Saturday, February 09, 2008

Green lawns versus carbon footprints

Once again I have been absent from blogging. This will probably be a trend through tax season (I worked six hours today, for example), but I will do my best. Below is a bit of inspiration.

There is an individual who has been a gadfly of sorts on the blogs' Antirust and the Burgh Report, a suburbanite who trumpets the clear superiority of the suburbs over the city. I don’t think I am going to name him, but you might recognize these ideas. The houses in the city are chimneys; the heat rises within them, it is both wasteful and uncontrollable and the attics are saunas. Of course there is the crime, even with all our police (who are, of course, corrupt) murders happen spontaneously and constantly, and people only pretend to care. Our streets are totally un-navigable and confusing. Our public officials and the city’s unions are totally corrupt and just praying for a city county merger so they can use that to jack up their wages. Oh yeah, and we waste huge amounts of energy with street lights.

By contrast, in the suburbs there is very little crime (what little there is is probably caused by city people who got lost and wandered into the suburbs). There’s no traffic, so driving is fuel efficient and more pleasurable. There are stores close by that are clean and well stocked, and movie houses with movies people enjoy watching, as opposed to pretentious symphonies and ballets in the city. The government employees in the suburbs are polite and helpful. And the houses in the suburbs were made recently with modern, quality materials by builders who take pride in their work, so everything in the suburbs is fuel efficient.

Or maybe not. The NYTimes had a story Saturday about how suburbanites are coming to realize that their lifestyle may not fit in with environmental beliefs. The giant size of many suburban houses and the total reliance on cars work against the most basic tenets of sustainable living. Now, to be fair, my family lives in a sixty year old city house, and we have not done as much as I would like to add insulation. And I am still working on adding a bike into my commute in a way that actually reduces how much gas I use (right now I use the bike to make my commute quicker time-wise). And the story describes how some features of suburbs allow you to do things that would be much more difficult in the city, such as adding a wind turbine that is tall enough to actually do some good.

But the graphic attached to the story really spells out the situation. Using Atlanta as an example, houses in that area that are attached (which you see in cities) use much less energy than larger stand alone suburban houses. And per unit, apartment buildings use the least amount of energy. Still using Atlanta, the graphic also shows that the further out counties produce much more carbon dioxide emissions than the city and near suburb counties.

Pittsburgh has an interesting mix of types of suburban communities, which I suspect is true in many places (such as Cleveland). The city is not just ringed by wealthy suburbs filed with people who cynically fled the city’s high taxes (although there are at least a few of those suburbs … I’m looking at you, Sewickley). Places like Rankin and Duquesne could just as easily be in the city, and boroughs like Verona and Blawnox could be mistaken for spread out versions of Bloomfield or Greenfield. Pittsburgh’s rust belt heritage means that when the steel and other industrail workers started moving out of the city in the fifties, sixties and seventies, they tied the fate of the suburbs where they settled to their jobs. Which could be part of the reason why Pittsburgh (and Allegheny County) has such an elderly population. Pensions have probably been so battered by the downsizing of the manufacturing sector; area retirees really need the low cost of living here (and can’t afford to move where its warmer).

But regardless of all that, there is growing evidence that our post war migration to suburbia is a big part of our energy appetite. The article describes how many communities are taking steps to reduce energy consumption. But the most effective step might be a reverse migration. As Jed Clampett would put it “Y’all come back, you hear”.

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