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Ecological Economics V: The Best Solution

This is the fourth in a five-part series on the theory of Ecological Economics, popularized by Herman Daly in his book Beyond Growth, Brian Czech in his book Supply Shock, and the Center for the Advancement of Steady-State Economics (CASSE).

You can read previous entries below:

In the last post, I highlighted some of the ways that a steady state economy might take place and hinted that I would be discussing the best single option in this post. Some of you may already have an inkling of where I'm headed with this, and for others this is probably going to appear too simple to be real. But the single best answer to many of the existential threats facing humanity has been in front of us for thousands of years: walkable, sustainable communities.

One of the hardest things for Americans in dealing with resource scarcity and climate change is that leading more modest, less wasteful lives seems enormously difficult, requiring changing 1000s of daily habits and taking on onerous checks and balances. It seems this way because trying to lead modest, sustainable lives within a framework of suburban car-accommodation is enormously difficult, almost literally impossible. Suburbia is based on the idea of separation of uses, which means residential is in one place and industry is another—and commercial is in yet another—with roads to connect these disparate zones. Walking from one place to another is practically impossible because of distance alone, but to make matters worse sidewalks are non-existent in most areas, and where they’re present pedestrians must walk across 6 lane roads, and huddle a mere 3 feet away from cars going 50+ mph. Public transit is, of course, not cost effective because everything is so spread out, which means the only logical solution is to drive everywhere, which builds a baseline amount of carbon usage into every suburban household. Combine that with our penchant for large houses that need to be heated and cooled, and all our electronic doodads, and Americans are energy hogs with almost no feasible way to cut back to anything approaching effectiveness.

It's no wonder we're failing at this; failure is literally built into the system.

Contrary to common thinking, suburban building patterns was not an inevitable step in the evolution of civilized society. It is a relatively new development that was born from specific corporate and governmental decisions that prodded and incentivized Americans into building a certain way. This is a significant break from the entirety of human civilization. For practically the entire length of human existence we have built cities that were tightly constructed, rarely over 6 stories, and based on human needs, not the ability to move vehicles rapidly through the streets. The move to widen streets and move into the suburbs was largely due to the confluence of several (now moot) historical oddities: abnormally cheap energy, World War II destroying all other industrial nations, massive pent up demand for housing, Cold War paranoia, a lingering bias against the supposed crime-ridden and unsanitary conditions of city life, and the rise of single-use zoning codes which practically mandate suburban development. For an excellent history of how this all came about, check out James Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere or Suburban Nation.

Given that nearly all of the historical trends that lead to suburban development are in decline (or in the case of crime and sanitation, no longer apt), building cities at the human scale seems to be the only way to combat all of the existential crises facing Americans in the remainder of the 21st century. For starters, walkable cities would provide an environment in which using less was far easier for the average American, because using less is already built into the system. Walkable communities use less resources because they are smaller and denser. Streets are narrower because they are built for people not moving cars, so you need less pavement. Less electrical cable and plumbing is required because they don't have to stretch for miles of empty land to get from subdivision to subdivision. Since personal vehicles are no longer necessary there is no automatic barrier to entry to the estimated 80 million Americans without vehicles, and people have more disposable cash instead of wasting $5k+ on upkeep of their cars each year. And if you combine walkable communities with green energy solutions it may be possible to create a zero emission community.

There are additional economic benefits to walkable communities. Because they are mixed use, and most economic activity will happen within a 15 minute walk of one’s residence, there is a tremendous amount of commercial variety, and increased opportunities for a much wider segment of society. The truth is that auto-centric building patterns benefit large firms because they are able to purchase large pieces of land with which to carry out their economy of scale business models, thus undercutting local competition who are not able to compete on price. Walkable communities are denser, increasing the price of land and making large retail operations more expensive to operate, thus making it easier for small businesses to compete. Furthermore, since most consumers will be walking to local businesses within 15 minutes of their residence, there is increased opportunity for several of the same type of retailer to exist throughout a city, democratizing economic opportunity and leveling the playing field among a variety of retailers: large, small, and mid-sized.

But it is arguably the emotional benefits of walkable communities that are most important. Human beings are social creatures and no amount of technology or transportation solutions can replace the need to be around other people. When people have to walk everywhere they are open to all manner of random meetings and chance encounters that are simply not possible in a suburban environment. They feel a part of the community because the community is all around them and easily accessible. Beyond this, building at the human scale promotes better craftsmanship in architectural design because the fine grain details of the buildings will be noticed, and better urban planning is recognized, since the ways in which buildings work together to create outdoor rooms will make the best planned areas the most visited and cherished.

At its most basic, building at the human scale is rigorously egalitarian because the default setting of all locations is set to public, with anyone able to delight in the joys of urban living no matter their income. It eliminates the base economic necessity of car ownership, which currently excludes 80 million Americans from access to the best jobs, and it promotes small business ownership over Big Capital, since there are actually built-in disincentives for economy of scale business models.

