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> Lifting all the barriers to urban growth in America could raise the country’s GDP by between 6.5% and 13.5%, or by about $1 trillion-2 trillion. It is difficult to think of many other policies that would yield anything like that.

And it would also reduce the real but unaccounted-for environmental and social externalities of our sprawling homogenous suburbs. Someone living in New York has half the energy footprint of the average American. And while the city is pretty segregated, the New York subway is a unique setting of rich and poor people of all races utilizing a public service together.




Yes. Per-capital carbon production is lowest in dense urban environments. Suburbia and low density rural areas are the real carbon pigs on a per-capita basis.

We need to change the wrong headed notion that dense urbanity is somehow bad for the environment. On the contrary, it's how we need to build in order to save the earth.


> We need to change the wrong headed notion that dense urbanity is somehow bad for the environment.

Dense urbanity is bad for the local environment and, particularly, for human health in it. That's the cost of the lower per-capita impact on the global environment that it provides. We need to learn from what works (and what doesn't) in both dense and sparse environments to build lower-global-impact environments that remain high quality environments for human health and quality of life.


> for human health in it.

In the US, life expectancy is higher for people in urban areas than rural areas. Urban areas have less obesity, lower rates of suicide, lower rates of accidental death, higher quality of life for the elderly, and higher rates of healthy exercise.

It's true that some studies have shown higher rates of asthma and allergies in cities, but there are also contradictory studies saying that those things are just identified and treated more aggressively in cities -- because they tend to have much better access to healthcare services.


> We need to change the wrong headed notion that dense urbanity is somehow bad for the environment. On the contrary, it's how we need to build in order to save the earth.

I'd like to see the capital/environmental costs of heavy urban development compared to electric cars in the suburbs and rural areas.

I'll drive a Nissan Leaf ($199/month) if it means I don't have to live in an urban area (I work from home).


I think a lot more goes into making urban life better for the environment than just cars. Off the top of my head I would expect the following to contribute:

Suburban heating and cooling involves larger spaces for less people (houses being bigger in the suburbs),

In an urban environment, there is a lower environmental cost for transportation and processing of food/water/other goods (fewer locations to deliver to).

In an urban environment, I would expect fewer materials are needed to maintain infrastructure (power lines, water pipes, roads, etc). Manufacturing all of these parts involves an environmental cost.

Suburban living currently almost certainly means a big lawn. Traditional green lawns are bad for the environment.

Urban communities can also centralize waste disposal and (I suspect) more easily implement recycling programs.

Finally, don't forget that an electric car is only actually better for the environment if the electricity is produced sustainably (this is mostly not the case in the US). I suspect that electric cars may actually be worse for the environment if powered by most US power plants.


> Suburban heating and cooling involves larger spaces for less people (houses being bigger in the suburbs),

Shouldn't matter as long as your dwelling is properly insulated.

> In an urban environment, there is a lower environmental cost for transportation and processing of food/water/other goods (fewer locations to deliver to).

I concede this point, although moving trucks to cleaner fuels will resolve this.

> In an urban environment, I would expect fewer materials are needed to maintain infrastructure (power lines, water pipes, roads, etc). Manufacturing all of these parts involves an environmental cost.

This is mostly a sunk cost with existing suburban and rural infrastructure.

> Suburban living currently almost certainly means a big lawn. Traditional green lawns are bad for the environment.

No disagreement, although you're not required to have a lawn. You can cover the whole area with rock or a garden (I know several people who do either).

> Urban communities can also centralize waste disposal and (I suspect) more easily implement recycling programs.

My local suburban trash service uses methane from the local landfill to power its vehicles, and in due time will switch to electric vehicles.

> Finally, don't forget that an electric car is only actually better for the environment if the electricity is produced sustainably (this is mostly not the case in the US). I suspect that electric cars may actually be worse for the environment if powered by most US power plants.

This was the point I was most interested in responding to. In all cases, electric vehicles are better than petroleum vehicles, even if powered by fossil fuel generation sources. Its much simpler to maintain emissions controls on one coal plant than 100K cars. Also, your fleet gets "cleaner" as renewables and other clean energies come online, whereas your petroleum-powered vehicles will always burn petrol for the life of the vehicle.


> Shouldn't matter as long as your dwelling is properly insulated.

I realize that neither of us are citing sources, but I'm pretty sure you are wrong about this. I don't want to spend too much more time on this response (I wrote the other bits first). So I'll leave it at that.

> I concede this point, although moving trucks to cleaner fuels will resolve this.

It could mitigate some of this, but definitely not all of it. Resources will still be spent on replacing worn parts or entire trucks in the fleet. Expending resources will always have some negative effect on the environment.

