why we are doomed

Jeff Speck has a simple prescription for slowing global warming: move to the cities and walk a lot more.

Speck’s article presents some compelling arguments against the idea that we can significantly reduce our carbon emissions by buying better technology:

When we built our new house in Washington… we put in bamboo floors, radiant heating, double-thick insulation, dual-flush toilets, a solar water heater, and a 12-panel, 2.5 kilowatt solar photovoltaic system. A pine log crackling in our high-tech wood-burning stove supposedly contributes less pollution to the atmosphere than if it were left to decompose in the forest.

Yet all these gadgets cumulatively contribute only a fraction of what we save by living in a walkable neighborhood. It turns out that trading all of your incandescent lightbulbs for energy savers conserves as much carbon per year as living in a walkable neighborhood does each week.

Speck is also pretty dismissive of hybrid and electric cars, explaining that they are by no means carbon-free, and that people often make up the difference by driving more than they would have with a conventional car. (Why that should be true, I don’t know — are Nissan Leaf drivers so thrilled by their fuel economy that they just take off from work and drive around in the middle of the afternoon, shouting “I’m electric, chumps!!!” at passersby? Answer: probably.)

The solution, he argues, is for everything to become much more dense:

Back in 1991, the Sierra Club’s John Holtzclaw studied travel habits in 28 California communities of widely varying residential density. He found, as expected, an inverse relationship between urbanity and driving miles….

[I]ncreasing density from two units per acre to 20 units per acre resulted in about the same savings as the increase from 20 to 200. To students of urban form, these outcomes are not that surprising because 10 to 20 units per acre is the density at which drivable suburbanism transitions into walkable urbanism…. [M]ost communities with these densities are also organized as traditional mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly neighborhoods, the sort of accommodating environment that entices people out of their cars.

Maybe. But I live in one of those neighborhoods — my street is lined with endless stretches of low-rise apartment buildings, and it’s “walkable.” There are sidewalks, and without too much effort you can reach a public park, a gas station, a McDonald’s a KFC, a supermarket, a drug store, and a Korean barbecue joint. If you’re a sturdy walker, you can get over the bridge to the Trader Joe’s or down to the Fatburger on Venice Boulevard. In theory, it’s perfect.

I hate it.

I don’t like living with other people. I don’t like their noise in the middle of the night. I don’t like having to worry about my own noise. I don’t like the weird smell that wafts in through our window every night at 7 o’clock — apparently the vent-steam of some fellow resident’s illegal dryer. I don’t like the uncertain rules of toy-sharing on the public playground. I don’t like driving in traffic. I don’t like the thousands of tiny little social interactions with strangers that urban living requires of you every day.

I don’t like that I don’t have a garage, or a yard, or anywhere else that I could use power tools or have a barbecue grill or put up a hammock or raise chickens. Our complex, which is very nice and modern and trying really hard, has little vegetable plots. They’re as good as it gets in this kind of environment. But the complex is also going to come through and “spray for weeds” in a few days, and anyway, how many vegetables can you really get out of a three-foot-by-three-foot plot?

Speck notes that this sentiment is characteristically American:

[T]he environmental movement in the United States has historically been anti-city, as has so much American thought. This strain traces its roots back to Thomas Jefferson, who described large cities as “pestilential to the morals, the health and the liberties of man.”

Chalk up another one for T.J. Anyway,

The desire to be isolated in nature, adopted en masse, led to the quantities and qualities we now call “sprawl,” which somehow mostly manages to combine the traffic congestion of the city with the intellectual culture of the countryside…. [But] the economist Ed Glaeser, who puts it this way: “We are a destructive species, and if you love nature, stay away from it. The best means of protecting the environment is to live in the heart of a city.”

Yes. Live in a cramped urban shithole, my friends, secure in the knowledge that somewhere out there, a beautiful wilderness exists, full of forested vistas and rolling hills and wildlife of every kind. All of which you will never see, except in brief glimpses on a handful of vacations. But hey — you’ve got sidewalks and liquor stores. That’s the same thing, right?

If Speck’s vision of “walkable” cities included, say, pleasant small cities like Burlington, VT, I might be down. But if what will save us is claustrophobic megalopolises… I’m out. I just can’t do it. Cities, to me, stand for high cost of living, a daily grind of petty aggravation, and the absolute loss of all the things that enable a human being to regain composure, like solitude, quiet, and a varied natural landscape. I’ve lived in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and Chicago, and I’ve spent a fair amount of time visiting D.C. and New York. If that’s the future — or if, indeed, the future needs to be something ten times as crammed, like Sao Paulo or Tokyo — then maybe I’m not cut out for the future.


