In a real estate blog at Boston.com, I ran into a reader’s comment who made some common claims about how much space we have used in the United States:
America is a country of excess. We have such suburban and exurban sprawl that we’ve covered almost every square inch of land with some ugly McMansion. Part of the “American Dream” was born out of the pioneer, self-sufficiency school of thought – so that everyone’s goal is to have at least, a 2,500 sq foot house on 2 acres with no neighbors close by. It’s wasteful. It’s also why we have bears and moose in the suburbs – the animals have no place left to live! How much to we pay to keep all of that up? How much do we spend on gas (and time!) driving the huge distance between work and the exurb where we can afford that big beast? How much water do we waste on watering those massive lawns? We’ve become so isolated and insular in this country.
I think Europeans have it right. Density and living in smaller spaces is more conducive to a higher quality of life. To watch a footy game, most Europeans go to the neighborhood pub, where everybody knows your name and neighbors actually speak to and know one another. Here, we barricade ourselves in our McMansions and watch the game in our great room and miss out on the social interaction.
I’ve always been a champion of living below my means. I seem to be the exception, not the rule.
In Europe, when the toaster breaks, they get it fixed. Here, we throw it out and buy a new one. Over here, I doubt you could find anyone who still fixes toasters.
Opponents of sprawl could make their case more effectively without resorting to unnecessary hyperbole. “Almost every square inch of land” has been used? Only about 3% of land in the United States is in urban areas. And then all of that land is covered with McMansions? The average new house has been around 2,500 square feet in recent years and this is probably not big enough to qualify as a McMansion. Homes larger than 3,000 square feet are a small percentage of new and existing homes. Everyone wants 2 acres of land? Most suburban plots are much smaller than this, often less than .25 acres. One growing housing segment in recent decades, townhouses and condos, take up much less land. The desires and actually buying patterns of Americans are not exactly the same thing, owning 2+ acres in many communities would be prohibitively expensive, and some communities wouldn’t even allow this zoning.
The comparison to densities in Europe is more effective. Americans do promote sprawl, driving, and private property more than some other countries. This has been tied to some declines in civic life such as outlined in Bowling Alone or Suburban Nation. Excessive consumption is an issue larger than houses and sprawl though they could be indicative of American habits of spending larger amounts of discretionary income.
My takeaway: limit the hyperbole and stick to more defensible comparisons to other ways of living.