To get serious about sustainability, move back to the city.

September 20, 2009 | By | 19 Replies More

According to Witold Rybczynski (writing in The Atlantic), it’s time to get serious about living sustainably. Currently, we do that by going out to buy the latest and greatest gadgets for saving energy. There’s a much better foundation for accomplishing this goal of living sustainably:

Image by Erich Vieth (2009)

Image by Erich Vieth (2009)

The problem in the sustainability campaign is that a basic truth has been lost, or at least concealed. Rather than trying to change behavior to actually reduce carbon emissions, politicians and entrepreneurs have sold greening to the public as a kind of accessorizing. Keep doing what you’re doing, goes the message. Just add a solar panel, a wind turbine, a hybrid engine, whatever. But a solar-heated house in the burbs is still a house in the burbs, and if you have to drive to it, even in a Prius, it’s hardly green.

Instead of putting little Band-Aids on the big problem, Rybczynski argues that we ought to move back to the city. We would save much more energy by prohibiting spread-out low-rise buildings than by pasting solar panels on them. “A reasonably well-built and well insulated multifamily building is inherently more sustainable than a detached house.” He advocates three or four story “walk-ups,” which don’t require elevators. These can create sufficient density “about 50 people per acre, to support public transit, walk ability and other urban amenities.”

Another important approach is to focus on the way we construct our commercial buildings. When we combine residences with commercial and institutional structures, buildings consume 48% of our energy, more than any other sector.


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Category: Consumerism, Sustainable Living

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (19)

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    In response to this article, a friend sent me the link to a related post, an excellent piece on "The Jevons Paradox," by Martin Holladay at The Art of Construction:

    Let’s say you’ve sold your old, leaky house and moved into a new, well-insulated home with Energy Star appliances. With all of its efficiency improvements, your new home requires 30% less energy than your old home. That’s got to be good for the planet, right? Well, maybe not — especially if you save so much on your energy bills that you decide to fly to Florida for your next vacation. A new book, The Myth of Resource Efficiency, casts serious doubts on the idea that efficiency improvements will lead to lower levels of energy consumption.

    Economists now refer to this principle as the Jevons Paradox. The Jevons Paradox takes many forms:

    Because of improvements in refrigerator efficiency, consumers can afford more and larger refrigerators.

    Because of improvements in vehicle efficiency, car owners can afford to drive more miles per year . . .

    I agree with the authors of The Myth of Resource Efficiency that we need higher energy taxes, but I disagree with their dismissal of voluntary restraint. Higher taxes will help, but a solution to our global climate crisis will also require a movement towards voluntary simplicity, as advocated by Henry David Thoreau and Mohandas Gandhi.

  2. Erich Vieth says:

    And here's a example of doing simple effective: Painting one's roof white. Or, at least Richard at The Art of Building is running the experiment.

  3. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Relocating population from suburbs to urban settings probably wont improve overall sustainability. This is because the energy saved in housing is offset by the energy consumed in logistic support. However, there is an alternative concept I've seen that might help. Instead of large concentrations of people, there is an idea of life style communities where a cluster of condos or apartments have are situated within a retail area that supports the local life style. It's kind of like a university campus, with retail shops replacing the classroom facilities.

  4. Dan Klarmann says:

    Then there is the Arcology principle. Large buildings full of residences, retail, schools, business, entertainment, and light industrial units surrounded by farming and/or fishing/grazing areas. Well illustrated in <a href="; target="_blank" title="Amazon Search link" rel="nofollow">Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle but going back to Soleri's <a href="; target="_blank" rel="nofollow">Arcosanti dating back to the 1950's.

  5. Dan Klarmann says:

    It is not so much about relocating population as about removing the necessity of driving for every activity. Most Manhattanites don't own cars; they don't need them.

    I can walk to restaurants and grocery stores because I chose to not live in the suburbs. There are dozens of churches and several schools in a 10 minute walk of my house. There used to be a few factories, as well. Now those are becoming galleries or condos. I know of several people who work from home on my block, and assume the neighborhood is riddled with such folks.

  6. Sarah Connor says:

    Witold Rybczynski observes that, "A reasonably well-built and well insulated multifamily building is inherently more sustainable than a detached house.”

