Ibbotson-Sindelar: City living helps the planet

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.


  • yale11

    great piece! i absolutely agree: suburban sprawl must eventually become a historical antecdote.

  • Suburban Baltimore yalie

    Yes, I'm sure Frankfurt or any other of those gorgeous European cities had race riots that drove everyone out of them. I'd like to see the author move into inner-city Baltimore and try to survive for the sake of being green. Perhaps he can offer a solution to solve the problems cities face right now before chastising me for living in the outskirts?

  • Yale 08

    I choose liberty.

    The freedom to decide where and how I want to live.

    Who I want to associate with.

    Where I want my children to grow up.

    Where I want to retire to.

    The logical answer to all of this hyper-environmentalism is tyranny at best, and a massive suicide cult at worst.

    If humans do nothing but wreck the earth, why don't we just kill ourselves?

    The face of hyper-environmentalism is ugly.

  • Y'11

    The problem with environmentalists is that if you go up against them, you're the jerk who wants to destroy nature. Today, they harass you to forgo trays… tomorrow, they'll force you to move out of your pretty little rural farm because its carbon footprint is legally too high.

  • Yale08

    Also agree. Glad to see someone writing on this important issue!

  • Elizabeth Moore '09

    What this editorial advocates is nothing short of the most extreme form of Communism. Giving up (or being forced to give up) personal property and property rights, all while also being forced into cramped, urban, communal living situations, without the choices to decide how and where to live life?

    That sounds a lot like the Soviet Union to me, maybe even worse.

    I'll take liberty and the choice to pursue my life how I want to pursue it over "saving the environment," ie the politically correct way for this extremist to say "exert absolute control over every single aspect of people's lives and abolish all notions of freedom from the human condition."

    My choice is this. I'd rather die at 50 from some condition caused by all the environmental destruction we apparently propagate than live in a world like the author suggests until 100.

  • Yale '11

    I completely agree with Tyler.

    As for the comments, I cannot believe how incredibly arrogant these Yalies are. Getting rid of a tray is not hard, neither is turning off your lights, nor is biking instead of driving. The posters above seem to prefer doing all of these things just to spite others.

    Arguing for liberty does not excuse you from being assholes.

  • Anonymous

    Although I agree with the arguments in sentiment, they just have too much of an idealist ring for them to be practical. Nations didn't become the way they are overnight, and those suburbs won't disappear in a generation. America has what the European countries don't, and that is land, so the suburb sprawl comes naturally. Your suggestion is like saying, look, France has a great healthcare system, we should totally demolish the US system and build one after the French! Well it may sound good, reality doesn't work like that. Good try though.

  • @Yale 08

    Unfortunately for you, you live in a thing we call a society.

    It doesn't revolve around you, you, and you.

    Your status is not at all of your own making: you went to Yale and receive all the accolades that come with it; you invest money in a banking system that was not of your making; you receive income in an economy that is stable precisely because it trys to address the social and economic concerns of everyone who it supposedly represents — not just you.

    Grow up, please.

  • Yale '09


    You won't die at 50. Someone else will.

    But I'm sure they'll be happy to know you got your liberty.

  • Elizabeth Moore '09

    To Yale '11:

    Did you not read the editorial? The editorial does not concern every-day practices one can perform (simple things like turning off lights, recycling paper, not using/washing unncessary dishes, et cetera) that can help the environment. This editorial is not about doing simple tasks to reduce waste or consumption.

    This editorial instead advocates the abolution of private property when it calls the situation "in which each man is sovereign on his own property" an "outdated Jeffersonian ideal of a libertarian lifestyle." It advocates this (ie, the abolition of liberty and personal freedom) under the guise of environmental care, which is in fact, in this case, environmental extremism, tyranny, and an endorsement of Marxist principles that discourage and condemn the free and unrestrained ownership of property (specifically here, private houses and other things associated with houses).

    This isn't about being arrogant. I am pretty sure most people, myself included, are down with actions like turning lights off to 'do their part' and be less wasteful, but this editorial isn't talking about those kinds of things. Rather it is absurdly suggesting abolishing the free choice, autonomy, and personal property associated with private living/housing under the guise of 'saving the environment.'

  • Ferny

    Did I miss the commmunism here?

    All he's advocating for is that it is an outdated ideal that we should all own land.

    I didn't see the removal of property rights, just encouraging more people to rent, or to live in skyrises in large urban centers.

