Suburban Sprawl’s Impact on the Carbon Footprint

The way America has been built in the last half century has assured that a majority of the population is dependent on the car to get to work, to school, to shop or virtually any place.  This is the opinion of Andres Duany and Jeff Speck, who are city planners and co-authors of “The Smart Growth Manual” as well as “Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream”, writing in a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post.  “This is sprawl, the dominant American pattern of settlement, and sprawl, more than anything else, has cemented our relationship with oil,” according to the authors.

Urban planners have been working for more than 30 years to find a solution to get people out of their cars and create environments that are walkable.  Suburban sprawl has been identified as contributing to some of the major challenges Americans face – oil dependency, climate change and soaring healthcare costs.  According to the authors, discussions of climate change and our carbon footprint are not often mentioned in terms of city planning.  “The sustainable-building movement is fixated on gizmos – ‘what can I buy for my house to make it greener?’ – but the thing that really matters is location,” the authors say.  A study has found that households in downtown Chicago produce just 25 percent of the greenhouse gases as households in suburban Kane County.  That has less to do with energy-efficient appliances, but the need of suburbanites to spend so much time in their cars.

“Ending our love affair with the automobile, no matter how unhealthy it has become, seems overwhelmingly disruptive.  Although more and wider roads lead only to more congestion, states are loath to reject federal highway dollars such as those offered in economic stimulus packages.  Highways are easy things to spend money on, so who cares if what they stimulate is sprawl?” Duany and Speck note.