Have you ever wondered which is more sustainable, suburban or city living?
For those living in Metro Detroit – a place that necessitates driving just about everywhere, all the time – it seems almost intuitive that city living would be more sustainable. After all, reducing or eliminating the use of an automobile would have a significant impact on one’s environmental footprint. As it turns out, city dwellers, on a per capita basis, have a much lower environmental impact. This is primarily because city dwellers do not rely as much on automobiles for transportation and they live in higher density housing, which demands less energy than a single-family home.
When it comes to sustainable living and the necessities of modern, human existence, the picture becomes a bit more nuanced. Because first world folks rely on a complex, global supply chain, all of the stuff city dwellers consume must be factored into their environmental footprint. This includes the food they eat, the materials necessary to build their dwellings, and all of the stuff they order on Amazon. Sustainable living is not just about environmental impacts, it includes social and economic factors as well.
Yet, when the burgeoning population of the planet is taken into account, one overwhelming conclusion is clear: Living closer together, in high density buildings is essential to our becoming sustainable. In his book, A Country of Cities, author Vishaan Chakrabarti lines out his “manifesto” for a sustainable future, and it’s predicated on high-density living. Again, this is a notion that ought to be intuitive. If we live close together and are within walking distance of what we need to live (e.g., food, clothing, the arts, etc.), then we’d greatly reduce CO2 output. The other thing that will likely happen is we’ll get to know our neighbors, and eventually come to the realization that we are truly “all in this together.” Before we get to this point, however, we’ll need to work through a mountain of social and economic justice issues. The good news is that we have the wisdom of the ancients to guide us, “The journey of one-thousand miles begins with a single step.” The way we live today is the result of decisions made many years ago, and contrary to what many may argue, our present lifestyle is not the result of “natural” forces, but rather something else.
The trends that led to suburbanization – which led to more cars, more tires, more houses spread all over, more lawn mowers, more nitrate fertilizer, and more stuff in general – are the result of worldviews and frameworks we chose. As Chakrabarti writes, these trends began “in the 1920’s, gained momentum after World War II and reached their apex in the 1970’s…” The author goes on, “The suburbs, therefore, are not a mere reflection of the way people want to live, or even a reflection of true market forces, but a synthetic consequence of history. The suburbs are largely a creation of ‘big government’, an explicit policy-driven, subsidized scheme that has guided how we live, work and play.” The notion of big government must be seen as a sort of collusion between elected officials and those who control capital flows. Ultimately, money affords the capacity to manipulate the demos, not only in the halls of the Capitol but through mass media. One cannot overlook the fact that more stuff equates to more jobs, and most importantly, to the flow of money into the pockets of those who occupy mahogany-lined offices with addresses on Madison Ave.
We can indeed change, and this change starts, not in Washington, but right here in Detroit and the region. This change also implies dealing with what’s possible, setting goals and working toward these goals. To get a sense of what’s possible, it’s worth looking at what Chakrabarti posits as high-density living and what this could mean for the region.
To begin, we must accept that people will need to move around, and rather than driving gas-guzzling SUVs, or millions of EVs, they’ll need mass transit. Remember, making cars necessitates steel, and having someplace to drive these cars necessitates roads made of concrete. Steel and concrete manufacturing are two of the most carbon-intensive processes known. If we believe continuing to build cars and making concrete roads on which to drive them is sustainable, we need to think again.
According to Chakrabarti, the minimum density to support effective mass transit is 30 dwelling units per acre. To get a sense of what this looks like, Chakrabarti indicates that more than 60% of US housing is at a density of one dwelling unit per acre. This is obscene. To put this in perspective, Detroit Future City’s report, “139 Square Miles”, indicates the majority of block groups in the City of Chicago have a dwelling unit density of between 5 to 15 units per acre. This may seem hard to envision, so to give it some perspective, high rises are in the 100 to 150 units per acre range. Brownstones, those buildings with two or three floors that are built next to each other with a backyard, are in the 30 dwelling unit per acre range. So, it’s fair that living an urban lifestyle doesn’t mean living in cramped quarters. It’s rather attractive, especially if you like the idea of walking to restaurants and shops.
To give a sense of what a 30-dwelling unit per acre density looks like in terms of population density, we’ll use Detroit Future City’s estimate of Detroit’s geographic size, which is 139 square miles. At 640 acres per square mile, this means the City of Detroit occupies roughly 89,000 acres. To give the estimate a bit more relevance, we’ll assume 15% of the acreage goes for things other than dwelling space; this means we’re left with roughly 75,000 acres. At a density of 30 dwelling units per acre, this gives 2.25MM dwelling units. The US census indicates we’re at roughly 2.6 persons per dwelling unit, which means there’s enough room in the City of Detroit to house, in relative comfort, 5.9MM people, which is more than the entire population of the eight-county region of Southeast Michigan, or roughly 4.7MM people.
Does this mean everyone living in Southeast Michigan must move to Detroit for us to be sustainable? No, it does not. But it does mean we need to start thinking a whole lot differently about how we go about becoming sustainable, and if we don’t take into account how utterly unsustainable our present lifestyles happen to be, we’ll miss the boat. As Chris Cornell once said, “Time is wasting.”