The fault of the suburbs

Are suburbanites to blame for melting Arctic ice and other ills of the planet? Yes, according to National Public Radio which today uses the story of a typical Atlanta area suburbanite who moved far enough away from work that it requires more time and energy.

What we don’t have in the story, however, is actual research. How far does the typical suburbanite travel to work? How much energy is used in the process. How much energy would be created if the cities created enough room — somehow — to nuke all the ‘burbs?

Coincidentally — I think — MinnPost yesterday carried an op-ed piece by Robert Bruegmann, a professor of art history, architecture and urban planning at the University of Illinois. He’s speaking at the U on Thursday. In the piece, called “Sprawl: It isn’t new — and it isn’t all bad,” Bruegmann notes that anti-sprawl policies have had the opposite of their intended effect, mostly in a huge spike in housing prices.


Although anti-sprawl measures continue to be popular in many places around the world, there has also been a growing recognition of the unintended negative consequences of these policies, particularly in the case of the unprecedented spike in housing prices in the most heavily regulated urban areas.

A study in Australia not long ago found, however, that the biggest environment footprint isn’t so much where people live, but what they buy. Shopping was identified as the big culprit.


Shopping habits represent such a large part of greenhouse gas emissions that even if every household switched to renewable energy and stopped driving cars tomorrow, total household emissions would fall by less than 20 per cent, the study found. On average, every additional dollar of consumption was responsible for 720 grams of greenhouse gas emissions and 28 litres of water.

In America’s first suburb, Levittown, N.Y., an aggressive plan is underway to get people to improve the energy use of their homes — somewhat easy given that the homes are nearly 60 years old.

What would be interesting is to compare the so-called “carbon footprint” of city people and suburbanites around here.

Here’s some calculators. Consider taking them and posting your results, indicating which camp you are in.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions Calculator - From the EPA. Enter your data, see how you compare to the average.

Cool Climate Calculator – An ongoing project from UC-Berkley, although it’s a little bit lame that the only region you can select for Minnesota is Minneapolis.

Individual Emissions Calculator – A little bit different in that it calculates how much you emit getting from here to there.

  • GregS

    And here I thought it was the summer sun that melted Arctic ice. From what I have read, this colder than normal winter has reformed the Arctic ice pack.

    Perhaps that is the difference between climate and weather.

  • Doug F

    Wow really, we can reverse over 100 years of CO2 emissions with one cold winter?

    On the other hand, it’s not the suburbs themselves that are the cause, although they are grossly inefficient, it’s how far people have to travel to get to work/shopping/entertainment.

    If you live in Circle Pines and work in Circle Pines, what’s the problem?

    Live where you work.