> This is mostly a sunk cost with existing suburban and rural infrastructure.

I said maintenance not construction. Infrastructure decays incredibly quickly. We are constantly replacing and upgrading our infrastructure. Power lines go down in storms. Water pipes get broken as the earth settles. Roads are repaved or rebuilt constantly.

> No disagreement, although you're not required to have a lawn. You can cover the whole area with rock or a garden (I know several people who do either).

Fair enough.

> My local suburban trash service uses methane from the local landfill to power its vehicles, and in due time will switch to electric vehicles.

Ok, but that doesn't mean it wouldn't be easier (cheaper and less resource intensive) to ramp up such services for the same number of people if those people are living at a higher population density.

> This was the point I was most interested in responding to. In all cases, electric vehicles are better than petroleum vehicles, even if powered by fossil fuel generation sources. Its much simpler to maintain emissions controls on one coal plant than 100K cars. Also, your fleet gets "cleaner" as renewables and other clean energies come online, whereas your petroleum-powered vehicles will always burn petrol for the life of the vehicle.

I seem to be thinking about completely different sources of environmental damage from you. My understanding is that 1) the majority of the environmental costs from cars actually comes from new car production, not from fuel consumption. 2) Electricity distribution is inefficient enough that it requires a disproportionately large amount of coal to power a car when compared to the petrol used to drive the car the same distance. 3) Electric car batteries are composed of materials that must be mined, which carries its own environmental costs.

For the record, I didn't downvote you. I don't downvote people just because they disagree with me. I also don't have downvote privileges on this site anyway. I'm enjoying the discussion and I hope that you are too!


You also have to consider transportation of goods/services. It's more energy intensive to get produce to 10,000 suburban residents than 10,00 NYC residents, for obvious reasons. And, don't forget utilities, runoff, water use, and simple pavement.


Someone living in New York has half the energy footprint of the average American

This is absolutely true and some of the daughter comments are missing the point; see Edward Glaeser's The Triumph of the City (http://www.amazon.com/Triumph-City-Greatest-Invention-Health...) for more details, but people in urban environments tend to drive less and drive shorter distances; they're less likely to own cars in general and more likely to take mass transportation or bike; and their overall energy usage for heating and cooling is much lower because they share those costs (and walls) with neighbors.

Everyone has to live somewhere, and every time a five to fifty story building gets blocked in a city, dozens or hundreds of high-energy-cost, detached single-family houses get built in Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, and Atlanta.


I can only find stats on carbon footprints. Somewhat surprisingly, California does very well on this statistic, despite its suburbs: it's just behind New York.

So at least for carbon footprints, those don't necessarily seem to be linked to density.

I couldn't find anything on energy footprint though.


Are you sure you're looking at New York versus California, not New York State versus California? Look up the Berkeley cool climate carbon footprint map. Most of SV is 50-90 metric tons per household per year. Manhattan is 25-40. My parents zip code, in suburban DC is 92. My zip code, in downtown Baltimore is 34. My old zip code in downtown Chicago is 37.

And unlike California, those cities require winter heat and simmer cooling. Manhattanites spend about 1/6 carbon budget on transportation as someone in say San Jose.


Maybe it's because in California you don't need as much heat/conditioning as in other places?

We humans use land extremelly inefficiently, we mostly live in places outside of our temperature optimum despite no longer being busy in agriculture.


The NY Times suggests that inefficient boilers in old buildings could be the culprit [1].

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2007/07/15/realestate/15cov.html


(Coastal) California suburbs and small towns tend to be much denser than suburbs in most of the rest of the country. Most of LA city proper is considered suburban, but it also averages out to something like 8K people/sq mile. Even somewhere more suburban like Anaheim clocks in at 6.6K. Compare that with Dallas (3.6).

I would've expected those density gains to be somewhat more offset by the worse fuel efficiency of sitting in LA traffic, though... but on the other hand, much of the LA area has far lower heating/cooling costs than almost anywhere else in the country.


Kind of interesting, the first link [1] that I found ranked Honolulu, Portland OR, and LA above the Tri-state area (which came in forth), in terms of per-capita carbon footprint.

[1] http://www.brookings.edu/~/media/Research/Files/Reports/2008...


The tri-state area includes a LOT of suburbs. Carbon footprint in NYC proper is far lower.


> So at least for carbon footprints, those don't necessarily seem to be linked to density.

Every study I have seen shows the opposite, that carbon footprints are strongly linked to density and urban-suburban divisions. In 2012, for example, climate researchers at Berkeley put together a map for the entire United States showing average household carbon footprint by zip code [0]. They found that suburban emissions are markedly higher than emissions in their respective central cities almost everywhere, confirming a result that Edward Glaeser and other urban economists had already established [1].

