines.
We’ve seen what industry titans like Nissan and Chevrolet can do with relatively modest cuts of their R&D budgets, as well as what boutique companies like Tesla and, more recently, Fisker can cut from whole cloth (though both companies have come under scrutiny for favoring form over function, though the form is pretty fantastic) in terms of all electric vehicles and several major builders have experimented with hydrogen-powered vehicles that spout water as their sole byproduct, but these are almost exclusively niche products favored by tony environmentalists and have yet to hit the market as anything more than a gimmick. (The rather large exception being the Toyota Prius which some say is purchased as more a badge of “conspicuous environmentalism” as a good friend puts it than a nod to true stewardship—and of course runs on gasoline. Also, it should be noted that upwardly mobile CAFE standards are not a solution to car emissions since most drivers tend to increase their miles traveled in tandem with their fuel economy.)
Of course, there is the argument that the volume of emissions and waste that goes into actually making a new car from scratch almost negates the effect that any low-or-zero emission car will have over its lifetime. But that theory lacks foresight. If alternative energy vehicles begin to switch market positions with their petrol-powered counterparts then eventually you create a secondary market that is essentially zero-impact and, by proxy, allow communities that are auto-based become saturated with earth friendly cars.
That endgame is down the road, admittedly, but one wonders what auto manufacturers could do if they really put their collective backs into creating more than niche vehicles—if electric cars could be more than a novelty for upperclass environmentalists. Would two car garages be as menacing to the progressive urbanist if they housed a Leaf and a Volt?
We’ve gotten ourselves into a mess when it comes to suburban sprawl but it’s not the type of problem that can be solved through tearing down and building back up. The imprint of the suburbs will last for decades in this country, and people will continue to leave apartment blocks for ranch houses and colonials for reasons of cost and aesthetics and health while simultaneously degrading the environment and straining the country’s infrastructure. Inefficiencies abound but razing the ‘burbs isn’t the answer (as much as many of you want it to be!), changing the culture is a much cleaner alternative.