    There's a difference between "it's an ideal that we should change" to "it's an ideal that we should enforce upon other people using government action"

    This is much more the former. Seriously, Moore, you're a =Yale student. Read.

  • Yale '11

    What is more likely? That the government will step in and force Marxist principles upon everyone while discouraging and condemning the free and unrestrained ownership of property? Or that people will use the bullshit excuse of "the name of liberty and Jeffersonian ideal of a libertarian lifestyle" to purposely NOT turn off their lights for the sake of "personal liberty and autonomy."

    I'm inclined to see the latter. The article is advocating for government encouragement of urban living and the revitalization of our inner cities as a step towards alleviating environmental problems. You twist the article so that it becomes a vast left-wing/environmentalist conspiracy to "abolish free choice, autonomy, and personal property."

    It is arrogant and misinformed to associate vague, intellectualized buzzwords to something that is practical and necessary…

  • Elizabeth Moore '09

    To Ferny:

    The author saying that the idea of owning PROPERTY (he mentions nothing of LAND) is "outdated" implies that property is obsolete and thus unnecessary. The author also favors the aboltion of tax benefits to those who have bought houses, also revealing a rejection of the value of property ownership. In fact, the author suggests the abolition of such tax benefits essentially as way to punish those who seek to own homes and 'encourage' people to AVOID home ownership in favor of renting in non-private and non-owned spaces.

    This piece isn't about rejecting land owdernship. It's about rejecting ownership of property (specifically in this case, houses and materials associated with them, like lawnmowers and cars for example). He shrouds this scorn under the guise of wanting to protect the environment.

    Why is it just a guise? Well, the author neglects to note that some of the nation's most polluted places are in fact cities and the immidiate areas that surround them. Take a look at this list here:

    When city living is clearly not as clean as the author claims, his tirade is obviously about much more than saving the environment. For whatever reason, the author does not seem to value property rights or the choice we have as Americans to live where and how we please. The author would rather have some governing agency take this choice away from people (in the name of saving the environment no less) and move towards forcing people into crowded, non-privately owned urban spaces (and the nature of crowded urban living in and of itself, by extention, limits the amount and types of things that people can reasonably own). Again, that sounds a lot like Soviet bloc living arrangements to me…

    You say there is a difference between "an ideal that we should change" and one "we should enforce." But I ask you, how do you propose to change an ideal without enforcing it, especially when the change of said ideal would be something so extremely drastic that goes against just about everything the cultural mindsets of this country were founded on (that is, the right to property and to live how and where we choose to)? I'm pretty sure people aren't just going to give up their houses, their possessions, their livelihoods, their communities, their entire ways of living just because you ask them nicely and claim they're killing the children of the world with the pollution from mowing their suburban lawns.

    If you see such validity in the author's arguments, YOU move to the city and give up the property ammenities associated with suburban life. I have no problem with that choice if you choose to make it. I, however, am also glad to have the right to choose the opposite, but the fact that the author really seems to wish to diminish this right and the individual liberty we all have to make these choices is truly absurd.

  • Yale guy

    "It is this perseverance that hung on the last breathes of the young soldiers dying on the beaches of Normandy and that wrote loyal letters to the unfaithful girls back home too poisoned by marijuana and free love to write back."

    Perseverance Elizabeth, Perseverance.

  • Elizabeth Moore '09

    To Yale guy:

    Yes, perseverance is certainly needed to preserve essential rights (such as property ownership and the free choice to live life how and where people want) and combat the extremism as advocated by this editorial's author.

  • *rolls eyes*

    Liberty doesn't imply = all choices all the time.

    It implies that you can make a choice. For example, smoking. It currently costs a lot of money to smoke, especialy in CT, but nobody is taking away your 'liberty' to smoke, just making it costlier.

    You still have liberty.

    Please use terms correctly. If the government heavily incentivized moving to the city and made it more uncomfortable to live in the suburbs, nobody is forcing that choice on moving to the city on you: you still have the choice.

    The government is all about giving incentives and drawbacks to a whole host of social institutions.

    Seriously, you don't know anything about the Soviet Union. They would drag people from one place and physically place them in another. Last I checked, Mr. Tyler's plan doesn't seem to involved forced relocation

  • Elizabeth Moore '09

    To rolls eyes:

    There is a difference between placing a tax of a few dollars (if even) on cigarettes and eliminating all tax benefits of owning a home. This would essentially make it impossible for many, if not most, to own a home or pursue home ownership, which is, in effect, 'forcing' people into one particular situation. Sure, people would have the 'choice' to live outside the city, but would it really be a choice if the option were completely outside the realm of reasonable, attainable cost for most people?

