Here's How Urban Squalor Will Save the Environment

Editor's note: This story is part of PolicyMic's Millennials Take On Climate Change series this week.

I have a problem with people who love nature.

Okay, not really — I like hiking and canoeing and clean air just as much as the next person. But at the tail end of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, one of the most perceptive books on how cities operate ever written, the urbanist Jane Jacobs had this to say:

“It is no accident that we Americans, probably the world’s champion sentimentalizers about nature, are at one and the same time probably the world’s most voracious and disrespectful destroyers of wild and rural countryside.”

For the past 60 years, our country has engaged in a mass experiment, subsidized by the government and goaded on by a massive lobbying outfit, to convince people that they can have all the convenience and cultural benefits of cities while enjoying the tranquility of nature. The result — suburban sprawl — is an insult to the values and lifestyles of urban and rural dwellers alike. Its social consequences have been bad, and its environmental consequences have been even worse. Any large-scale effort to combat climate change must put suburbia firmly in its crosshairs.

Not everyone in the environmental movement wants to hear this. Cities have a reputation for being dirty, grimy, and polluted, probably because some of them are. (Yes, Manhattan in July garbage smell, I’m talking about you.) The founders of some of the most venerable environmentalist organizations, like the Sierra Club, saw urban living as inherently unhealthy and sinful. Even today, environmentalism is often thought of as a desire to block development, not encourage it.

But the statistics on per capita energy use tell us all we need to know about who’s actually polluting the most, though said statistics vary depending on whether we use cities proper or metro areas a whole. This WNYC report demonstrates that New Yorkers use one-third the national energy average. The city’s website claims the average New Yorker uses less than half energy of the average San Franciscan, and one-quarter that of a Dallasite.

There are two major reasons why this is the case: high-density living, and a high rate of mass transit use.

The good news is that New York does not have a monopoly on dense living arrangements and mass transit. This model works well in other cities too, sometimes because those cities were built before cars and remain relatively compact, and other times because city governments were especially forward-thinking in their urban planning laws. The bad news is that this model is still not nearly widespread enough. The estimated cost of owning a car is approximately $9000 per year according to AAA, but cities where a car-free lifestyle is feasible are few and far between … and very, very expensive.

After 60 years of nonstop incentives to move to the suburbs, millennials are taking a leading role in changing the way we plan our cities.

Washington, D.C. is a prime example of a city that has embraced its urbanity in the last 15 years, adding retail, restaurants, and transit options for the people who live there, not just commuters from Maryland and Virginia. The city is rewriting its zoning code for the first time since 1958.

One of the most contentious battles has been over parking minimums. D.C.’s current zoning code requires most new developments in the District to be constructed with a certain number of minimum parking spots, something that drives up the cost for developers and encourages driving in a city that already has some of the worst traffic in the U.S. It looked like the city was about to scrap these requirements around high-density corridors close to transit stops, but at the last minute the city’s Office of Planning caved and only agreed to remove the parking minimums for the city’s highest-density downtown neighborhoods.

What happened in D.C. this summer epitomizes what’s been going on in the U.S. for a century, but especially since World War II — systematic government intervention on behalf of suburbanites and against urban dwellers.

We see it in the use of parking minimums. We see it in the Home Mortgage Interest Deduction, which provides larger tax breaks for wealthier families and treats home ownership as if it’s inherently virtuous, rather than one living choice out of many. We see it in zoning codes that force separation of residential and commercial uses, when the obvious truth is that mixed-use neighborhoods are by far the most dynamic areas of any city. We see it in the highway and auto lobby’s insatiable appetite for more money and more pavement, despite the fact that more highways don’t curb traffic. And we see it in rural and suburban lawmakers’ demands that mass-transit systems turn a profit, despite the fact that (as this National Journal piece notes) no transit system is profitable when we take subsidies into account.

Millennials have seen the damage that mass suburbanization has done, and many are ready to change it. Plenty of people don’t like living in cities and never will. That’s perfectly fine. No one lifestyle is right for everyone. But suburban sprawl is one area in which urban and rural dwellers have more in common than they realize. Sprawl hurts rural dwellers by gobbling up open land and harming delicate ecosystems, turning actual nature into a cheap imitation, and it hurts urbanites by surrounding cities with a population of free riders who can take advantage of the educational, economic, and human-capital benefits that cities provide without having to contribute to the tax base or upkeep of the city itself.

Cities have an intrinsic economic appeal for young people who can take advantage of the economies of scale that urban areas provide in addition to getting around for relatively little money. The question is whether we’re in it for the long haul.

While it’s too early to tell for sure, signs in the aftermath of the Great Recession point to a generational shift towards smaller living spaces, more walkable and transit-oriented neighborhoods, and neighborhoods with a greater integration of commercial and residential uses. It’s up to us to push against the tide of the last 60 years. It's up to us to get involved on a local level, telling our local and state governments to build bike lanes and transit lines, update and expand our cities’ housing stock, and allow us to live the lifestyle we choose — not the one that realtors and the AAA have chosen for us.


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