Addressing the Sub/Urban Divide

The following post is part of Blog Action Day 2007, in which more than 15,000 bloggers around the world are posting about the environmental challenges that we face today as a society. For more info, follow the link at the end of the post.


These days, cities and suburbs are locked in a seemingly intractable struggle. Cities are understood to be the dense urban cores bustling with pedestrians and laced with mass transit lines, while suburbs are viewed as the stomping grounds of the wicked and immoral Sprawl Monster that devours land at alarming rates and drives up demand for auto traffic and freeway construction, adding untold millions of tons of carbon into the air and accelerating global warming. It's a typical Western dichotomy: dark vs. light; right vs. left; good vs evil.

What often gets brushed aside as a result of this oversimplification is the fact that urbanity has little to do -- especially in the United States -- with political boundaries. The average densities of American cities and suburbs are almost the same. In fact, if you look at the 43 American municipalities with a density above 10,000 people per square mile, only six of them -- New York, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, and Miami -- are the central cities in their metropolitan areas. (That number rises to eight if you include Trenton and Newark, both in New Jersey, whose smaller metros are usually absorbed into the CSAs of Philadelphia and New York). Granted, some of the suburbs that reach this density are far more auto-centric than some of the less densely populated central cities, but the point here is that questions urbanity cannot be boiled down into easy, diametrically opposed sides. Density, sprawl, city, suburb -- all of these things are involved in the equation, but they don't always line up as neatly as we might hope.

It is often said nowadays that cities produce the majority of carbon emissions (roughly 80%) and therefore these areas must be the solution to the problem. This is entirely true, but we have to realize that "city" in this instance refers not to central urban areas, but entire metropolitan regions. One of the greatest challenges that US cities face, then, is how to undo the damage that poor land use policies and auto-dependancy have done to our suburbs. Many of the suburbs in the 10K+ density range are older places that were established before or during the early years of the automobile age: Paterson and Jersey City across the Hudson from New York; Somerville and Cambridge across the Charles from Boston; Cicero and Berwyn on the western edge of Chicago. These suburbs often have their own commercial areas, neighborhood shops and restaurants, and immigrant communities priced out of central cities. They are densely populated and often less reliant on cars than postwar suburbs. Many are connected to transit systems. In short, these suburbs are very urban places.

In the same stroke, some very large cities can be very sparsely populated places. San Jose, the center of Silicon Valley, is half as dense as Lakewood, Ohio, an historic streetcar suburb of Cleveland. Alexandria, Virginia, a suburb of Washington, DC, is twice as dense as Las Vegas. And how about this one: the most densely populated municipality in the US, Union City, New Jersey, has a population density 54.5 times higher than that of Jacksonville, Florida, one of the country's largest cities.

Numbers and boundaries have never been very good ways of defining places. They're too clinical, and they often substitute statistics for the human element. This has led to a critical misunderstanding on the part of the general public in the US of terminology pertaining to the built environment. As a result, people here are having a lot of trouble figuring out how cities should address climate change. There is a consensus that something must be done, but people can't seem to agree on what that might look like. City-dwellers pat themselves on the back and blame climate change on amorphous "sprawl," anti-urbanists twist stats to try to turn the tables on urbanists who are ill-equipped to deal with public perception, and suburbanites guard their turf rather fiercely, fearing that "density" will translate to more hellish commutes and the loss of "local character" that often doesn't exist in the first place. As a result the US plods along slowly toward a drastic change in the coastline with no solution in sight.

There is a near-total lack of vision in how we deal with urbanization and development in this country. However, this is starting to change. Hopefully, a rather damning trifecta of recent reports will give urban planners and civic leaders the tools they need to redirect the conversation.

First, it was revealed by the New York City Department of Health that New Yorkers lived, on average, nine months longer than the average American -- a fact linked to New Yorkers' more active lifestyles and the city's dense, walkable streetscape. Next came a report from Smart Growth America with the claim that "the projected 59 percent increase in the total miles driven between 2005 and 2030 will overwhelm expected gains from vehicle efficiency and low-carbon fuels." Finally, the American Public Transportation Association announced that "when compared to other household actions that limit carbon dioxide (CO2), taking public transportation can be more than ten times [more effective] in reducing this greenhouse gas." It was a three-strike, rapid-fire attack on auto-centric development patterns. The message was made very clear: if we want to seriously address climate change in the United States, we must walk more, improve our public transit infrastructure, and drive much less often. All of this is reliant upon the existence of one thing: an urban environment.

At some point it must be acknowledged by a majority of Americans that if we want to change the way we impact our climate, we have to change the ways that we build and live. Making the switch from regular light bulbs to CFLs is all well and good. But understanding the way that land use and transportation actually work, and accepting the fact that we must be more responsible in these areas, is critical to finding a real solution. If the public is to come to this better understanding, recognizing and explaining the difference between straight statistics (city/suburb, density/sprawl) and genuine urbanity should be the first items on the urban agenda.

(Photos from Flickr users jimheid and mirkob. The first shows Cambridge, MA, rising across the river from Boston's Back Bay neighborhood; the second is an image of Jacksonville, FL's hollowed-out core and the sparsely populated surrounding neighborhoods.)

Blog Action Day

US Municipalities Over 50,000:
Ranked by 2000 Density (Demographia)

Why New Yorkers Las Longer (NY Magazine) (via All About Cities)

Less Auto-Dependent Development Is Key to Mitigating Climate Change, Research Team Concludes (Smart Growth America)

Taking Transit: The Most Effective Route to Cutting Carbon (WorldChanging.com)


Wendy Waters said...

You're absolutely right. Unfortunately, I don't see too many people lining up to embrace a low-emission lifestyle -- especially in the United States.

Even Al Gore lives in a 10,000 square foot ex-urban house. Even if he buys "renewable" energy and drives a Prius, his abode still represents a lifestyle that is unsustainable.

Brendan said...

True, but one of the great truths of capitalism that, while demand influences supply, it is advertising that influences demand. As a movement, urbanism doesn't really do any traditional commercial advertising, but urbanists, architects, and planners are all involved in shaping the public's perception of the built environment; it's a different way of doing the same thing. And as long as people keep framing cities and density in relation to the suburbs (Suburbs are BAD) as opposed to framing them as good and desirable things in their own right (Density is FUN), it's going to remain a very steep uphill battle.

Focus on the upsides of what you're trying to promote instead of the downfalls of the competition. If what you are promoting is truly superior (as I believe that cities are, in this case), eventually your message will be heard.