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Contrasting futures - the suburb vs. the city (Part II)

Tesla Solar Roof
Continued from here.

As explained in my previous post, scientific research proves that cities are more sustainable for mankind to live - the characteristic compactness of cities, for example, lessens the pressure on ecological systems and enables resource consumption to be more efficient [1]. This assumes that cities will be built to sustain the population load they bear through appropriate infrastructure including public transport, sewerage / eco-efficient waste disposal, provision of parks or other recreational habitats etc.

If one observes the ‘ecological cost’ of human living there are 4 direct costs:
  1. Food production and transport
  2. Waste & Sewage management and processing 
  3. Human commute and communications 
  4. Real estate needed for stay, recreation and occupational needs (incl. education and administration)
Energy is a common cost underlying all four above costs in addition to other ecological costs they impose. Of course, these costs are directly proportional to the number of humans using these; but assuming we have little control over rising population of humans, the only way to manage ecological cost of human existence is to keep the per-capita ecological cost of the above as low as possible.

Traditionally, the only way to reduce the per-capita cost has been to cluster humans in cities and metros – thus making possible several savings:
  1. Food can be transported in large trucks and trains for a large number of people; usage of trains or highway infrastructure can help bring down logistics costs; sorting and processing of food can also be centralised employing machines to the extent possible. 
  2. Clustering humans in one place helps build efficient public transportation systems such as metros and bus services. This reduces the travel time but more importantly is much more efficient than guzzling cars running on large swathes of highways. This also frees up highways for movement of goods and the thus reduced traffic jams help in reducing fuel cost per unit of food or other goods required. 
  3. Cities rather than large spread of suburbs helps in reducing the average length of the sewage canals from each home to the treatment facility. Large treatment facilities can also help in reducing the per unit treatment cost. 
  4. Real estate – clustered living leaves large tracts of land open for – the obvious – agriculture! Rather than build a (farm) house on a quarter of farm land or allocate 10-15% of farm land for suburban sprawl, this land can be appropriated for agriculture or animal husbandry. 
The 'advantages' of cities can also be mirrored to the ecological 'disadvantages' of the suburban lifestyle. Few of them are:
  1. Public transport is sparse or non-existent in suburbs, hence people are more likely to use personal vehicles and drive to their place of work (or recreation or school etc.) every day. The amount of fuel spent per person is quite high compared to what an equivalent office commute in public transport by a city-dweller. 
  2. Suburban homes are bigger and energy required for their upkeep, ex. heating/ cooling power requirements are much higher for a two storey row-house compared to an apartment of the same size in the city. 
  3. It takes more energy to build utility infrastructure such as electric supply, sewerage or roads for a distributed set of suburban homes compared to multi-storied towers in cities 
  4. Maintaining the lawn in front or back of each row-house needs water and minerals. On the other hand, a common park is maintained in cities. The average size of the area needed to be irrigated or fertilised or manicured per person is much lower in cities. Add to it the fact that every inch of the lawn is an inch reduced from the pre-suburb forest or farm which occupied the place.
However, in the last few years, several innovations such as Solar Power, electric cars and off-grid power solutions have challenged my well-researched position on sustainable living. And since my own childhood was spent growing up in a township in a row house with a garden around it, I tend to have an emotional attachment to such lifestyle. So, when innovations open up avenues to afford this lifestyle without the moral hazard (personally) and existential hazard (for the human race), I get thinking whether these innovations are indeed an panacea or we are missing something.

Let us analyse the impact of some of the innovations on the above factors.
  1. Energy Production: Each of the 4 costs highlighted above need energy and until now, the only efficient way of producing energy (electrical or other forms) was through industrial means – large power plants whether thermals, gas fired, hydro-electric or nuclear. However, with the advent of Solar Power we now have a new method of power production – just capture solar power from your rooftop and power your house, your cars and even a small food processing unit in your backyard. In fact, Solar power is not practical for use in metros because the per person ‘roof space’ available in metros is far less than sprawling suburban row-houses. In addition, we have new ways of storing power - the revolutionary redox system - a fridge-sized box in your home not only generates and stores electricity on-site, but heats and cools the house, provides hot water and even churns out oxygen and hydrogen to use or sell. This adds on to the power of Solar power generation because now we can harness this power during the day and use it during the night time. 
  2. Electric vehicles are a complimentary asset to ‘ecologically free’ energy. As the ecological cost of transporting humans comes down using ‘private vehicles’; one of the factors supporting public transport is taken away. No longer do cars pollute more than metro trains because all of them run on electricity. Cars from suburban homes would run on power produced from their own rooftops than a metro train which may still require a power plant to run because enough solar power isn’t produced from rooftops of tall buildings in cities.
  3. Waste treatment is an area which calls for more research – for example moving away from non-biodegradable waste in form of packaging and creating micro waste treatment solutions such as a recycle plant for kitchen waste and biogas solutions for sewerage might make local treatment of waste more efficient, thus making redundant the need for laying large sewerage canals from suburbs.
  4. This leaves 2 interconnected aspects – real estate consumption and food production. While suburbs can tout kitchen gardens and even animal husbandry in their backyard, these are clearly not as efficient as the amount of space a suburban home takes. If a 1000sqft apartment housing a family of four can be fed by a tract of land 500sqft, a suburban home of 5000sqft which houses approximately same number of people cannot produce all it needs in its backyard. And even if it does – the comparison’s still 5000sqft in a suburb to 1500sqft in a city to sustain a family of four. Yes, there are innovations such as vertical farming, micro- greenhouses – but these too target urban milieu more than the suburban.
In balance, 'real estate' remains the most ardent roadblock in making suburban living as sustainable as the cluster lifestyle for humans. When I see through the lens of future on this problem; there are two potential solutions or rather routes I can see humanity evolving into. We will explore this in the next post


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