OP-ED: TO COMBAT CLIMATE CHANGE, AMERICA MUST CHANGE HOW IT PLANS DEVELOPMENT
by WILLIAM DASHE (United States)
Issue 1.2 September 2019
For my entire life, I've lived in the suburbs; more than long enough to learn that they are patently boring. However, after spending countless hours sitting in traffic, counting the number of rooms in my house that go perpetually unused, and performing my own research, I've come to acknowledge that the car reliance, energy utilization, and mindless consumption associated with the suburban lifestyle contribute greatly to climate change. In order to turn the tide on climate change and preserve our nature and wildlife, America must change how it plans development.
Suburban living is a great, untested experiment. While this style of living and developing has existed for less than a century, here in the United States, development has expanded rapidly at a low density across large geographic areas. Natural habitats are the first and most obvious victim here: as areas sprawl across the land, nature is destroyed, and forests and farmland become highways and parking lots. But perhaps an even worse impact is the lifestyle that the suburbs make widely available and accessible. For example, individuals can purchase larger homes on larger lots, at prices lower than what they would encounter in the cities. While this might seem good in theory, we can witness numerous negative impacts. In addition to the simple occupation of more space by individual persons, energy use rises due to the larger size of homes. Furthermore, such suburban sprawl contributes to an overwhelming car culture: the US has one of the world’s largest number of cars per capita, at 833 cars per 1000 individuals. Essentially,the sprawl of suburban living has resulted in less space for wildlife, fewer trees to absorb atmospheric greenhouse gases, and widespread access to a lifestyle that is marked by more energy use, more car use, and in turn, more greenhouse gas emissions.
However, under the ideas of Smart Growth, cities and towns are planned in a manner that shifts away from the failed experiment in suburban living, and instead constructs housing and development at a higher density. Smart Growth means utilizing the resources we have in a more efficient manner that benefits both humans and the environment. Through creating a higher density, people living in society have more options to walk, bike, or use public transportation to get around, preserving air and water quality while simultaneously encouraging humans to have more active lifestyles. Secondly, in constructing and incentivizing more public transportation, not only are these greener options expanded, but research shows the sheer presence of public transport increases high density development surrounding it. When humans populations are more concentrated and communities are quite literally brought closer together, energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions are lowered, and more nature is preserved.
There are numerous methods by which governments, from national to local levels, can implement Smart Growth policies. First, laws can mandate that streets treat pedestrians and bicyclists as fairly as they treat cars, which will encourage people to utilize these greener alternatives to the overwhelming American car culture. Secondly, investments can be made in public transport, to move people more safely while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
The growth of American suburbia has relied on subsidies on fossil fuels and homes themselves. To address this, government on all levels can eliminate subsidies that promote the current unsustainable style of development. It is well documented that the cost of services provided to many areas of suburban sprawl are not covered by the taxes paid by populations in those same areas. This means that many suburban homeowners are subsidized by taxpayers at large through subsidies that support the construction and ownership of such homes. Furthermore, if subsidies on fossil fuels were eliminated, the artificially low cost of the energy use associated with suburbia might reflect more realistic costs. If the cost of living in suburbia reflected the true cost of services and environmental problems resulting from greenhouse gas emissions, more people would choose greener lifestyles.
Our experiment in subsidized suburban living has created the most suburban nation on the planet, marked by unsustainable energy usage, car culture, and deforestation. But, through implementing policies and practices in line with the ideals of Smart Growth, communities with higher density development, numerous transportation options, and preserved green space can become a reality. For the sake of our environment, it is imperative that Americans recognize the negative consequences of the suburban lifestyle and call for Smart Growth as the guide for our development.
William Dashe is from the Boston, Massachusetts, area and he is a first year student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. He enjoys painting, travel, dogs, and learning new things.