Seuss-tainability: The Lorax Was Wrong

Edward Glaeser, economics professor at Harvard, has posted on cities and sustainability -- via Dr. Seuss -- over at the NYT's Economix blog. The conceit of the entry is that Suess was wrong. While his story The Lorax contains some valuable environmental and economic lessons it misses the mark on cities.

Unlike the evil industrial metropolis in Suess' book, Glaeser present some powerful data comparing the energy use of urbanites and suburbanites.

For those familiar with the link between density and efficiency, you will be happy to have some solid figures to refer to for a few major US cities. But in making his point, Glaser too misses the mark when he describes the nature of cities.

The results of a study ran by Glaser and Matthew Kahn, a U.C.L.A. environmental economist, are interesting:
In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.
Cities, as some of us have known for a while, are pretty green -- at least when it comes to transit rerlated energy efficiency. So far so good. But there is another flaw in The Lorax: the idea that all cities have to be Dickensian industrial nightmares cut off from from nature.
While Glaser celebrates the efficiency of cities, he maintains the cold hostile vision of cities that drives people to look for a cabin in the woods (or at least a lawn in the suburbs):
Living surrounded by concrete is actually pretty green. Living surrounded by trees is not. ... if you want to take good care of the environment, stay away from it and live in cities.

All I can say is that I am glad he's not an urban planner! To be fare, there are cities that embody this image of endless streets of cold dense concrete. Nothing could seem more "un natural."

But the city/nature distinction is an old one, and one that we really need to let go of. Urban agriculture, rain water harvesting, natural storm water remediation, parks, green spaces, even decentralized solar and wind power– all these things are examples of the types of projects that we end up with when we recognize the many natural systems that cities are inextricably linked to.

More and more cities are capitalizing on their links to the natural systems that surround them. Not only does this make them more efficient and more resilient, it also makes them more enjoyable places to live. Good thing too, because "grey, drab, ...but efficient!" isn't a slogan that is going to garner much support for new dense developments.


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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

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