    Well, Witold, there is more to life than being as sustainable as possible. While stacking families might save on electricity, people don't stack. Isn't that why Pruitt Igoe was imploded into oblivion as a failed social experiment? There are tremendous social consequences involved when you jam folks up together in concrete structures.

    Shouldn't we first make a meaningful effort to promote energy efficiency and conservation? Europeans live in nice little free standing houses and leave less of a carbon footprint than we do, in part because it takes less effort to be green in Europe. How will I have an herb and vegetable garden in a high rise? What pleasure would coming home from work bring if home is some nasty looking concrete dormitory where the elevators smell like urine? Kids in high rise buildings don't put toilet paper in trees for pranks, they pull fire alarms. Many people are the most at peace when they are in solitude. Just let them be. Once it is time for them to crawl into a Medicaid bed, you can jam them into a concrete structure and at least they won't know what is going on, unless, of course, the government finds a way to simply exterminate them anyway.

    I would do many things to be green if they didn't involve massive expenditures of time, expense and inconvenience. I'd gladly install a solar panel; they are not readily available. I'd take a windmill. Don't know where to get one. I do recycle. I do compost. I'd gladly use rain cisterns. They aren't readily available in my community. I'd drive a hybrid car; I'd like it to be larger than a wheeled casket.

    I tried to get into a co-op that peddled organic produce. The co-op was so busy that they didn't even return calls. More Americans would buy locally if it were possible to truly buy locally. There are too few suppliers and too much demand.

    Sounds like a great opportunity for capitalists.

  7. Sarah Connor writes:—"Well, Witold, there is more to life than being as sustainable as possible. While stacking families might save on electricity, people don’t stack. Isn’t that why Pruitt Igoe was imploded into oblivion as a failed social experiment? There are tremendous social consequences involved when you jam folks up together in concrete structures."

    Like most other things, it is not reducible to one aspect. People live quite well in high-rise luxury condos. Pruitt Igoe was an experiment in "warehousing" otherwise unwanted people, and it is the initial premise that makes the difference.

    But you're right, there is more to life than efficiency. However, that doesn't solve anything, either, because suburban and exurban "experiments" are no more than attempts to reproduce the desirable effects of neighborhoods which can just as easily exist within urban boundaries. They supported white flight (and while we may be well past the simple-mindedness of that, we're still dealing with the residual nonsense of identifying cities exclusively with crime, etc).

    Any solution to this problem is going to be multiplex—there will be both high-rise and free-standing. Not everyone wants to live in their own freestanding house (obviously, else condos wouldn't be so popular).

  8. Dan Klarmann says:

    Pruitt-Igoe failed (in my own hometown) for reasons foretold in The Fountainhead: It was cheaply built, the residents had no stake, and there was no community infrastructure. High density housing works pretty well in most of the "first world", like Tokyo, NYC, Berlin, etc.

  9. Sarah Connor says:

    Dan–My liberal college texts also attributed the failure of Pruitt-Igoe to poor construction. Do we not see an unwillingness to recognize failed social experiments here? What is the Pruitt-Igoe lesson–if you equip the projects with stainless steel appliances and granite countertops, social engineering through goverment-designed housing becomes workable? Or do you need to go beyond free rent, and just provide free home ownership as a fundamental human right?

    Folks in Tokyo stack because there is no land. NYC is a tiny island with a space shortage too. Folks stack because–I guess they like ethnic restaurants, Broadway shows, and a high cost of living that virtually guarantees that they'll die in a Medicaid bed. But hey, the goverment will pay, so why not live high in NYC?

    Now, if I live in a relatively culturally undesirable area like the Midwest because I ended up here and stayed because it was cheap, do you propose making me move into some concrete jungle in the name of energy efficiency as part of some government mandate to ensure that Europeans like us more? If I'm going to be stacked, I want the government to stack me in New York City where I can get some decent Thai and see a Broadway show.

  10. Sarah Connor writes:—"My liberal college texts also attributed the failure of Pruitt-Igoe to poor construction. Do we not see an unwillingness to recognize failed social experiments here?"

    Where is the failure to recognize it? I don't see anyone here proposing to build any more high-rise warehouses for poor people. It may the mistake (socially) of assuming a homogeneity among classes (and, at the time, races) that doesn't exist.