The largest argument against this mode of living is that the market has “spoken” and Americans prefer suburban living. This is an outdated argument since all trends point to more and more Americans preferring walkable communities, with urban areas growing more rapidly than suburban areas, and garnering the lion’s share of investment and wealth. As proof, walkable areas are often the most expensive and most desirable places to live in the world. One merely needs to ask why millions of Americans choose to spend their hard earned vacation money to go to such walkable places as Paris and Venice versus Atlanta, to get an idea of what Americans want, if only it was articulated in their actual built environment. In reality, the "market" has spoken in favor of suburban development because outdated zoning and building codes practically made them inevitable and the largest home builder players built their businesses around providing cheap, cookie cutter housing, driving builders of other types of development out of business, leaving Americans with almost no affordable choices other than suburbia. Now that urban areas have grown blighted enough that they are affordable, Americans are swarming into them in droves. The market is indeed speaking, and it's clear, walkable sustainable development is the future.

Another big argument against dense urban living is that it is dirtier, with more crime. This is a 100 year old argument that no longer holds water. Take a moment to look around your suburban neighborhood and tell me what exactly is overwhelmingly clean about it. With gas stations on every corner, an abundance of cars bringing street grit and grime, and massive tracts of unusable, wild land in between subdivisions, suburbia is plenty dirty and inhospitable, which is why we spend so much time in our cars and houses. It's simply not pleasant to be anywhere else.

As far as crime, this too is an old argument. If suburbs seem safer it is merely because everything is so spread out that it insulates residents, a phenomenon that cuts both ways. It’s maybe hard for strangers to reach you, but it also means you're alone in a bubble. I would argue that the suburbs aren't actually safer, because their most dangerous aspects aren't really calculated when we compare urban and suburban areas. For instance 1400 people died in car accidents in Georgia this year, almost all of them in the Atlanta metro area. Compare that to the 300 people murdered in Atlanta and you start to see how oddly skewed perception is about suburbia. It is no small stretch to argue that in order to maintain an auto-centric transportation system, 1100 people have to die every year. That's just the way it is. Put aside the horrific callousness of that statement for a moment, and just focus on how ludicrous it is that we accept a sacrifice of 1100 people for the "freedom" of driving to Walmart, yet cringe at the prospect of 300 murders. We would have to have a murder rate 400% higher than we do now to match the carnage of suburbia, a likelihood that is remote no matter how densely Atlanta becomes. Beyond that, many of the socioeconomic pressures that lead to high murder rates would be somewhat alleviated in a well-built, walkable, egalitarian community.

And this is just comparing the most extreme types of crimes. Other types of crime would go down as well in walkable communities, since many of the most blatant and pernicious types of crime in the city are aided by quick get-aways in vehicles. For instance, bank robbery seems far riskier if you have to walk away from the crime. Additionally, denser communities are more easily policed, since more people are in a smaller area, so the same amount of police officers can patrol a smaller geographic area. I am in no way suggesting that crime is not a problem with dense communities, but crime is a problem in all human civilizations, and the main drivers of crime (wealth inequality, poor economic choices) could be lessened in a denser, tighter-knit community.

So, if walkable communities cost less, use less resources, would likely cut carbon emissions by 2/3, lead to a happier, more egalitarian society, would likely lead to fewer premature deaths, and could be a long term solution to unemployment and economic stagnation, why the heck aren't we converting our cities right now? The answer is that walkable cities benefit the people and the economy as a whole, but could be disastrous for those in power. Some of the largest, most powerful firms in the world have every reason on earth to stop this from happening. Oil and Gas firms certainly wouldn't want oil usage to be cut in half. Large retailers wouldn't want shopping to happen in urban areas where they have less cost advantages. The biggest home builders in the country have no idea how to build idiosyncratic neighborhoods where every building is slightly different and the margins are lower because buildings are made to last generations, not a few decades. And generations of politicians have benefited from the antagonism of the urban versus the suburban. If that antagonism were eliminated, there would be far less room to play one against the other.

The good news is that money follows money, and as more Americans flock to walkable areas and projects like the Atlanta BeltLine prove that there is strong demand for walkable places, Big Capital will start to realize there is a lot of money to be made in this walkable, sustainable community thing. This is where we are heading in the next ten years. The key will be for enough like-minded entrepreneurs to be in the position to take that money and put it to good use, so that good places will get built and last for generations. Big Capital will want these places built cheaply (because that's what capital does), but with intelligent, long-term minded designers and developers, we can take the influx of cash and convert it into a revolution of urban renewal that puts America on the path to prosperity in a resource scare world and sets this country up as the leader on thoughtful climate change mitigation strategies.

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