Wednesday, April 20, 2011

In Defense of the City

A couple days ago, Jenn wrote a post asking whether cities were so much more sustainable than suburbs?

And of course it got me thinking.

The first thing I thought was, well, it depends.

Which is pretty much the obvious answer and also my knee jerk response to just about everything. (I must be so annoying to read with my, oh well, it's complicated, and my, oh, what we really need is institutional change. Blah dee f**king blah, can't I say anything definitive?)

The truth is, that sure, some suburbs can be sustainable. And if you want to live in a suburb, you should do it, and do your best in your situation.

But eff it. I don't feel like writing the, "Cities are great, but suburbs are fine too," post. So instead, I want to write a post about why cities are awesome. Because I live in a city and I think everyone should be like me. Validate me, internets!!

I've lived in cities for most of my adult life. I adore cities. I think everyone should want to live in cities because cities are where the cool people (meaning me) live. Truthfully, though, none of the four cities I've lived in has been perfect, sustainability wise, nor has my behavior been perfect in any of said cities.

In Los Angeles, the weather is great meaning that you rarely turn on the heat or the a/c. But of course the public transit sucks so you drive everywhere,

In London, the weather is pretty wet and miserable so the heat is on more often. On the other hand, the public transit is great.

New York is both cold AND hot meaning a/c in the summer and heat at night. Plus, I'm sorry, but New York is TERRIBLE about waste. Forget about composting, no one seems to even recycle.

San Francisco is a green mecca with temperate weather and industrial city-wide composting. But the public transit still isn't great. And also, sorry, but San Francisco just isn't that awesome a city compared to LA, London, or New York.

But there are many ways in which almost all cities excel. Most cities, though not all, have good public transit. Cities pack lots of people in dense areas. And contrary to what some people have argued, cities also have places to garden (our neighborhood has two community gardens within walking distance), places for kids to play (they are called parks and playgrounds and they are better than backyards, fer reals). In some cities, you even have space, or rather "space." You are rarely going to get a five bedroom house in the city (unless you are a gajillionaire) but in some cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco, you can buy actual houses. You will have to sell your right kidney on the black market to pay the down payment, and your master bedroom will be the size of a medium-sized walk in closet in suburbia, but you will get your house, maybe even with a garden and a deck for your dog to lay on.

My point is that cities (where I live) is awesome (I am also awesome.) Plus, according to Jonathan Haidt, author of The Happiness Hypothesis, people's happiness is greatly affected by short commute times. But overall happiness is actually relatively unaffected by having more space. So if living in a city reduces your commute, but living in a suburb gives you more space, you might want to think about the city over the suburb.

But if you recoil at living in a city and love the suburbs? Then, find a suburb where you can be happy (ideally one with SOME public transit and one that is not TOO far from your work) and don't worry about it. Because in the end, when people claim that cities are more sustainable or suburbs are more sustainable or farms are more sustainable?

We're often just trying to validate the preferences we already hold.


Chia-Yi said...

I agree, cities are awesome, and I get that they are not for everyone, but they really are the cultural centers of our society. I also get that not everyone can live in a city or else other things would fall apart like agriculture and other industries. But if you are able to choose where you live and don't like being part of the action, then I guess the suburbs are for you. For me, I grew up in the city and I don't want my future kids to grow up sheltered, in a whites-dominated landscape, where everyone thinks alike and dresses alike, eats the same out-of-proportion meals, and gossips the crap out of everything because there is nothing else to do. I like your point about how parks are better than backyards. I think that some people use their backyards as a way to never need to leave their house. I have heard that dogs in the city that get taken out to dog runs could be potentially happier than dogs that just get brought outside. For me it isn't really about space or the outdoors because I love nature and wildlife, and I can easily get to it from my city especially now that taking trains and renting cars is cheaper.

Green Bean said...

You make me laugh! But I have to be honest, I HATE cities. And I've lived in in LA, SF and London too. Okay, I actually did like London but LA and SF mostly sucked. Just because I don't want to be in the burbs either but out in the country with windmills and cows and streams.

I do agree, though, that cities are very eco. In all of the cities I've lived in, I've been able to (and often did) walk to restaurants, grocery stores and other retail outlets. In SF and London, I also walked to mass transit pick ups. LA, not so much. Fortunately, there is something for everyone though and fortunately I didn't have to live in a city forever because that would probably suck the life right out of me.

Mary said...

I also prefer living inthe country. I do enjoying visiting cities occassionally, but I've never met a suburb I could like.

EcoCatLady said...

OK... I'm gonna beg the question. Which is better, cities or suburbs... I say neither! Personally, I have opted for the land of crackerbox houses. My neighborhood was built right after WWII. I'm still within the Denver city limits (by about 3 blocks) but have 900 square feet with a full basement and a huge yard - and consequently a huge garden. But I'm still within easy walking or biking distance of pretty much everything I need - grocery stores, farmer's market, hardware store, bank, etc.

I work from home now (so spoiled I am) but when I used to have a real job my commute was about 10 minutes, and that's about a long as I think I could ever stand. In truth, I think the real problem is the commuting. I mean, if people want to live in the ex-urbs, that's great... but then they should live there, not just sleep there I-M-perhaps-not-so-H-O.

Betsy (Eco-novice) said...

I lived in LA for years, right off Venice Blvd in Palms. There were a few great places to walk to on Venice Blvd, but mostly I drove everywhere of course. I didn't love LA for any green reasons (I wasn't particularly concerned at the time), but more just cause of the craziness and diversity of it all. Loved The Getty, LACMA and LA Opera and the beaches. Oh, and the restaurants!

But when I moved away, to a University town (with very stinky weather) where I could walk everywhere and only had to drive about once a week, boy, did we NOT miss the traffic (or the smog, or the fires). I HATE LA traffic. Used to avoid it with a 10-ft-pole whenever humanly possible. By the time I left, though, there was no "rush hour," it was "rush half-day." The 405 was to be avoided at all costs. It seemed like there was a one-hour window in which it was not completely painful to drive anywhere. And, now, with kids, I'm not sure I'd want to live in a big city again.

Rosa said...

It just makes me sad that people think you have to live "near nature" to be close to nature, because what happens is the nature gets paved/fenced/lawned out of existence. I read "last child in the woods" last year on the way back from Rocky Mountain National Park and the stories in it were really disheartening.

Em-J W said...

Hi, I thought your post was really interesting. If you're interested in the difference between suburbia and cities, there is a really interesting talk at TED about greening suburbia.

Keep up the great posts!

KirstenM said...

Great post. I of course like your 'it depends' answer best, because I live in suburbia (see blog title!), but also because it is obviously true.

Living in a small city (okay, in one of its suburbs) in Australia, I feel I have the best of both worlds sustainability-wise.

Admittedly the public transport is pretty crap, but for my purposes it's okay - takes me about 40 minutes to get to work plus a ten minute walk, almost in the centre of town, vs 15-20 minutes by car plus finding a park and walking; plus, there's a bus from very close to us (cross one road) right to my son's school.

Of course, it doesn't have that big city atmosphere, and I do love visiting my sister in Melbourne for that, but from a sustainability and kid friendly POV, you can't go past it.

KirstenM said...

Oh, I just realised I wad signed into blogger so you can't see my blog title which is Sustainable Suburbia. (

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