    Bad construction—not so much of building materials, but of design—was at the heart of Pruitt Igoe's failure.

    But here's a counter-proposition for you: urban sprawl, along with its suburban and exurban expansion, is simply not either efficient or sustainable. What do you propose as a solution?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Sarah: I'm sensing that you are one of the "Government is bad" leaning people. Should we just keep letting private money build more sprawling exurban houses onto distant farm land, or is there a better way to proceed? Do you see a problem with our current way of doing things and, if so, what is your proposal.

      BTW, my post was meant to be descriptive, not proscriptive. I found it interesting that it lots of high tech green techniques can't come close to making up the energy drain caused by single family housing in the city outskirts. To the extent that we are entering an energy crisis (my bet is that we are), responsible people should weigh the craving for bucolic in the outskirts with the increased energy demands caused by that lifestyle.

      If I am wrong about the upcoming energy crisis (and of human-caused climate change), of course, then I have no business suggesting to people that that shouldn't live way out in the suburbs in single family homes. My concern in this post is with sustainability, not sociological concern (though I admit I do have these concerns too).

  11. Dan Klarmann says:

    Sarah: I live in the city, an easy walk from ethnic restaurants, live theater, parks, and other conveniences mentioned before. I don't live in a high rise, but a single family dwelling with a nice garden.

    City living is about convenience, not crowding. My 1890's house is reasonably fuel efficient, as well. But I should save 30% on insulation for my attic via this years tax credit stimulus and get even more green.

  12. Sarah Connor says:


    Yes, we should keep letting people use their own money to build sprawling exurban houses onto distant, privately owned farm land. And once they get settled in, we should call them "farmers" and leave them be.

    Why is it unacceptable to let farmers live on distant farm land? We use taxpayer funds and government subsidized flood insurance to rebuild private dwellings constructed on flood plains, below sea level, and on beach fronts prone to hurricane damage. None of that is very green or sustainable. Why don't we make it illegal to live in such locales becuase it wastes money and resources to rebuild the levies, and to hoist the house back up on stilts and fill it up again with flat screen TVs and plaid Lazy Boy sofas?

    Aren't you at all concerned that whether or not your carbon footprint is too big will depend upon how you are likely to vote?

    I question the ability of government to make accurate assessments of environmental impact issues and to implement policy in a fair and effective manner.

    Can you make a convincing case that EPA has a proven track record at making wise use of taxpayer resources to protect the environment?

    Here is one breathtaking example of EPA waste:

    "[Superfund] was originally conceived as a short-term project—$1.6 billion over five years to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has grown into one of the nation’s largest public-works projects: more than $30 billion spent on about 1,300 sites. Various studies have attempted to evaluate the effect of Superfund’s massive and costly cleanups, but the results are uncertain. Putting that another way, no beneficial results have been demonstrable after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars. On the other hand, Superfund projects have caused a great deal of harm.

    UC-Davis medical economist J. Paul Leigh has analyzed the occupational hazards of environmental cleanup projects. He concluded that the risks of fatality to cleanup workers—a dump-truck driver involved in a collision or a laborer run over by a bulldozer, for example—are considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposures to unremediated sites."

    How much environmental damage is caused by the bucolic lifestyle versus the scourge of the current nanny state? The 2008 Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act discourages recycling and encorages citizens to send unneeded products to the landfill in lieu of facing huge fines for inadvertently selling recalled products.

    Was cash for clunkers good for the environment?

    And these people want to tell me where I live and how high I need to be stacked?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Sarah: I don't know what dictionary you use, but I don't know anyone who defines "exurbs" as "farms." Rather, it's the place where we were formerly able to find farms.

      I'm attempting to discern some of your base assumptions. I'm sensing from you that:

      A) There is no energy crisis, and there won't be for the indefinite future.

      B) The federal government is incompetent and untrustworthy and it must be dismantled.

      C) The invisible hand (i.e., "the free market") will take care of things (e.g., we need to let people with money make the decisions regardless of impact on everyone else).

      How am I doing with these assumptions?

