lawn = happiness?

May 31, 2009

Housing Costs in Cincinnati.
Yellow: 0-30% of Income; Green: 30%+ of Income

Yellow: 0-45% of Income; Green: 45%+ of Income

Housing + Transportation Costs in Cincinnati. Yellow: 0-45% of Income; Green: 45%+ of Income

A recent study put out by the Center for Neighborhood Technology (CNT) looks at how population density in a number of different-sized cities and their surrounding suburbs affects things like the cost of housing + transportation (important since conventional knowledge usually just considers housing costs alone–“it’s cheaper to live in the suburbs”) and the carbon dioxide emitted per household. This study is simply more evidence of what most of us already know, which is that it’s much more efficient environmentally to live in high-density population areas. The interesting thing about this study, is that it also shows the economic efficiencies we also usually get living in high-density areas by saving on transportation costs.

Most of us have grown up in one sense or another that part of the American Dream is to own a house, your own little kingdom that you have entire control over. It usually involves having a nice lawn, a place for a grill, an opportunity for your kids to play with the neighbors, a safe neighborhood, and relatively convenient to things like grocery stores, etc. Unfortunately, fulfilling these dreams usually means moving to the ‘burbs.

Make no mistake, I love being the master of my own domain, having grass to take naps in (and mow), being able to grill whenever I want, and all the rest. But ultimately this dream is unsustainable. It’s unsustainable both because there’s just not enough land close enough to areas of high economic activity (i.e. cities) for our current and growing population and because it’s terrible for the environment.

We need to adapt our understanding of what’s desirable and now begin to incorporate factors outside of ourselves in how we think about out domestic dwelling. There’s still plenty of room for public lawns, parks and other greenspace in high-density population areas, so we need not give that up. And perhaps if/when more people move into the cities, there will be even more demand for such quality of living spaces.

Most of us who appreciate and enjoy nature have a very understandable desire to live in it. It’s becoming more and more clear, though, that we’re not terribly good at taking care of nature when we live in it (akin to the 4 year old girl who lovingly carries the household cat dangling from its neck and front leg).

We need to quarantine ourselves from nature so that it’s still around in 150 years for successive generations to enjoy. This means increasing the areas owned and protected by our national parks system (which also means increasing funding to them) and decreasing the areas owned and developed into suburbs. This battle is going to be a very difficult one, but hopefully as more evidence like that published in this CNT study emerges, the economic reasons, rather than the moral reasons, will take over as the driving force.

One Response to “lawn = happiness?”

  1. A most insightful piece, Drausin. Thanks! A couple of comments. If James Howard Kuntsler and others are right, the imminent juncture of peak oil and the expensive wars we fight to keep our extravagant lifestyle pumping will one day turn many of today’s suburbs into tomorrow’s slums. But there are suburbs and there are suburbs. Near suburbs may still benefit from the urban efficiencies (public transit, proximity to services and commerce, etc.) you note in your essay and might remain viable. Or people will learn to live in suburbs differently. On a personal note, as someone who will shortly make a move into a suburb (wish me luck!), I contend that there are “green” advantages to be gained as well, to which I look forward: the ability to compost, to replace inefficient grass with carbon-sinking plants, to add pollution-reducing or mitigative elements to the yard (i.e. rain gardens). Sadly, none of these options is available to me in the city. If they were, I might be induced to stay and keep overpaying in rent. Self-justification? Probably. Anyway, keep up the good work.

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