The FAQ [2] for the Berkeley researchers' paper [3] summarizes the headline finding like this:

There is an inverted-U relationship between population density and HCF [household carbon footprint]; HCF increases ... from low to medium population densities, and decreases from medium to high population densities. The turning point is about 3,000 persons per square mile, which is very close to medium population density of all locations, and a little higher than the population density of larger suburbs (which have densities of 2,700 persons per square mile).

In other words, low- and high-density places (rural areas and cities) have low household carbon footprints and middle-density places (suburbs) have high footprints. Controlling for income, the authors found that the inverted U goes away and the relationship becomes more monotonic: population density is negatively correlated with carbon emissions across the spectrum of density levels. The upswing of the inverted U-curve that you see before controlling for income happens because, as American communities are actually arranged, middle-density areas (which are relatively dense suburbs) tend to be wealthy, and emissions are also strongly correlated with consumption; the consumption effect dominates the efficiency gains due to higher densities as you go from rural areas to suburbs, and it's not until you get to city-level densities (and poorer urban populations) that the efficiency gains due to density win out over consumption-driven emissions.

So part of the reason that suburbs have high emissions is that the people who live there are relatively rich, and the richer you are the more stuff you consume. But no matter how rich or poor you are, the study suggests, you will likely have a noticeably lower carbon footprint if you live in a city and pursue a lifestyle typical of your income class there rather than doing the likewise in a suburb.

The authors also found, by the way, that suburban sprawl around the central cities of large metropolises effectively offsets the carbon-efficiency of the dense cities themselves [4]; the larger the central city, the greater the sprawl surrounding it, and the number of inefficient suburban households tends roughly to balance out the carbon efficiency of households in the central city.

0. http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/maps

1. See, e.g., http://www.city-journal.org/2009/19_1_green-cities.html

2. http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu/files/coolclimate/Jones-Kamm... [PDF]

3. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es4034364 [PDF]

4. http://newscenter.berkeley.edu/2014/01/06/suburban-sprawl-ca...


It is also the entire cause of the "gentrification" problem many are so pissed off about. Nobody wants to move into a poor area, they are forced into it because you can't build skyscraper high rises in the good areas.


Woah there nelly.

"Lifting the barriers" to development doesn't mean that a 50 story residential tower will be built in Central Park West. You are the barrier. Lifting them means that as a citizen, you lose control of your surroundings.

So when a big company, say Pfizer, works with the city to raze your neighborhood through an eminent domain process, you're fucked. (http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kelo_v._City_of_New_London)

It doesn't eliminate gentrification, it industrialized the process.


Somewhat OT, but I worked in the building constructed due to that eminent domain process, it was really nice.

Pfizer later sold the whole thing for pennies on the dollar to a defense contractor after pulling out of that town, all that after never actually building on all of the land that was leveled.


I wouldn't call giving free reign to eminent domain "lifting barriers."

I don't think Manhattan is a good example of a place with too restrictive laws. But SF and DC certainly are. In DC for example, you wouldn't see 80 story apartment buildings in Georgetown, but you would see them in Chinatown, NOMA, NavyYard, and other places.

Instead lower middle class black neighborhoods are converting to overpriced condos as fast as house-flippers can do it.


No, they are forced to move to these areas because they want to have a bearable commute. Your solution is to jam everyone into a more confined area.

Another solution is to make commuting from a "long distance" (e.g. 60-120 miles) more bearable. In NYC, for instance, subways could be built to NJ.

Faster trains (low-speed maglevs) could be built like what's being done in China (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_S1,_BCR).

Mountain View to San Francisco is 40 miles. Is there some reason that isn't a 40 minute commute?


The train part itself is 46 minutes if you take a bullet (red columns): http://www.caltrain.com/schedules/weekdaytimetable.html

That would only be your full commute, though, if you were doing deep SoMa to downtown Mountain View.


Yes, this seems to be very successful.

http://www.mercurynews.com/scott-herhold/ci_26809055/herhold...

We need more of this. I don't know where the low-hanging fruit is in mass transit, but a lot more could be done.


The Caltrain electrification project will further speed this trip since electric trains can accelerate and decelerate more rapidly. The full San Jose to SoMa trip should be roughly 16 minutes quicker based on impact studies.


Some 5 to 10% of Caltrains are delayed though, and if that delay happens to be a fatality, expect that train to be really late. (2011)

http://www.caltrain.com/Assets/__Agendas+and+Minutes/JPB/Boa...


Commuter trains have to stop and let people on and off.

