🏡 The suburbs get a second act 🌆
It's not just golf courses anymore ⛳️
Climate Solutions // I S S U E # 69 // City Quitters
Hothouse is original climate journalism with a way to act. As a climate solutions newsletter, we dig into the evidence, figure out what works, and deliver the news to your inbox. This issue is the second installment in a series on city quitters. Subscribe here.
Last week, Rosie Spinks argued we’re driving ourselves crazy trying to cram into a few big coastal metropolises as the way to a “successful” life. After leaving London for the shores of Margate, England, she took stock. “Living in a place that is less obsessed with consumption, achievement, and ambition has made me less so, as well,” she admits.
With the pandemic challenging so many assumptions, the suburbs (and small towns) deserve another look. For those trying to live the good life for themselves and the climate, city quitters may be leading the way. Enjoy our next issue in the city quitters series below.
🔎 📰 Hothouse reads the news 💡
Leaves vs. machines: There’s a lot of argument over whether to use natural carbon sinks (wetlands, forests, grasslands) or engineered solutions (direct air capture and biofuels) to draw down CO2 levels. The Brits did the math. Both appear essential. To avoid overshooting 2C, “there is no single solution that could scale up fast enough,” argues a coalition of business leaders and researchers.
Just split it: The “Global Safety Net” aims to conserve half the Earth’s land area. We’re closer than you think. More than 15% of the Earth’s surface is already protected. Indigenous groups inhabit another 12%. If all signed on, that leaves another 23% to set aside. There’s more than enough land left without encroaching on any human settlement or agriculture, argues the former chief scientist for the World Wildlife Fund, Eric Dinerstein. You can explore the areas on Google Earth here. We could have a safe, stable sustainable biosphere by 2050 without any new technologies if we set aside this land (hey, rewilding 👋🏼), end deforestation by 2040, and transition to clean energy. “We have the tools at our disposal if we just do it,” says Dinerstein.
It’s not just you: People are depressed about climate change. Facing it alone is the problem, we argued last January, and the antidote is acting together. Scientists now agree. A study by faculty from Yale and Suffolk University published this February found that engaging in collective action, but not individual action, significantly reduced the link between climate change anxiety and depression. “Climate change anxiety is a societal problem, it’s not an individual problem,” said co-author Laelia Benoit, a research scientist at the Yale School of Medicine. “It’s because our society is denying and ignoring climate change and not taking enough action, that individuals start feeling mental distress.” The study recommends “the importance of creating opportunities for collective action to build sense of agency in addressing climate change.”
Can “city quitters” remake the suburbs?
By Rosie Spinks
For a long time, suburbs have been an afterthought, an uncouth accessory to the city and home to the “bridge-and-tunnel” crowd. In the climate context, they’ve been dismissed in favor of dense cities, so-called “climate saviors”, where far more people can live together, ostensibly with less impact on the climate.
But suburban growth has only accelerated during this time. The share of Americans preferring to live in suburbs hit 46% last year (up from 42% a few years earlier), compared to 19% who prefer cities, reports Pew. Smaller metros, outlying suburbs, as well as small towns, have all seen population gains, despite the US growing at its slowest pace in history last year. According to the latest census data, the sprawl in and around Phoenix, Houston, Dallas, Austin, and Atlanta added 300,000 residents alone.
It’s all well and good for urbanists and climate experts to emphasize dense, mixed-use, and transit-oriented cities as the green future. And you may wonder why a climate solutions newsletter would entertain a case for suburbanization. But, in fact, writing about city quitters is simply a recognition of what’s already happening. For reasons explored in our last issue, the political and economic reality means increasing numbers of people feel they can’t feasibly build lives in our dense urban centers. Since our first dispatch on the topic, the latest US census data shows four top major urban metros—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and San Francisco—lost 700,000 people between July 2020 and July 2021.
Whether climate advocates like it or not, mega-dense coastal cities are losing some of their appeal. It’s clearly time for a rethink.
A more progressive approach, argues University of Victoria climate researcher Hannah M. Teicher and her co-authors in an article for the journal Climate Policy, would be to reimagine the long-ignored suburbs as hubs of climate action, using policies and investments that are tailored to the suburban context. “The suburban form itself hasn’t been particularly conducive to taking aggressive climate action,” Teicher tells Hothouse. “And for so long now, it’s been a major trope that density and public transit are the way to go. Obviously, if you’re living in a car-dependent environment, that seems to just leave you out in the cold. So what do you do?”
Therein lies the big question. Perhaps the suburbs don’t have to be the sprawling, car-dependent bogeyman of the 20th century. Rather than pit cities against suburbs, a better bet could be making our suburbs look a bit more like cities. They could embrace so-called “gentler density” schemes, transit-oriented development, micro-mobility trends, and redeveloping spaces and areas that are already built up.
In this way, “city quitting” becomes less about trading one location for another, like I did, and more about embracing new mindsets about how we need to start living—wherever we choose to call home.
Turning the suburbs into cities
Arguing for the suburbs doesn’t mean dismissing the future of cities, says Rick Cole, executive director of Congress for the New Urbanism, a membership organization that promotes walkable urbanism. It’s about embracing elements of each. “Should cities become more affordable or do we need to make suburbs more urban? I think the answer is both,” Cole says. “There needs to be an effort to address the increasing stratospheric prices for housing in the great cities of the world, but there also can and should be greater urbanization of smaller cities and their suburbs.”
Even the concept of sprawl itself is due for a rethink. Sprawl is traditionally characterized as expanses of single-family homes, few mixed-use spaces, restrictive zoning, and car-centric layouts. This consumes enormous amounts of land and fossil fuels and encourages sedentary lifestyles. But if increasing numbers of people move and work from the suburbs—rather than commuting—some of urban sprawl’s worst effects can be avoided, including commute times linked to poor mental health and lower life satisfaction.
