Tying together being green, McMansions, and promoting urban development in Asia

As the world discusses how to reduce carbon emissions, Edward Glaeser (see a review of his latest book here) suggests that America is an odd position: we want to promote urban development in fast-growing Asian countries and yet we subsidize sprawl within our own borders.

America’s interest in promoting a hyper-urban Asia, so different from our sprawling nation, puts us in a slightly awkward position. How can a country of McMansions and Ford Expeditions preach the virtues of low-carbon urban living?

Freedom is America’s greatest treasure. This includes the freedom to choose where we live — city or suburb. But we should eliminate the mistaken policies that artificially subsidize sprawl. The federal government subsidizes transportation significantly more in low-density areas than in high-density areas, and that pulls people away from cities. Economist Nathaniel Baum-Snow found in 2007 that each new postwar highway that cut into a city reduced that city’s population by 18%. The home mortgage interest deduction induces people to leave urban apartments, which are overwhelmingly rented, and move to suburban homes. Because the deduction scales up with the size of the mortgage, it essentially pays people to buy bigger, more energy-intensive homes.

Reducing such policies, which push Americans away from our green cities, will enable us to make a stronger case for higher-density dwelling in India and China.

The key to Glaeser’s argument here is that the US government “artificially” makes suburban living look like the best choice. Without these subsidies, highway construction, mortgage benefits, etc., the suburbs might not look like the good option that they appear to be. Glaeser may be right – but I wonder if there still might be Americans who would want to pursue a suburban lifestyle. Perhaps this alternate version of American suburbs would be more restricted to the wealthy who could subsidize their own extra costs.

But Glaeser is also suggesting that there is the matter of looking like hypocrites: how can we as a country ask other countries to live in certain ways when we promote relatively ungreen suburbs? More broadly, should the many residents of China and India who have joined the middle class in recent decades get a shot at living in suburbs or should they have to live in more urban developments to help offset American patterns?

And I would also note the common citing of McMansions and SUVs as emblematic of the entire United States and its behaviors.

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