Durable Growth, Environment

Why urbanism matters

Balshaw Bridge in downtown Petaluma

Balshaw Bridge in downtown Petaluma

I just recently passed the 18-month anniversary of writing this blog.  I continue to enjoy the task and have no plans to stop.  But I must occasionally recharge my batteries by reminding myself why urbanism is important.

So, today’s post will be about the top five reasons why urbanism matters.  The reasons aren’t in any particular order.  Indeed, I don’t want to rank them.  Each is important.  None should be reduced by being last on a ranked list.

Nor are these the only reasons that could be listed.  There are undoubtedly more reasons that can be cited, including some about which I’ve written.  But these seem to be the most important reasons.  Feel free to quibble.

And so, here are my top five reasons why urbanism matters.

Market Preference: It may be puzzling to those who prefer their suburban lawns or their rural acreage, but there are people who prefer to live in urban settings.  And their numbers are increasing.

The demographic groups in which the trend is most evident are young adults and seniors.  But there are many across the economic spectrum who are seeing the wisdom, whether because of improved social networks, reduced transportation costs, or a concern for the environment, of living in walkable urban locations.  Recent polls show that more than half of all adults would prefer to live in walkable locations.

Some may to respond “So what?  We can’t afford to make everyone happy.”  The problem with that response is that urban living is often the less expensive housing option.  Not enough urban housing exists to meet the demand not because of its cost but because of unjustified institution impediments such as subsidized transportation and limited mortgage availability.

Having people who wish to live in a responsible fashion and denying them their wishes because of old and outdated habits is both absurd and contrary to a free market economy.

Financial Sustainability: Walkable urban neighborhoods often produce more property tax revenue than is needed to service the neighborhood and to maintain the neighborhood infrastructure.  Drivable suburban neighborhoods generally don’t meet that test.

If we want a smaller government that meets our needs and balances its book, we want urbanism.  As someone noted in a recent Smart Growth America panel, “A vote against urbanism is a vote for higher taxes.”

Wealth Creation: Civilization evolved in cities.  Nations were a later addition to the governmental structure, with states the last of all.  There was an inherent logic to that order.  Wealth is created in cities.  Rural land is absolutely essential to life, with food as the primary reason.  But it is in cities that economies are created which can pay for the food and allow the rural dwellers to live above a subsistence level.

Emily Badger of Atlantic Cities writes about how the scale of a city drives its creativity, which in turn creates wealth.

One could read Badger’s article and argue that we should all move into San Francisco, Oakland, or San Jose.  But that misses the point.  Instead, our goal should be to facilitate urban cores, whether in San Rafael, Cloverdale, or Napa, where the creativity can address the local issues and work toward creating economically thriving communities.

Climate Change: The science on climate change is settled.  There are remaining pockets of resistance, but the scientific community is overwhelming in favor of the theory that increasing emissions of greenhouse gases will cause fundamental changes in our climate, many of which will be harmful to our civilization.

But for sake of argument, let’s say that someone doesn’t concur, that they believe the science to be unsettled.  Given the scientific consensus, they still must concede that there is at least a possibility of climate change.

Even if one assigns a low probability to the possibility, the vast dislocations that are predicted from climate change must still be acknowledged and responses made.  We have certainly made significant changes in our culture because of the risk of terrorism.

By any reasonable measure, the risks of terrorist attack are less than the risks of climate change and the possible impacts from terrorist attack are less than the impacts from climate change.  So a response to the possibility of climate change is reasonable and demanded.

And the best response is to reduce carbon emissions, which requires reduced energy usage.  Of the energy efficiencies that are possible from lifestyle changes, up to 70 percent can be achieved by living in walkable communities.  You can take all the compact fluorescent bulbs, reduced energy-use appliances, and smart grids and trump them with a walkable setting.  Once again, urbanism is the answer.

Peak Oil: At one point, it was commonly believed that peak oil, the highest year of petroleum extraction, had been reached.  Some put it in 2003, others in 2005, but the general agreement was that petroleum production was in decline.

