The whole world woke up and found it was suburban. That’s the prediction of a new piece in The Economist that argues the world has a whole is quickly becoming ex-urban, with population densities in many major world cities declining. Rising affluence is sparking suburbanization in economies like China just as it once did in the West. The piece is largely sanguine about the effects this will have on quality of life, but does believe countries with growing suburbs can learn from some mistakes the West has made:
Suburbanites tend to use more roads and consume more carbon than urbanites (though perhaps not as much as distant commuters forced out by green belts). But this damage can be alleviated by a carbon tax, by toll roads and by charging for parking. Many cities in the emerging world have followed the barmy American practice of requiring property developers to provide a certain number of parking spaces for every building—something that makes commuting by car much more attractive than it would be otherwise. Scrapping them would give public transport a chance.The second is that it is foolish to try to stop the spread of suburbs. Green belts, the most effective method for doing this, push up property prices and encourage long-distance commuting. The cost of housing in London, already astronomical, went up by 19% in the past year, reflecting not just the city’s strong economy but also the impossibility of building on its edges.
One thing the piece does mention is the way new technologies allow people to live in the suburbs while keeping carbon consumption down. As telework becomes more common, workers in jobs that can be done remotely will save carbon by telecommuting. Online delivery services of everything from food to clothes will also decrease emissions. And the way these technologies will allow people to stay home more often will not only reduce the environmental costs of suburbanization, but also the social costs of serious commuting. The West didn’t have the ability to take advantage of these technologies when suburbanization began here—but we, and the rest of the world, now can.