Saturday, February 16, 2008

Carbon Footprint of Suburban vs. City Life

Last Saturday I discussed one very easy thing we could do individually to reduce our carbon footprint, namely to eat less meat. Here is something a bit more disruptive: move to the city. That may sound drastic, but it could also be a smart economic choice.

The 3 top things about real estate are said to be 'location, location, and location,' yet Americans buy houses in the middle of nowhere. Often the price of the structure (a depreciating asset) is actually greater than that of the land. (As Gertrude Stein said, “There’s no there there.” though in truth I have to admit she was referring to the city of Oakland.) This makes no sense as an investment, and in my view has a lot to do with the mortgage crisis. Increasingly Americans pay for larger and larger suburban homes with little intrinsic value and commute dozens of miles to work, but I think this trend is set to reverse. The attraction of the suburbs will decrease – and hence the folly of buying there will become more obvious -- as the cost of energy goes up and as retiring baby-boomers seek homes with less yard to look after and closer to amenities and public transport.

Of course it won’t help much for you to move if someone else takes your place, but if it leads to lower house prices it might at least slow down new development. My advice however is to get out while the going’s good.

City-dwelling is much more energy-efficient that suburban or rural dwelling for many reasons: homes are smaller; apartments insulate each other from heat and cold; transport of goods to stores is more efficient; amenities like schools, hospitals, and stores are closer to home. In some cities a car is unnecessary, most errands being possible by public transport or even on foot. (From my London apartment I can visit bars and restaurants and buy anything from a bottle of milk to a business suit within five minutes walk, while for longer trips the tube station is about 100 yards away.)

There was an article in last Sunday’s New York Times about people struggling to be green in the suburbs. Buying things like wind turbines. Why not just move to the city? The article points out that the average size of an American home almost doubled between 1970 and 2005, while the average commute went up from 8.9 miles in 1983 to 12.1 in 2001. The article also says the average American's carbon footprint is over 3 times that of a resident of New York City. But you don’t have to live in a million dollar Manhattan efficiency to improve your carbon footprint. The NYT article quotes a study done in Atlanta, which found that even moving from a neighborhood with 2 to 4 dwellings per acre to one with 6 to 8 saved about 10%, just because people need to drive less to get to stores etc. Finally, the same study showed that residential energy use for a single family detached home was about 70% more than for a multifamily unit.

Still like your sprawling ranch, or maybe can’t get out because of negative equity? In coming weeks I will talk about what you can do to make wherever you live more efficient, starting next Saturday with a couple of gadgets that have helped me reduce my electricity consumption by 25% over the past year or so. Plus an update on my sole LED lamp, which is now consigned to the scrap heap.


pfalcone said...

I wonder what the carbon foot print is of junk mail. I hardly ever read the junk mail I receive and it’s a nuisance to get rid of with the potential of identity theft. The banks are the best more credit so you can buy more needless things to fill the big houses that seem fashionable and drive up further debt.

Makes little sense to me…….I’m glad I knew my immigrant grand parents. They were happy with a clean warm place to live, food on the table and good educations for their children.

Tony Welsh said...

If you are getting junk from banks you deal with -- e.g. checks to use against a credit card -- you can call them and ask them to stop and they will. Likewise if you get catalogs or mailings regularly from a particular company, you should ask to be removed from their mailing list and they will.

Anonymous said...

Such an obvious solution (moving into the city), yet I never thought of it that way nor did I come across the idea before. Thanks :)!

RosInSheffield said...

Hi pfalcone,
Is there nothing in the US like the UK's Mail Preference Service? Here we can contact them (you can do it online) and it stops most junk mail. The Royal Mail here also has contracts to deliver junk mail to all homes, but we can contact the local sorting office and ask them not to deliver to us.