Debating smart growth: Is urban or suburban living better?

Is the "Dickensian gloom" of a high-density urban community better or worse than the sprawl of a suburban community? The debate over the merits of smart growth simmers between two experts.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor on

The debate over smart growth has become political: is the "Dickensian gloom" of a high-density urban community better or worse than the sprawl of a suburban community?

In a pair of point-counterpoint-styled posts on Planetizen, one urban planner and one environmental consultant go head-to-head to debate whether urban or suburban living is more efficient and environmentally-friendly.

In the pro-suburbs corner is Tony Recsei, an Australian environmental consultant and "Save Our Suburbs" president.

In the pro-cities corner is Michael Dudley, planning librarian and researcher for the Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Winnipeg.

Recsei argues:

  • Greenhouse gas emissions of those living in high-density areas are greater than for those living in low-density areas.
  • Transportation emissions are responsible for only a small fraction of household emissions.
  • Why? Lower occupancy rates in high-rises compared to single-residential homes, as well as the use of elevators, clothes dryers, air-conditioners and common lighted areas.
  • There is greater energy per resident required to construct a high-rise.
  • Transportation: For many journeys, public transport is unsuitable or even forbidden (bulky goods, pets, overall inconvenience).
  • Length of commute in terms of time does not decrease as density increases
  • In a study, rates for psychosis in Sweden were 70 percent greater in denser areas.
  • Social activities of people in the center of spacious small towns is nearly twice that in dense large cities.

Recsei ends with this note: "Smart Growth policies forced into unwilling communities do not reduce greenhouse gas emissions, do not facilitate travel, do not improve health, do not increase housing choice and do not reduce overall costs."

Dudley, a proponent of smart growth, was taken aback by this argument.

Dudley argues:

  • Recsei made selective use of the data and misrepresented studies on greenhouse gases, transportation, health, infrastructure and the cost of housing.
  • Melbourne (population: 4 million) is too sprawling to be considered a proper example of urban public transit. New York City would be better.
  • Everyone in urban areas stands to gain from well-funded and well-run transit services, even if they don’t patronize them.
  • According to a study, the American economy loses over $63 billion in productivity due to congestion.
  • Public transit and active transportation investments are providing more choices without taking people's freedom to drive cars away.
  • The authors of the Sweden study were careful not to claim that urban density itself was to blame for high rates of psychosis. A lack of social support or socio-economic conditions were suggested as reasons.
  • Smart growth may correlate with increased demand for urban living and thus higher prices, but smart growth does not actually cause housing unaffordability, and merely works to reduce it.

Dudley ends with this: "Opponents of Smart Growth too often fall back on hyperbole and disingenuous rhetoric."

What do you think? Is urban or suburban living a smarter solution?


Infographic: Urban Age

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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