That belief is no longer as clear.  Between fracking, improved drilling practices, oil shale, and tar sands, some believe that petroleum production can continue at peak rates for many more years, perhaps even centuries.

But there seems something missing in that belief.  Even if one sets aside the climate change issue, we’re using a resource that took more than 100,000,000 years to be stored in the earth’s crust.  And we’re arguing whether it’ll last us 200 or 400 years.  Doesn’t that seem more than a bit greedy?  It’s like the first person in the buffet line taking all the shrimp and ignoring the hundreds of people in line behind him.

I don’t know if the people who will live on this planet in 2500 will need petroleum.  Perhaps they will have found all the fuel, lubricants, and raw materials they need elsewhere.  But I’d rather leave some petroleum in case they still have need for it.

Urbanism, through its energy efficiency, helps preserve petroleum.

And those are my top five reasons to support urbanism.  I find them fully convincing.

As always, your questions or comments will be appreciated.  Please comment below or email me.  And thanks for reading. – Dave Alden (davealden53@comcast.net)

Written by Dave Alden

Dave Alden

Dave Alden is a Registered Civil Engineer. A University of California graduate, he has worked on energy and land-use projects in California, Oregon, and Washington. He was also the president of a minor league baseball team for two seasons. He lives on the west side of Petaluma with his wife and two dogs. The blog that he writes can be found at http://northbaydesignkit.blogspot.com.

4 comments to Why urbanism matters

  • Rees Cramer

    Dave, This is the first time I have replied to your site and I have to say this is one of the best explanations of the true challenges and opportunities our nation will encounter in the next century. I recently moved back to midtown Atlanta after living in a small southern city and in a rural area of Tennessee. I grew up in rural Ohio. I love the countryside of America but you are very right that it is not a successful model for sustainability. The dysfunctional sprawl of Wal-Mart, drive troughs, and overbuilt sate highways is actually killing small towns across the nation. Medium sized cities are strangling themselves with suburban sprawl. It will be urban for me for the rest of my life.

    • Rees, thanks for the comment and the compliment.

      In case anyone might get the wrong message, I also love the American countryside and small towns. As long as they are handled consistently with the tenets of urbanism. For the countryside, I understand that some people wish to live there and that’s fine. As long as they’re willing to pay the additional costs of a lifestyle that requires more gas and often more infrastructure.

      And small towns can often be configured to be as walkable as large cities. You mention Ohio. My paternal grandparents were born in a small town in southeast Ohio. I still occasionally visit cousins there. The ancestral home is in a lovely neighborhood, with tree-lined streets providing walkable and bikeable routes to downtown. But when I leave town, I’m reminded of the other side of town, with big boxes and fast food places near the interstate. It’s disheartening. Lessons that could be easily learned by observation were missed.

  • Hi Dave,
    I’ve seen a few of your posts lately and I’m a big fan of your writing. One little addition I would make to your first point about market preference, though. You discuss the reasons more people are choosing to live in urban locations, “whether because of improved social networks, reduced transportation costs, or a concern for the environment,” but I think you’re missing one important aspect: it’s fun and convenient! Your points are completely valid, and to some degree I think “improved social networks” captures this point, but I also think it’s important to note that, for many people, the preference for urban life would (and does) exist regardless of financial, environmental, or any other higher-minded concerns.
    P.S. – Your Twitter “share” button causes a double-post of the post’s URL in the tweet; try it for yourself and you’ll see what I mean.

    • Dave, thanks for the kind words and for the link from your website.

      I agree with you about “fun and convenient”. As you surmised, I had intended “fun” to be implicit in “social networks”, but that was probably too subtle.

      I don’t see the same Twitter double URL to which you refer. My log of past tweets shows only a single URL. However, I have a guess about why it might be appearing elsewhere and have made a change in my set-up. If you could, let me know if you see a difference when I next tweet.

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