The moment was an unlikely one for the dawning realization that great cultural divides exist even between developed nations. I was sitting idly on an airplane, looking out the window as it started its decent into Frankfurt.
When I fly into American cities I see a familiar pattern in the landscape below. Forest or farmland turns into light suburbia, then denser housing, small apartment buildings and finally the city itself. Frankfurt was totally different: forest, forest, farmland, small city, farmland, then — no warning — Frankfurt.
It is hard for me to adequately describe the jarring contrast. Frankfurt is a large city, the fifth-largest in Germany, with 700,000 people in the city and 2.2 million in the metropolitan area. Yet just three miles from its city center lies sprawling farmland. Instead of traditional American suburbs, in Frankfurt urban islands spring out from amid the farm or forestland.
To make a comparison, take Columbus, Ohio — a city of comparable size to Frankfurt. It has a population of about 750,000, making it the 15th-largest city in the United States. Although it’s known for being out in the cornfields, the closest cornfields are actually 6 miles from the city center. Perhaps more importantly, if you travel in another direction, you will find over 12 miles of suburbs before you hit any farmland. In Frankfurt, farmland is never more than 5 miles away. Columbus is not particularly unique; the contrast between Frankfurt and almost any American city is just as stark. Check it out on Google Maps to see for yourself.
After comparing the American city to the German city, it should be no wonder that Germany emits half as much CO2 as the United States. First, Germans drive less and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, transportation accounts for 29 percent of emissions in the United States. Second, Germans are more likely to live in apartments, and apartments are not only smaller, they also share walls with other apartments, meaning that households help insulate each other.
We Americans should learn from our European counterparts and model our city organization after theirs. The ideal of the suburban neighborhood should become nothing more than a quaint anecdote by the next generation. There are obvious cultural benefits of living in a city, and densely packed cities allow easy access to parks and forests. But most importantly, cities are the only way that the 6 billion people (and rising!) on this Earth are going to squeeze together without destroying the environment. As the fifth-highest per capita polluter in the world (behind four Middle Eastern countries), we have a global responsibility.
It’s not enough just to live in a metropolitan area. According to the Population Reference Bureau, 79 percent of Americans live in urban environments, whereas only 73 percent of Germans do. But many of those Americans living in “urban” environments are really suburbanites, who can be some of the worst polluters. Suburbanites often have long commutes, tend to live in single-family homes and manage to find lots of other nifty ways to waste resources — like watering their lawns.
City dwellers in the United States pollute far less than the average American. According to a 2008 Brookings study, the 100 largest cities all have lower per capita emissions than the American average. But the savings really kick in when you live in a large city. The two largest cities in the country, New York and Los Angeles, have, respectively, the fourth- and second-lowest per capita emissions of any American city. New Yorkers pollute at about a third of the national average.
So what can we do to kick our suburban habit? For one, the government could eliminate the tax deduction for home-interest payments. This would make living in an apartment more attractive. And cities could also eliminate zoning, which prevents the building of skyscrapers.
But for the most part, city living isn’t a policy question — it’s a cultural preference. Americans’ desire for a piece of property goes at least all the way back to our nations’ founders, who thought the right to vote should be predicated on property ownership. Ingrained in our national psyche is an outdated Jeffersonian ideal of a libertarian lifestyle in which each man is sovereign on his own property.
We’re finally starting to realize that isolationism doesn’t work anymore in the global political environment. Likewise, personal isolationism isn’t going to work anymore for our physical environment. Americans need to learn to live in the city.
Tyler Ibbotson-Sindelar is a senior in Branford College.