Speck lauds Manhattan as America’s most sustainable city, but insists we can do better:

Sure, New York consumes half the gasoline of Atlanta (326 versus 782 gallons per person per year). But Toronto cuts that number in half, as does Sydney — and most European cities use only half as much as those places. Cut Europe’s number in half, and you end up with Hong Kong.

I’ll bet you do. But who wants to live in Hong Kong?

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3 Responses to why we are doomed

  1. Janiece says:

    I live in the worst of both worlds – the suburbs. At the time the decision needed to be made it was the right one for us, but getting the twins into the best school district in the state also meant we had to drive everywhere and still deal with nosy neighbors and HOAs.

    I’ve worked from home for many years now so my weekly miles are pretty low, but we’re not sure where we’ll end up when it’s time to downsize. All of the choices are kind of sucky, from one point of view or another.

  2. Eric says:

    First, it makes a kind of weird counterintuitive sense that hybrids might not help the environment for some of the same reasons diet sodas and reduced-calorie foods don’t really work for weight loss. Unfortunately.

    Second, let me be the first to say mileage varies, and that I love my downtown neighborhood a block from coffee shops, restaurants, galleries and cool stores. Not that it helps the environment much: I have a sixty-mile-a-day round trip commute, alas. Though if I could hop onto light rail to get to and from work, I’d happily park the car and get more reading done.

    We’ll supposedly have a light-rail line that will run from downtown out to UNCC, with a stop within walking distance of our home. (Although, sadly, by the time it actually gets built, the SigOther and I might be ready to look for a house–though one most likely still in the city.) It won’t get me to and from work, but it will mean we can go downtown to museums, restaurants and parks uptown without having to drive and park; and the light rail already runs to south Charlotte, so we’d be able to hit the places down on South Boulevard without needing to drive. Anyway, it’ll all be wonderful and I’ll love it. And if the SO and I do end up looking for a house, I think we’re agreed we’d like some more urban living, and being a walk away from coolness.

    No, no chicken-rearing for me. But, gods know, I wouldn’t know the first thing about raising chickens.

    Two more things about this. First, that I certainly think small towns are potentially an option, though many of them in the South are really just part of our sprawl problems; still, a lot of college towns have the local transit and the walking distances, and everything in a reasonable range. Second, that I don’t know that megalopolises have to be dystopian Gibsonian nightmares; urban planning is getting a helluva lot better, and I expect we’ll see large cities doing increasingly good jobs of creating green spaces within the context of high population density.

    Oh, and a third (or sixth) thing: Atlanta may be hell on Earth, but I adore Washington, DC. And I positively envy my sister’s location in Brooklyn, with all of those awesome ethnic restaurants and coffee shops and grocery stores and a big park in a close radius, and subway stops every couple of blocks so you can go anywhere at any time, and there’s music and art and awesomeness a few minutes away from anywhere at anytime.

    Oh, wait, that brings up a nineteenth item, or goes back to the first: there are things about living outside the city I’d like. The absence of light pollution, for instance. But ultimately, what I like more is civilization in the broad sense of it. People creating things. Things you can listen to, things you can look at, things you can eat. As much as I might sometimes see a rural cabin and think it would be a nice place to sit on the porch and do some thinking, some writing, with a dog under your feet and a glass of bourbon in your hand, I think it would drive me crazy to be somewhere no band ever came to or the only restaurant was a seventy-year-old BBQ joint (however good the Q) and maybe an obligatory TGIFriday’s. I live somewhere where, a couple of months ago, the SO and I could walk a couple of blocks and see Lindsay Buckingham rock out on a small stage–I could never trade that down, only up (in Brooklyn, my sister gets to see David Byrne play free shows at the park and for all I know possibly walking his dog or something).

  3. thehandsomecamel says:

    Good light rail/rapid transit certainly ameliorates a lot of the hassle. L.A. recently opened a much-needed east-west line that finally created a small amount of RT coverage west of Hollywood. (Of course, the assholes in Beverly Hills are fighting tooth and nail to keep it from expanding through their — and I use this word loosely — “community”.) We now semi-frequently take the train down to the museums near USC. And I frequently ride the Santa Monica buses to school — they’re clean and they’re quick. All that helps a lot.

    I think some of what you’re saying explains the suburbs. People want to be close to culture and restaurants and the grand human project, but they ALSO want a garden and some peace and quiet. What they get, per Janiece above, is often a kind of grim neither-nor. But I understand, I think, what people are looking for when they make that compromise. But I think, for myself, the quiet cabin in the hills sounds better and better. (You know — as long as there’s internet.)

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