Sorry, Suburbs—Cities Are Cooler


Most discussions on how to reduce your carbon footprint focus on what you drive and how well your house is insulated. Those issues are certainly vital, but the bigger issue may really be how much  you drive and how big  your residence is.  And those, in turn, get you into the wonky subject of land use.

There is a growing sense among experts on of climate change that development patterns of communities are a key determinant of greenhouse gas emissions: People who live in more sparsely populated suburbs will inevitably drive more miles and will tend to live in larger homes that use lots of energy, no matter how well they are insulated.

The latest example of this new consensus is a report issued last week by the Metropolitan Policy Program of the Brookings Institution. News coverage of Shrinking the Carbon Footprint of Metropolitan American in outlets such as the New York Times focused on differences in per capita carbon emissions among metropolitan areas, which Brookings attributes primarily to factors such as differences in climate and power-plant fuel mix.

Yet the main message of the report is that urban areas overall play a key role in limiting greenhouse gas emissions thanks to the more compact structure of communities and the availability of public transit as an alternative to CO2-spewing automobiles. More densely populated areas, the authors note, also make more efficient use of electric, water, sewage and communications infrastructure.

This is true, they find, not only when comparing metro areas to non-metro areas but also to a certain extent among urban areas. Older cities such as New York, Chicago, Boston and San Francisco that have denser population distribution and more extensive transit systems are all low per-capita emitters, while sprawling, car-dependent metro areas such as Nashville and Oklahoma City rank high.

The authors admit there are exceptions to the rule. Washington, DC, for instance, has a relatively high level of transit use but also has an elevated level of per-capita CO2 emissions, largely because of the large amount of coal used by electric utilities in the region.

The Brookings report builds on prior research such as the path-breaking Growing Cooler report—written by a team led by Reid Ewing of the National Center for Smart Growth—which summarizes scholarship on the links between land use and climate change. A recent working paper by Evans Paull of the Northeast-Midwest Institute takes the discussion a step further and argues that brownfield and in-fill development projects within cities create the potential for even more dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.

Smart growth turns out to be smart not only for quality of life but also for quality of the climate.

3 Responses to “Sorry, Suburbs—Cities Are Cooler”

  1. Modern Land Run Says:

    Sorry Logic Is More Like It…

    Why is it that the urban movement bandwagon is predicated with an assumption that everyone either currently does, or should and thus one day will, work in their respective inner city? A recent report by the Brookings Institution studies the per capita …

  2. Phil Mattera Says:

    The point is not that *everyone* should live in cities. Yet the health of the planet seems to require that the bias toward suburban development that existed for more than 50 years in the U.S. be replaced with incentives to get people to live in more compact communities that use less energy and thus generate lower levels of greenhouse gases.

  3. Transit Ridership Grows, But Agencies Can’t Keep Up « Says:

    […] constrained by tight budgets, will be able to expand services to sprawling communities. Also, as we blogged about on Monday, the compact form of urban areas plays a key role in limiting greenhouse gas […]

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