As managing editor of Planetizen, I'd like to make a quick note on today's op-ed, Resisting Dickensian Gloom by Tony Recsei. Mr Recsei asked for a chance to respond to a recent criticism of his work by Planetizen regular Michael Dudley. It is our policy at Planetizen to allow points of view that are critical of the status quo in urban planning, so I agreed to run the piece. I did ask Mr. Recsei to tone down some of the more personal attacks on smart growthers so that his points could be presented more clearly to our audience, and I believe he has done that.
I did do one bit of fact-checking, because I was interested in the work of the Australian Conservation Foundation, which Mr. Recsei cites. His interpretation is that inner-city residents of Australian cities create more greenhouse gas emissions than those who live in suburban areas. I asked Charles Berger, Director of Strategic Ideas at the ACF, if that was the case. Here is his response:
Yes, the ecological footprint of Australians living in urban centres is very substantially higher than for Australians living in suburban or regional areas. This is largely a consequence of higher wealth and higher consumption patterns in inner-city areas in Australia, rather than having anything to do with urban form per se.
The findings are quite challenging for some environmentalists. In particular, they suggest that merely increasing urban densities and using public transport will not necessarily reduce total or per-capita ecological footprints. In Australia, wealthy inner city residents are driving less than others, but have increased consumption in nearly every other category of goods and services. Whatever savings are being achieved by bicycling and walking are being more than counterbalanced by increased airplane flights, food, clothing, and much else besides.
We are aware that some commentators have used these findings to encourage unsustainable peri-urban developments, and we categorically reject their conclusions. Eco-footprints in suburban areas in Australia are lower than in the urban core in spite of, not because of, lower residential densities. What the pro-urban sprawl groups also miss is that fact that Australian ecological footprints are across the board far higher than any reasonably sustainable level. Neither inner urban nor outer suburban development patterns are currently anything like sustainable.
Neither consumption-intensive inner city lifestyles, nor vehicle-dependent suburban lifestyles, are compatible with ecological imperatives. The main finding of our Consumption Atlas is that both need to change, and change dramatically.