Las Vegas’ urbanization from 1984 to 2018. Notice Lake Mead shrinking (Thanks, NASA)
To physically reimagine our suburbs, we should start with cars. The primary ways suburban landscapes have been transformed to date is by aggressively subsidizing new roads. By building new roads, “we’re essentially subsidizing sprawl,” Teicher says. She suggests instead that this funding might be used for suburbs-specific policies including retrofitting small, aging buildings; designing redevelopment areas for true mixed-use zoning; and rehabbing greyfields for expansive public greenspace used by people looking for social interaction.
“I think in the suburbs there’s a lot of resistance to turning them into cities and that’s understandable, so it’s about looking at alternative ways that you can achieve some of that density,” Teicher says. “It’s not just necessarily about building a four-story building with tiny condos in it.… There are innovative ways that you can have, say, interlocking terraced housing that still allow for some greenspace attached to the unit and allow for density at the same time.”
“Different kinds of diversities”
Living in monocultures is bad for biodiversity—and society.
It was 2004 when journalist and author Bill Bishop first posed the idea of “the big sort,” wherein Americans were increasingly, even unknowingly, clustering themselves according to shared political and cultural values. By doing so, they were having less and less interaction with people who think differently than them. The idea, eventually turned into a book referenced by President Clinton, foreshadowed the extreme polarization sweeping across virtually every sector of American society today.
The sorting has only accelerated since then: a record number of US counties are now dominated by a single political party, what one political analyst described as Whole Foods and Cracker Barrel countries (and US president Joe Biden lost two-thirds of the latter). From a climate perspective, this concentrates people likely to support aggressive climate action in affluent, coastal cities with highly-educated post-graduates. Meanwhile, those living in conservative districts rank climate change lower and lower among their priorities.
Hothouse is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support our work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
That’s made perfect the enemy of good when passing local climate legislation in blue communities, while extinguishing hope of action in conservative districts. “We often have climate change policies that, because they’re not perfect, they’re not acceptable in a given area,” says Nives Dolsak, director of the School of Marine & Environmental Affairs at the University of Washington, Seattle. “Living in these homogeneous areas [means] we hold good policies hostage because they’re not perfect and we never get a working climate policy.”
This concentration of human capital in a few hyper-dense urban centers may prove unsustainable. Just five major coastal cities accounted for 90% of employment growth in US high-tech industries during the 15 years before the pandemic. As renowned—and ideologically opposed—urban studies scholars Richard Florida and Joel Kotkin wrote of this trend, “any shift away from superstar cities may augur a long-overdue and much-needed geographic recalibration of America’s innovation economy.”
Dolsak and her co-author—who have a front seat to the overheated Seattle real estate market—have a proposal to do this: employers should leave the city first, not just individuals like me who have the means—freelance or cushy remote jobs—to try out a new lifestyle. A more balanced employment base, enabled by better infrastructure on order in the $1 trillion infrastructure bill Congress just passed—would mix the so-called “virtuals” (well-compensated knowledge economy workers who tend to be in favor of climate action) and “practicals” (blue-collar workers who have missed out on concentrated urban wealth). “We need employers to move,” Dolsak says. “[It’s possible] that this ability to do work remotely will not persist for a large enough number of employees, and unless we move [large] employers to those areas, we will not have long-lasting impacts at scale.”
If Amazon, Dolsak co-wrote, pledged to locate half of new corporate jobs to bottom income quartile counties as part of its climate pledge…
…just think how this could spread prosperity and reduce political polarization…New social connections will be made as families interact in grocery stores, schools, and soccer fields. As Virtuals and Practicals learn to bowl together, ideological echo chambers could be breached. And this would provide momentum to climate policy.
The hope is that this recalibration could also bring some newer, much-needed forms of diversity to the civic conversation. While this is no guarantee in the age of hyperpolarization, there are years of research showing people are more likely to be vitriolic assholes online versus when they are interacting with someone face-to-face. Most people's lived experience just bears this out, too.
Dolsak recalls her own experience living in a north Seattle suburb where some of her neighbors have views “diametrically opposite” to her family’s pro-climate action politics. “If we allow ourselves to talk about politics—which not all people allow themselves to do when they are in non-homogenous communities—we see that we come to a better compromise in terms of what ought to be done about climate change,” Dolsak says. “People tend to think about diversity in the singular, we should talk about it in the plural. There are different kinds of diversities that matter in terms of how we organize our lives including what kind of climate policy we adopt.”
Suburbs on the global stage
It’s important to note that there’s still not a simple answer to whether remote work is less polluting after all forms of consumption (heating, electricity, wifi, shopping, etc.) are considered. Even during restrictive lockdowns in 2020—when large swathes of the economy paused overnight—emissions only dropped roughly 7%.
Whether we live in a high-rise condo or a cottage, it’s a mindset, more than anything else, that may need to change going forward. “What we really have to confront is the real difficulty that we cannot sustain the kinds of lifestyles that we come to expect, whether it’s in the cities or the suburbs,” Teicher says. “In many ways, those kinds of [carbon footprint calculations] are really a distraction from this.”
For me, moving away from a big city helped me reframe what was important to me, and make changes in line with those values. It was less about re-calculating my carbon footprint, and more about recalibrating my outlook and what I expected from a troubled world. In writing this piece, I realized I was neither arguing for suburbs nor against cities. I was arguing against a way of life that puts consumption, achievement, and individualism above cooperation, understanding, and making do with a bit less stuff, so you can actually enjoy life more.
Hothouse is a weekly climate action newsletter written and edited by Mike Coren and Cadence Bambenek. We rely on readers to support us, and everything we publish is free to read. Follow us on Twitter or LinkedIn.