    In fact, we've already faced this issue. In the past years, many minorities were judged to be essentially 'unable' to afford home ownership, and policy makers essentially said this inability for minorities to reasonably pursue home ownership (because of monetary issues) was NOT RIGHT. Of course, this led to problems with loans and lending and mortgages, but the point is that we've already determined that it is INCORRECT for people to be forced into one particular living situation (in the case of minorities, often in the inner cities and NOT the suburbs) because of money.

    Besides, the author offers an extreme viewpoint that leads me to believe he wold like to eliminate the possibility of anything BUT mandated urban living. See this quote:
    "Likewise, personal isolationism isn’t going to work anymore for our physical environment. Americans need to learn to live in the city."

    If suburban living "isn't going to work anymore," to me that means the author believes it should ULTIMATELY be eliminated entirely, thus eliminating the choice people have to live how and where they choose.

    And I don't know anything about he Soviet Union? Really? I guess my Russian major and the year I spent there (living in old Soviet bloc housing no less) didn't show me ANY similarities between the living accommodations people experienced in the USSR and what the author here is advocating. Seriously. Small, tiny, cramped urban apartments with little ability to own much else other than what fits in the apartments (with the added 'bonus' of amenities like cars being too expensive and impractical)? That's how I lived for a year, and this is what the author thinks our new ideal for American living should be. Believe me, it's not that nice.

    Just because the author isn't advocating here forcing people out of their homes through violent means (at least yet, who knows how his attitudes might change once he realizes that people won't leave their nice suburban homes so willingly just because he asks them to) doesn't mean his ideas don't share similarities with the living situations of many during Soviet times.

  • Anonymous

    This is hilarious and pathetic at the same time. If I said, "Americans need to learn how to make better cars," would you assume I wanted to force everyone into car-manufacturing labor camps? Get a grip.

  • Yale 08

    You may argue in favor of tyranny if you wish.

    You may say that I have some sort of duty to "society".

    But this is America. We are a Constitutional Republic. As such, my duties as a citizen are enumerated in our Constitution.

    Not in the Charters of the UN.

    Not in Al Gore's latest thesis.

    Not on the lips of some moral thumping socialist.

    We have rights.

    And too many on this comment thread are willing to toss those aside in favor of any number of recent fads and highly specious crises.

    Property, Family, Tradition.

    You can come pry them out of my cold, dead hands.

    Leave your social engineering experiments in seminar.

  • Anonymous

    You're hilarious. Just so you know though, this is the 21st century, not the 18th -- "Property, Family, Tradition" makes you sound like a pompous French noble before the Revolution, before those things were wrenched out of their very cold, very dead hands. So that might not be the model to emulate, hm?

    Also, the idea that maybe more people should live in cities rather than suburbs is not tyranny or an imposition on your rights or what have you. It's an op-ed in the YDN. Good lord.

  • Tyler's Dumb

    This article is so poorly researched, I'm surprised it was written by a college student, let alone a Yalie (supposedly smarter than average, right?).

    He lost me when he cited Germany's lower carbon emmissions as PROOF that their lifestyle is superior on some bizarre green scale. Nevermind that Germany's population is LESS THAN A THIRD than that of the US.

    Also, one would think the fact that more Americans live in urban environments than Germans would nullify Tyler's entire argument. Not so! Tyler makes the convenient assumption that the definition of "urban" in America is different than the definition of "urban" in Germany! So the facts are irrelevant, as long as the author can provide anecdotal evidence to support his spurious conclusions!

    Keep it up, Tyler! I'm sure you will graduate with honors and get that prestigious "journalism" job at the New York Times!

  • ac

    I love it when Yalies can hold two opposing ideas at the same time and somehow reconcile them.

    Let me get this straight…eliminating tax benefits on owning a home is a form of government tyranny, but giving a tax break is not a form of government intrusion on private life? Don't they both involve government intrusion on the private sphere? Isn't the form of least government intrusion to eliminate tax breaks AND eliminate tax penalties for owning a home in the suburbs?

    Ms. Moore, you implied that it's "INCORRECT for people to be forced into one particular living situation (in the case of minorities, often in the inner cities and NOT the suburbs) because of money"; what sort of nonsense is this? There is a considerable difference between government assistance for people who can barely afford living in a slum and government assistance to buy a house. Nobody is entitled to own a home in the suburbs. It's a choice. If the government wants to create a disincentive for that (i.e. no more tax benefits), then you still have that choice…it just becomes a case where you have to be able to afford to do so. You still have the option to take out a mortgage.