      Now, why have you accused me of promoting waste and incompetence? Why do you accuse me of thinking it a bad idea for farmers to live out in rural areas? What have I EVER written to suggest that I support the things you refer to in your comment? I've never written anything about "cash for clunkers." I've never argued that it is a good thing that the CPSIA is wise when it discourages recycling (if in fact that is what it does).

      I stand for things that work. Where government works badly it must be changed. I've never argued that everything the government does is great and good. You are engaging in fallacious arguments involving red herrings and straw men.

      Here's a little homework for you, if you dare to do it. Write back and list for me 5 things that the federal government has done well. Then, perhaps, we can continue this conversation.

  13. Sarah Connor writes:—"Why is it unacceptable to let farmers live on distant farm land?"

    Nothing. But the folks we're talking about don't farm. They take up arable land and mow the lawn and live like they're in a city. If they farmed, there wouldn't be an issue. Unless growing subdivisions is considered a staple?

    Surely you're being disingenuous.

  14. Sarah Connor writes:—"I question the ability of government to make accurate assessments of environmental impact issues and to implement policy in a fair and effective manner."

    Simple question, then. Who can or will?

    The private sector won't because such things make no profit and look bad on a balance sheet. So—if not the government, who?

  15. Sarah Connor says:


    I'm not clear on why you construed my post as a personal attack.

    We clearly attach different meanings to the exurb term. The first image that comes to my mind is the classic children's story, "The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse." Your preference is to be either one or the other; it is a matter of deeply personal psychological preference–to be either in the city or out of it. The idea that the government will make that choice for you is inconceivable to me.

    An hour outside of any city I've ever lived in has consisted of farm land used for agricultural purposes and subdivisions which typically contain very modest, small homes that are affordable as "starter homes" only because they aren't in the city. I just don't see alot of waste going on in the neighborhoods I am thinking of. The homes are placed so closely, despite an abundance of land. Some have ponds and pumps for irrigation and surrounding roads have farm stands. Nothing as ghastly as the excesses of Hollywood, which won't be razed as a failed social experiment anytime soon.

    Should the federal government outlaw lawns? Maybe someone should invent a cistern that enables you to have a lawn without commiting a crime against humanity. Little problems present opportunities for capitalists. Big problems often require governmental regulation.

    As for Erich's assumptions about my mindset:

    A) There is a problem with dependency upon foreign oil, sustainability and green living are desirable, but I've not bought into the climate change idea. It doesn't help that some prominent climate change advocates fly around in huge private jets and live in mansions;

    B) The federal government in its present form is dysfunctional, has lost the trust of many of its citizens, is insolvent, and is in need of extensive reform. The economy is the most dire situation at present.

    C) Government is a necessity in an ordered society. I have a hard time having confidence that government will make good policy given the constant examples of bad policy which come to light. The free market does have a great incentive to get products made as cheaply as possible. But too much regulation forces companies to relocate manufacturing to other countries.

    D) I have independent concerns about the vilification of "people with money." Some individuals enjoy financial security because they've worked for it. Others would like financial security without working for it. Financial security doesn't equate to wealth. Is there a point where one's net worth becomes morally unacceptable? Is one's moral right only to occupy a certain square footage?

    I won't answer your five great things the government has done question until you explain why you have faith in the EPA.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Sarah: I didn't use the term "personal attack." Nor do I sense that you comments consist of "personal attacks." Rather, you seem to be seeing things that don't exist in my posts. For instance, it appears to me that you are writing as though I don't see a problem with the wasteful and corrupt things that the federal government does, which is absurd and unsubstantiated.

      Notice your challenge for me to defend the EPA. Where did I ever put the EPA on a pedestal? The EPA is a big mixed bag. I think that it is substantially run by the corporations it regulates these days. Consider the case of fired EPA regulator Mary Gade. Let me ask you, why are you assuming that I "have faith in the EPA." Point to a single thing that I've written that suggests that I have such faith. And consider this post I wrote in April, 2008 where I was highly critical of the EPA's failure to test and monitor thousands of chemicals to which we are all exposed. Is the government doing a good job? Hell, no. Should the government back out and let the chemical industries officially run the EPA? No. How about a third option: Fix the EPA??

