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Urbanism is not Environmentalism

I had a pretty irritating discussion with someone recently who wasn't keen on the urbanist lifestyle. From his perspective, the motivation behind walking, bicycling, and living in a dense places is purely ideological. To this person, the only reason why someone would choose to do these things is because they believe such actions are necessary to save the planet.

(from Flickr user Fran├žois Hogue)

Eventually, the discussion devolved, until it got down to him making arguments like:
You call yourself an urbanist but you fly on airplanes? hypocrite. You eat meat? hypocrite. You rent a car and drive places occasionally? hypocrite. You buy packaged food? hypocrite. You ride on elevators in tall buildings? hypocrite. You buy electricity off the grid from corporations that burn fossil fuels? hypocrite.
If I were claiming to be an environmentalist, then I might be experiencing some cognitive dissonance; but I'm not. Urbanism is about more than the environment. It's about improving quality of life. Riding my bike everywhere means I can be mobile, stay in shape, and eat whatever I want. Living in a dense neighborhood means I can have tons of amenities right outside my doorstep. If it turns out that I have a smaller carbon footprint than the person ten miles down the road living in McMansion suburbia with three SUVs parked in the garage, great! But it's not my primary motivation.

Most evidence will show that good urbanism is better for the environment than sprawl (some CATO publications will argue otherwise, but that's a story for another day). But the environment benefits are a side effect of good urbanism. Urbanism alone is not the cure for the environment. If anyone tries to argue otherwise, I simply try to point out that the argument is a straw man fallacy and try to move the conversation to something meaningful. I'm not sure what else I can do, honestly.


Cavan said…
While the two are not the same, in our current day, they are very intertwined.

The person you were talking to was just being a curmudgeon ass-hat. I advocate for urbanism because of the environmental causes publically and also for the quality of life issues privately. However, when I'm testifying to the county council of my suburban county that also has very large urban downtowns, I can't make the quality of life argument. I need to make the arguments out of environmentalism and also fiscal and economic responsibility.

Remember that urbanism is far, far, cheaper for society with fewer negative subsidies and externalities than car-dependent places.
J.D. Hammond said…
Your traveling companion's arguments sound a lot like a teenager in his Ayn Rand phase, before he knows about, well, anything, really.

"Durrr you talk about oppressive hierarchies but you wear glasses made of plastic, therefore those oppressive hierarchies must not exist!"

Honestly, responding to that sort of nonsense dignifies it entirely too much.
John Morris said…
Yet another pitch for the group blog idea. Your posts are very good.

An interesting tidbit that proves your point is that almost all the objective rankings of global economic systems place Hong Kong and Singapore at or near the top. Yet, these are two of the most dense, urban and mixed use areas on earth.

I'm not sure about Singapore, but Hong Kong runs a for profit and highly sucessful transit system.

Earlier, London, New York and Amsterdam ranked very highly as free market cities, along with the cities of the Hanseatic League. All of them are highly rational, models of pedestrian and bicycle paradises. To my knowledge, most people still walk around to shop.

The primary motivation for these urban environments is economic and social logic and not "environmentalism".

What we are going to find out in the near future as the country goes broke, is that in fact is the car based extreme surburban model that is totally irrational and anti-capitalist.
BruceMcF said…
Quite ... its natural coalition politics, but it is a coalition of interests rather than a homogeneous bloc.

Urbanist advocates of changing the subsidized sprawl status quo could pursue an improved quality of life in ways that waste resources or in ways that conserve resources, but since the latter is possible, designing with an eye to sustainability makes it easier to attract allies.

And more material and energy efficient neighborhoods than the sprawl status quo ... whether inner urban / inner suburban or suburban transit villages ... can be either more or less liveable than subsidized sprawl ... but "less liveable" is a lot harder to gain allies for than "more liveable".

But the existence of a natural coalition does not mean that the two groups simply overlap - different people will support the project for more liveable, more sustainable urban residential neighborhood for different reasons.

Now, in grad school in the early 90's I was reading Jane Jacobs and Kenneth Boulding on the side for what was not being taught in regional economics class ... so I guess I am in the overlap group who are in both camps at the same time.
John Morris said…
"Almost all the objective rankings of global economic systems place Hong Kong and Singapore at or near the top as "most free".

That's what I meant to say.

Anyway, Urbanophile has a good piece up about Carmel, Indiana, a very typical boom sprawl suburb of Indianapolis that is trying to transform into a more walkable, mixed use community. Some of the images are pretty gross and banal, but even so what matters is that the motivation is not "wacko environmentalism" but fiscal prudence and that it's driven and supported by developers who see this as profitable.

This is going on all over the place. If you walked far enough down East Carson on Pittsburgh's South Side you would have come to the South Side Works, a very succesful mixed use mixed use project that fits into the street grid. The boom suburb of the North Hills, Cranberry, is also starting to move in this direction.

The biggest example I can think of is the planned retrofit of Tyson's Corner in Northern, Virginia.
Anonymous said…
Gold Star Post.

Now add the following constraints that muddy the issue.

Urban areas, almost by definition, are ill suited to agriculture. So both the "inner ubranite" and the "mcmansionite" will require things to be imported from the countryside, generally by motorized transport.

Therefore, there will be a lot of resources spent on roads, vehicles, and so on. Period. Will the footprint of the mcmansionite be higher? Maybe so, but will it be enough to matter? One wonders.

But if you enjoy urban life, then go enjoy urban life.

(The subsidy and waste of resources arguments have some problems - like - there will always need to be a lot of roads. And some of the waste of resources drives up property values that create tax bases.)

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