Dilworth, a suburb of Charlotte, NC

Sprawl is Good — The Environmental Case for Suburbia

This week I’d like to feature this excellent essay from Judge Glock at The Breakthrough Institute, “Sprawl Is Good – The Environmental Case for Suburbia“. It makes a comprehensive case for why and how sprawl can be pro-environment and address climate change. Some key excerpts:

“Complementing sprawl has also been a long-term trend toward people driving more and taking transit less. In 1960, about 12 percent of all Americans took transit to work. By 2020, it was about 5 percent, and the decline of non-work trips on transit was even faster. Meanwhile, the number of Americans who travel to work by car, especially those who travel alone in a car, continues to increase. The miles driven by car per capita have almost doubled. This is not because of supposed subsidies to cars; according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, cars pay for almost all of the cost of roads through gas taxes and other charges, while transit riders pay barely a third of the cost of their rides, and that ratio is dropping as transit use declines. For decades, in fact, more and more of the gas tax has been siphoned off to pay for increasingly expensive and increasingly empty buses and trains. …

Perhaps the most important tool for reducing the heat island effect is trees, which provide shade and absorb solar radiation. Suburbs are, almost by definition, more verdant than cities. Famously sprawling cities like Atlanta or Houston have tree cover on more than 30 percent of their landmass, while older, denser cities such as Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Chicago have under 20 percent. Besides reducing the heat island effect, nearby trees have been shown to intercept particulate matter and absorb ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide, thus reducing local air pollution as well. The personal and psychological effects of trees are real too. Studies have shown that the presence of trees decreases stress, increases attentiveness and sense of safety and comfort, and reduces the likelihood that pregnant women will have low-birthweight babies. There is no way to have the same access to trees in dense urban areas.

Over even a medium-term time frame, the increasing adoption of hybrid, electric, and autonomous vehicles will almost completely sever the connection between VMT (vehicle miles traveled) and greenhouse gases. Those who are attempting to redesign cities, projects that will take decades or even centuries, merely to reduce the use of gasoline-powered cars are thus engaged in a futile exercise that will only become more futile with time. It would be like attempting to redesign cities in 1900 to reduce horse manure. The technology will change faster than the city will.”

Wendell Cox did his own review of the essay with some additional points and data:

‘Issuing a challenge, Glock talks of the “Long Triumph of Sprawl,” describing a “clear global and long-term preference,” while the “pandemic has only made the shift toward the modern, sprawling city more rapid and obvious.”

Glock suggest that “instead of warring against sprawling cars, planners and environmentalist should recognize how the green spaces of suburbia allied to autonomous electric vehicles in green single-family houses can provide both the affordability and sustainability most Americans crave.” …

Appropriately, Glock concludes, “environmentalists should embrace the same future that most Americans have already chosen.”

These excerpts just give a taste of the essay – I highly recommend reading the whole thing. It makes a strong and amazingly comprehensive case.

Tory Gattis is a Founding Senior Fellow with the Urban Reform Institute (formerly Center for Opportunity Urbanism) and co-authored the original study with noted urbanist Joel Kotkin and others, creating a city philosophy around upward social mobility for all citizens as an alternative to the popular smart growth, new urbanism, and creative class movements. He is also an editor of the Houston Strategies blog.