Suburb vs. City Fight Ends in a Draw

Sydney, Australia photographed from one of its suburbs.

Sydney, Australia photographed from one of its suburbs. Image courtesy flickr user marcusfrieze.

Urban dwellers often lord a smug superiority over suburbanites. Box stores, chain restaurants, cul-de-sacs, and SUVs can make their noses scrunch up with the same level of disgust normally reserved for, say, the smell of the city on a mid-summer trash day. (Full disclosure: I have been a perpetrator of this snobbery myself.) In addition to decrying the perceived lack of culture and diversity outside metropolitan areas, city residents pat themselves on the back for being far eco-friendlier citizens. They are less likely to drive, after all, and their smaller homes require less energy to heat and/or cool. Urban planners, too, have long celebrated the energy efficiency of densely populated areas (a topic we recently covered on Distillations)—but a new report published in the journal Environmental Research Letters suggests this might not be the case. In fact, the researchers found no connection at all between your address and your energy use.

Gasp! Could it be that folks in the suburbs and the cities have equal opportunities to lower their carbon footprints? The answer seems to be yes.

Does this hurt the city’s environmental street cred? Does it mean suburban sprawl is without fault? Certainly not. But what the study does indicate is that both areas have the opportunity to implement more energy-friendly structures and policies in the coming years (for an urban planner’s take, see this post on Net Density).

Efforts like these are already in the works. Take Austin, where commuters are increasingly trying their hand at trading in congested highways for new mass-transit lines that extend beyond the city’s core. Perhaps cities and suburbs can learn from each other—emulating the elements that make the other less of an energy drain. I imagine even the most hard-line anti-suburbanite would have a hard time looking down their nose at that idea. 

Jennifer Dionisio is a program associate in CHF’s Roy Eddleman Institute and the executive producer of Distillations.

Carbon Consumption in Metropolitan Areas [Environmental Research Letters]
Our Chemical Landscape: The City [Distillations]
Our Chemical Landscape: The Suburb [Distillations]

Posted In: Policy

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