The cost of constructing, upgrading and maintaining the infrastructure strung out to service suburban densities is devouring public and private money that could otherwise be used for education, better-funded public services and generally circulating in the economy creating a higher quality of life and prosperity.
Instead of naïvely complaining about our crumbling infrastructure and high taxes, we should acknowledge that when we insist on living so far from others and our day-to-day needs, we also are insisting on all of the societal amenities to follow us. Roadway, sewer, water, power and data lines all demand taxes to build, upgrade and maintain. There are also public services that demand more taxes to string out into all of the subdivisions: Garbage pickup, school busing, vehicular mail delivery and expansive ambulance service are some examples.
Another costly result of suburban density is the redundancy of public service facilities. When populations are more concentrated, schooling facilities, health-care facilities, libraries, water treatment, fire and police facilities also are concentrated, which is less of a tax burden than multiplying those facilities to serve a spread-out population.
Another cost of suburban living is petroleum dependency. To assume electric vehicles will become feasible for the sprawling mass market and that electricity plants will adapt mostly nonfossil-fuel generation methods before oil becomes too expensive is a potentially catastrophic assumption. Fossil-fuel based economies will cease, whether intentionally or unintentionally, if scarcity and demand force the price of oil beyond economic viability. Densification allows alternatives to suburban oil-based mobility and the embodied efficiency of high density reduces the demand for fossil-fuel-generated energy.
Yet another costly aspect of suburban living is that car-dependency can cause health issues, most notably obesity. Obesity has been identified as the most significant factor in the increasing cost of health care.
The costs of suburban living and the benefits of living in higher densities would take this entire newspaper to talk about, so I will leave you with this: Many of the benefits of urban density stem from the ability to walk to everyday needs. Some of the benefits of being able to walk include: 1) no dependence on the automobile; 2) active shared walking and gathering space allows sharing of knowledge and ideas; 3) the social aspect of walkability has positive effects on mental health, which can translate to better productivity; 4) when the amount of active walkable social space increases, crime decreases; 5) walking is healthier than driving in almost every way.
Guy A. Avellone
architecture and urban design