    Lastly, your rights as a citizen end when your individual liberty causes harm to another… I believe that's why we have criminal law. Some laws have penalties like fines (speeding), some carry criminal sentences. I see little difference between a fine for driving too fast and getting rid of tax breaks for home owenership.

  • @ac

    I believe Ms. Moore would be in favor of the elimination of virtually all taxes, especially those on dividends and capital gains.

    Eliminate the taxes before you start worrying about the small stones of tax breaks for mortgages.

  • yale 08

    It is unwise to recommend Americans continue to move into the city.

    Urban areas are poor centers of industrial production in the 21st century. They are great financial and service centers.

    But the problem is that American currently do not produce enough to justify our massive debt.

    A smart plan for the average middle class family in America is to move to the midwest or south. Buy a house with enough land to farm your own food. Pay off the mortgage as quickly as possible. Save as much money as possible for retirement (preferably invested in non-American assets).

    That should help you ride out the dollar's collapse.

    Meanwhile, everyone in the cities will be wondering why they can't eat their IPODs and their $100 bills can't even buy a loaf of bread.

    But at least they will be green and eco-friendly in their new hybrid buses and solar powered apartments.

  • Elizabeth Moore '09

    To ac:

    In the recent past, the government has basically said, "If you cannot afford a home, we will help you out." My point is only this: if the government has already basically determined, "It is wrong to force people out of the potential for homeownership because of money/credit issues," why would it be acceptable for the government to basically turn right around and essentially force people OUT of home ownership possibilities because of a lack of tax breaks?

    There are a lot of people who can only afford mortgages now because of the tax breaks. Eliminating those tax breaks would eliminate the possibility of homeownership for a lot of people. My point is that it would be a very HYPOCRTICIAL policy of the government to first spend so much time promoting the idea that people should not be so limited in home ownership possibilities and then turn right around and basically take that possibility away from millions more people. It just would not make sense.

    I agree that nobody is entitled to home ownership. HOWEVER people are entitled to choices and options as benefits of a free and open market and society that embraces liberty. I imagine that eliminating the tax benefits to home ownership would basically put house living outside the reasonable attainable reach for the vast majority of the American populace. In this case, we'd pretty much have the same situation the government has worked to alliviate in the case of many people living in inner cities (in giving these people loans for homes outside the city, that is); a good portion of people would be too poor to afford houses, and there really wouldn't be a choice then in how to live. This lack of choice would affect far more people than it currently does.

    The author's proposal would be like saying, "The only cars we should allow on the market are cars like Mercedes that cost $100,000 and above so only rich people will be able to drive."

    That seems contrary to principles of a market economy and free choice. Instead of a monopoloy on one type of car, there is a range of choice available. If I cannot afford a $100,000 Mercedes, it doesn't mean I can't drive; it just means I go and buy a $10,000 Hundai. The range of choice and the free market are things that help to make American standard of living so high and give us such a range of possibilities in how we are able to choose to live our lives.

    Eliminating tax benefits for home ownership would basically be saying, "Only rich people can own houses," and would thus highly diminish the amount of choice that people are entitled to live their lives with. Right now, if I can't purchase a one million dollar home in Malibu, I may purchase a 100k home in the middle of Kansas. I have that choice. But making home ownership even MORE unattainable across the board (through all sorts of "dis-incentive programs") and leaving it solely for the 'rich' would infringe on people's rights to choose how and where to live life. If home ownership were to become so highly "dis-incentivized," people might not even necessarily have the choice of the 100k house in Kansas anymore, ie the range of possibilities for people would be eliminated. Because of this, many people would be forced into the author's urban living situations (which would likely quickly become overcrowded slums like inner cities tend to be already) WITHOUT the choice to go somewhere better but just as affordable. There wouldn't be anywhere else to go for people on a widespread, massive scale.

    Getting rid of tax breaks for home ownership would hurt the economy. It would hurt private investments and business. It would infringe on people's choices to live how and where they pleased and make better lives for themselves. It would prevent people from reasonably being able to invest in the manner they so chose. As tax breaks stand now, they harm nobody.

    Owning a home does not harm anybody. Therefore, to suggest we need laws to prevent that is utterly unfounded.