Good News: Cities are Growing, Suburbs are Slowing

It's greener to live in the city than in the suburbs.


For decades, city-dwellers have fled to the clean, quiet and spacious American suburbs, where McMansions have popped up faster than you can say "Applebee's." But the suburbs are not proving to be recession-proof, as the latest Census data shows - while cities are growing nationwide, suburban growth is slowing. It's good green news, considering that the average city dweller has a carbon footprint that is much smaller than a suburbanite's. Says the Wall Street Journal:

The Census data underscored how the recession and the real-estate slump have curbed migration, especially to suburbs and outer areas known as exurbs.

The central-city population in U.S. metropolitan areas with more than one million people (excluding New Orleans, where recent growth rates reflect residents returning to the city following Hurricane Katrina) grew at an annual rate of 0.97% between July 2007 and July 2008, according to Mr. Frey's analysis. That compared with a growth rate of 0.90% in 2006-2007, and growth rates around 0.5% in the years between 2002 and 2005, when the robust real-estate market led to new jobs and new housing developments outside the cities, where open land is more plentiful.

There are abundant reasons why it's greener to live in the city: public transportation, walkable neighborhoods, smaller houses and lower levels of energy use, to name the big ones. Edward Glaeser, a professor of economics at Harvard University, wrote earlier this year in the New York Times that suburbanites emit more carbon - sometimes several tons more - than their urban counterparts.

In almost every metropolitan area, we found the central city residents emitted less carbon than the suburban counterparts. In New York and San Francisco, the average urban family emits more than two tons less carbon annually because it drives less. In Nashville, the city-suburb carbon gap due to driving is more than three tons. After all, density is the defining characteristic of cities. All that closeness means that people need to travel shorter distances, and that shows up clearly in the data.

But cars represent only one-third of the gap in carbon emissions between New Yorkers and their suburbanites. The gap in electricity usage between New York City and its suburbs is also about two tons. The gap in emissions from home heating is almost three tons. All told, we estimate a seven-ton difference in carbon emissions between the residents of Manhattan’s urban aeries and the good burghers of Westchester County. Living surrounded by concrete is actually pretty green. Living surrounded by trees is not.

Many of the people making the switch from suburbs to city this year are not motivated by environmental factors, of course - and many are not even moving out of choice. Forced to give up their homes due to foreclosure or job loss or sheer expense, these Americans are opting to move close to the city to cut their living costs and find work. The influx has its drawbacks too, though - public transit systems across the country are in peril, and the Journal says that schools are struggling to accommodate their new students. Nevertheless, the shift could mean greener living for ex-suburbanites across the country, whether they realize it or not. They can heed Glaeser's motto: "If you want to take good care of the environment, stay away from it."


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