Are urban and rural lifestyles both better for the environment than suburbs? If so, how can we discourage people from building and living in them?



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    I’m hesitant to say that either rural or urban lifestyles are better or worse for the environment than suburban life, because all communities are different, and there are various issues associated with all of them. Personally, I live in a suburb. Yes, there are strip malls and housing developments constantly going up, and yes, traffic is increasing and people are driving more and more to get to their jobs. But suburban communities, at least where I live, tend to be the most active in preserving and creating parkland, managing infrastructure in a logical and responsible way, and synthesizing the environment with modern lifestyles. I live in a large apartment complex, but there is a creek bed supporting a huge ecosystem of frogs less than 500 yards from my front door. Granted, a suburb of Portland, Oregon is going to be different than a suburb of Houston, Texas, but I don’t think you can generalize about any particular lifestyle as being better or worse.

    Urban environments have their advantages. Huge cities like New York or major European cities tend to be compact, facilitating transportation alternatives like motor scooters, bicycles, mass transit or foot power. However, over 90% of the rain that falls on Manhattan runs off non-permeable surfaces, and even New Yorkers who make the choice to “buy organic” are responsible for considerable carbon emissions from the trucks that have to bring the organic food to them. Rural environments have the opposite issues. Sure, you can grow much of your own food in your own backyard, but unless you work from home or a subsistence farmer, you’re probably driving 30 miles or more a day just to get to work, not to mention reaching other essential services such as grocery stores, medical care, child care, schools, etc. Which lifestyle is more green? It depends on the person, the locality, where services are and how you get to them.

    Instead of making a choice to promote urban or rural lifestyles and then encouraging people to adopt them (or discouraging them from adopting the alternatives), I think a better approach is to accept that people will choose to live in cities, suburbs and the countryside for a wide variety of reasons which we can’t change, and then work to encourage sustainable living in each of those environments. It’s possible. A New Yorker who sells her car for a bicycle, a resident of San Bernardino who puts solar panels on their suburban house, or a country dweller who installs a wind turbine to generate their own electricity can all have huge positive impacts on the environment, and none are better or worse than another.

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