      I don't have a personal motto, "My government right or wrong." Rather, my motto is "The government should only do things that really work for the benefit of the citizens." Where the government is failing, it needs to be changed. You are writing as though I am first and foremost in favor of big government whether or not it works. There is no basis for such a belief. Yet there is clear evidence that you would rather have major decisions "made" by the "free market" than by the government, even though that often means cutting the People out entirely and turning the decisions over to wealthy individuals and for-profit corporations. I assume you would agree that money is power these days. And consider that:

      As of 2004, the top 1% of households (the upper class) owned 34.3% of all privately held wealth, and the next 19% (the managerial, professional, and small business stratum) had 50.3%, which means that just 20% of the people owned a remarkable 85%, leaving only 15% of the wealth for the bottom 80% (wage and salary workers).

      This is the context of the "free market." 85% of Americans are not full fledged players.

      If the government refuses to get involved in an area, then that area will be controlled by other entities; often this means corporations motivated by short-term profit-seeking, and this is usually bad for America. Consider, for instance, the cancerous power of hedge funds. See here and here.

      Regarding the "exurbs," even the definition you cited makes it clear that the "exurbs" are areas where farms are being cleared out to make way for expanding suburbs: "Exurbs are areas that are in transition from their traditional rural setting to something more urban. They are often transformed into suburbs or edge cities within a 20-30 year period." The version of the "exurbs" you described is a misleading snapshot. The trend is ominous and it inevitably results in more and more houses being built on land where crops used to be raised. Just look at the photo I included with my post, and you can see that the farms in the photo are going to someday soon be used for cheaply made houses and playground equipment.

      I'll let the other readers decide whether I have an either/or mentality, since you've decided that you need to do that bit of psycho-analysis to distract from your improper use of the term "exurb."

  16. rosa says:

    i hate cities I prefer the country, open spaces etc. cities to me are cages, just imagine more and more people stacked on top of each other, just ask those people in the phillipines what it is like living in those shacks.

    stack and pack um guys. of course the more people forced into cities via economic means or social stigma means or some other means against their will the more pollution the more expensive it is(supply and demand boys) the more stress the more misery.

    hong kong has a pop density of 36,000 per sqaure mile, do you suppose that is the look into the future of sustainablity? people are starting to look at prosperity as a sin, feeling guilty because they are making life better for everyone, and needing some kind of repentance, doens't that sound a bit like a relgion? we offended God so now we must make amends and pay a penatly called higher prices or taxes?

    the only sin I see is people in power, wealth or otherwise lying to people about what the real enviromental problems are and getting people to "tear" at each other, pointing at the sins of their neighbors instead of the real criminals.

    we need more laws, more taxes to control peoples selfishness blaa blaa. first you would have to identify the real culprit to the problem, and a defintion of selfishness that is just or fair to all concerned. you have to make sure you are targeting the right culprit to the problem your trying to solve.

    when has taxes and more laws ever solved a real problem? one area I read about the enviromentalist got the gov to close down lumbar companies (small time guys not mega corp) because they claimed it was hurting the types and number of species. then because there was overgrowth, they prevented controlled burns, and as a result of this in a 50 year span, debris, dead trees etc built up, number of species dropped, number of replacement saplings dropped.

    so did it help the animals at all? I don't see how, especially when this is going on in many places out west (could that be why the massive forest fires are incresing per year rather than global warming being the cause?)some fires are being deliberatly set by enviromentalist who believe that humans don't belong in wilderness as if we all came from outer space or something.

    so we all have to be very careful what the real problems are and real solutions, I wouldn't put much trust in what the tv tells you is the problem and solutions. they only tell you what the wealthy want you to believe, indoctrination as it were.

    by the way mega corporations still get to clear cut, you just don't see it because they are not ready to do that here and many areas now are off limits to hikers and bikers now and no doubt it is because they don't want you to see who is back there mining. probably some foreign owned mega corporaton. the gov itself maybe mining lumbar or minerals or some other thing that they knew would upset the americans if they found out.

    the hypocrisy of enviromentalism knows no bounds. so dont believe everything they tell you, the gov tells you or corp sponsored info, question, do your own research before making up your mind.

    by the way could that be the real reason for the wildlands project? get people off and away from valuable resources so foreign corp can come in to harvest it without uprisings or something? just something to think about. using the protection of biodiversity as a cover?

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