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Contrasting futures - the suburb vs. the city

I grew up in a typical suburban home, single storied, lush garden around it. Whether it was the nostalgia of living that life or observation of lower cost of living in a small city, till recently I used to idolise that life, yearned to go back to it - until I started my research into sustainable living!

Until I started researching on what "sustainable" living is, I used to assume that since the cost of living in a small city is lower, hence lifestyle there is less wasteful. And on the surface, it indeed was so in India, until a few years back. Until 2010s, most small cities did not have huge malls - the usual evening hangout would be a park or a single screen theatre; roads were much less crowded and small cars would outnumber guzzlers (SUVs) by a quadruple if not more; people bought fruits & vegetables from small shops who'd get supplied by local farmers.

Metros or big cities, in contrast, had big malls, roads were clogged - one wasted more fuel idling at the traffic signal than driving around, SUVs & Sedans were more common; you'd buy daily grocery and vegetables from the supermarket where everything was packed with 3 layers of plastic etc. Other utilities like sewage management were bad in both small and big cities, but big cities generated much more garbage than smaller ones where people's habits (due to a lower standard of living) were less wasteful. Extending the same analogy between small cities vs. rural landscape - poverty and proximity to 'traditional' or agrarian lifestyle made village life look more sustainable or less wasteful.

However, two things changed circa 2010 - first, the govt started recognising that India was urbanising and govt programs started targeting upgradation of urban infrastructure. And given that govt schemes were based on population statistics, Metros got a much higher share of this spending.
Second, incomes started taking quantum jumps in India, and people across the spectrum - villages, small cities and metros - started spending more money on luxuries. Malls mushroomed in Tier 2 cities, SUVs followed soon, poorer villages started seeing two-wheelers and prosperous ones upgraded to four wheelers (even if they were second hand used cars from the nearby town). Thus as metros started getting better sanitation, better public transport (Ex. Metro trains), life became (comparatively) less wasteful while small towns and villages started spending more, but lacked the ability to deal with the environmental consequences (more plastic waste, vehicular pollution or traffic jams, sewage) generated from this spending.

Parallel to this shift in India's landscape, my own study on the concept of sustainable living continued. Many articles, papers and solo thinking sessions later, (about 3 years ago)  I converted to believing that a life in the city is more sustainable because a city promotes clustering and clustering reduces the amount of waste per person. Studies on American suburbs suggest that cost of laying drainage, sewage and even electric and road connections to individual houses or even a cluster of row-houses in suburbs is much higher on the economy and ecology than wiring / sewering up a 30 storied building in the dense city. Add to it virtual death of the personal transport thanks to dense tube/metro networks which inhabit developed cities like London, the city (especially clusterized metro city) is a far more sustainable habitat for humans.

A major positive side-effect a vertically built dense city infrastructure is that large swaths of land can be freed for vegetation and animals. Plus within the city, we can build gardens which can be maintained at a much lesser cost per person, unlike the suburban home where each one must maintain their own manicured lawn and tend to their plants. I live in one such locality in Mumbai and can bet that my lifestyle is greatly enhanced by living in a cluster than if I have a row-house in a far away suburb of Navi Mumbai or a small city like Baroda or Indore.

In short, from a kid who revels and defends the suburban lifestyle he grew up in, I was almost converted to a city (metro) dweller who vouches for more people to move to cities and metros and leave alone the countryside for the few humans who engage in Agriculture and nature - forests, farms and animals who deserve to live in them. American suburban life or European small cities and their suburbs started looking evil and wasteful - more importantly unsustainable for the 21st century; and Tokyo (Japan) like lifestyle, while a little claustrophobic, started looking the most logical way we humans should imagine our future.

However, my reverie has been broken recently - thanks to Elon Musk and his onslaught of energy efficient equipment from the Tesla car, to Tesla batteries - which allow suburban homes to survive off grid for weeks - to the most recent Solar Roof which promises to allow homes to completely disconnect from the grid!

More on this in the next post.


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