Cities like Chicago have long distance commuter trains, but the commutes are still long. You can take a train from the near west side of Chicago to HArvard, IL (where Motorola built a huge campus and then abandoned it) in about an hour and 45 minutes. But it would be a 70 mile drive. But that skips over a bunch of farmland.

Chicago to Cary, IL would like SF to Mountain view. Train ride is 1:15 minutes. But then you need to get from the train stations to each door on both ends. Realistically its more like 1:45 door to door. People do it.

But living in a high rise is much more preferable to me.

I don't get why'd you make an low speed maglev.


> In NYC, for instance, subways could be built to NJ.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PATH_%28rail_system%29


Yes? That's about 100 years old and not part of the NYC subway. It also requires you to leave and pay again on the NYC Subway. It's a great system, and about a 12 minute walk from my apartment, but not what I meant. Not sure where you're going with this?

Anyway, I was thinking more along the lines of extending the 7 to NJ.

http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2015/03/could_the_new_port_...

Enter the train at Secaucus, for example, then be able to go to Grand Central Station. Part of the hassle of mass transit is that if you need to make 3 transfers, and have to wait 10 minutes at each one, your commute gets long fast. Extending the NYC Subway in NJ would have several benefits, including reducing the slow crawl through the Lincoln tunnel, where almost 7000 busses cram in daily.


Sounds like you would have liked the new tunnel that Christie single-handedly killed in 2010

"ARC would have cut passenger transfers by 97 percent and taken an average 23 minutes off each trip, according to the GAO. It also would have been financed at historically low rates."

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-01-06/christie-e...


You can in Manhattan. The tallest residential structure in the U.S. is going up within a few blocks of Central Park.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/432_Park_Avenue


Though its owners may sometimes crash there, it's not really a "residential" structure, per se. The primary purpose it serves is as a sophisticated portfolio diversification instrument -- or (for offshore title holders), a convenient money laundering device:

http://nymag.com/news/features/foreigners-hiding-money-new-y...


But it's already unaffordable for the average NYer before it's even ready. If wealthy foreigners can park their money in manhattan, they will, without living there. That doesn't help scarcity for actual residents.


I don't see why that's an argument against. If they are going to plow their money into a city it's better if it's into 1 or 2 units in a dense skyscraper rather than buying entire mid and low rise buildings. Residential skyscrapers are strictly better at reducing price pressures.


I'd have no problem at all with those billionaire towers but for the nonsensical property tax breaks (421a, J51, etc). Throw in a small non-resident property tax differential and I become an enthusiastic booster.

If a bunch of billionaires want to pay property taxes while using barely any city services that sounds like a win to me. We can use that money to provide better services to the people that do live in the city year round.

In my observation the people who are most bitter about billionaires "buying up Manhattan" are the multimillionaires who want to be on the top of the heap.


Seriously cutting one's energy footprint is not free, it comes with serious cost increases elsewhere. The average American can't afford to live in NYC without curtailing much of what constitutes average living conditions.


A large part of that is that NYC is a world city and one of the globally most desirable places to live.

If other cities were built to similar density, you could have a similar (or even better) energy footprint compared to a New Yorker without the necessity of having to live in NYC itself. Now, there would be a change in lifestyle (fewer people owning cars, more people walking and using transit, fewer people owning detached houses) but most of those benefit quality of life anyway.


Not only that. Suburban has more emissions per person but the city has far more emissions per square foot, meaning air quality is far worse and consequent health problems.


Do any such studies address sequestration (or other suitable term) of emissions? I may produce more emissions, but I also maintain near an acre (and aspiring to much more) of CO2/etc-absorbing forest & other foliage. Not sure how it all actually balances out, but I never see reported studies addressing suburban/rural foliage conservation impact vs urban bulldozing & paving every square foot for miles.


If more people lived in cities, a lot of the rural/suburban land they live on would revert to wilderness, which would turn into CO2-absorbing forest and other foliage anyway. So it's disingenuous to try and claim credit for personally having title to any of it.


But if you were living in the city, wouldn't that acre be a forest anyway? Actually, it would be a little bit bigger forest because the land under your house, driveway, the road leading to it, and lawn/garden/whatever would also be forest.

Unless you are actively turning some non-productive land into productive land (eg, greening a desert), you're probably a negative on sequestration no matter what. It's just a question of how negative, and living in the city is probably less negative.


If you have 1+ acres of forest on your property, you aren't living in the suburbs; that's exurban or rural.

If anything taking sequestration into account would make suburbs look worse. 100 acres of dense urban development plus 400 acres of untouched forest is going to sequester much more carbon than 500 acres of suburbs with a few trees sprinkled throughout, yet they would hold the same number of people.




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