Monday, May 30, 2011

Suburbs Ignored in New Sustainability Efforts

The New York Times on Sunday, May 29, 2011, published an interesting article by John M. Broder on the partnership between Former President Bill Clinton and New York City Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and their efforts to fight climate change by engaging 40 of the world’s largest cities.  While I applaud this effort, my concern is that we do not have a coherent national (or global) effort to look at different types of land uses to address sustainability holistically.  Focusing on 40 cities seems limiting.

Suburban landscape of the Tampa Bay Region
(photo by Robert Brinkmann, June 2011).
Let me show you a few statistics about Hillsborough County, Florida to show you what I mean.  According to the US Census, Hillsborough County had a population of 1,195,317 people.  The county contains three cities:  Tampa (population 332,888), Plant City (33,142), and Temple Terrace (22,695).  Thus, 388,725 people are within a city governance system and 806,592 are not.  If Florida took the approach advocated by Clinton and Bloomberg by focusing only on cities for sustainability investment, it would leave out approximately 70% of the citizens of Hillsborough County in the process.  These types of statistics can be repeated for many urbanized regions of the US and the world.

Urban areas certainly have density advantages that suburban areas do not.  However, it is unrealistic to think that the suburbs are insignificant in sustainability efforts.  In academic literature and in policy discussions, they are largely ignored.

I think this happens because sustainability in cities is easy.  There is usually a top down governance system that can implement a command and control of policy to impact many people.  In addition, cities have density and infrastructure advantages.  Thus, it is easy to have a big impact by coordinating within a city government system.  New York City, therefore, can do tremendous things easily, while neighboring suburban Long Island, with its complexity of local governments, becomes a more complicated region to facilitate change.

Suburban landscape in Florida.  How can landscapes like
this be part of sustainability efforts?
Yet, suburbs have their own advantages that are rarely part of the broader discussions on sustainability.  In addition, there are many suburban communities that are doing amazing things within the realm of sustainability that are rarely captured within sustainability literature or discussions of best practices. 

I wonder what impact the Clinton/Bloomberg climate change efforts would have if they included suburban areas within their framework?  Is it possible to benchmark and coordinate suburban efforts?  While focusing on 40 of the world’s largest cities is laudable, there are many who will be left behind in this urban framing of sustainability if this is the extent of national and international investment.

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