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Draw a red line.

Draw a red line.

Markus Appenzeller

It keeps coming back: the populist and liberal demand that cities should extend at their edges since people want to live in a green and affordable environment. Covid-19 comes handy as a support for this argument since many of us are currently mostly confined to our home. It seems that a patch of ground around one’s flat is supposed to ease the pain and without looking onto a patch of green human well-being is at risk.

Suburbia in the Netherlands

Of course it is nice and desirable to see nature, smell trees and lie in the gras, no doubt about that but the type of nature these advocates of suburbia envision is not nature, it is a domesticated image of what nature should be to serve the purposes of human living: No weird animals in the garden please. No herbs or other species and ideally something that is easy to maintain while looking manicured. Not to forget the omnipresent trampoline for the kids since the sandbox is not in fashion anymore – too much sand in the house all the time when the beloved ones return inside with their rubber boots on. Let’s face it. Suburbs are destruction of nature and even the most sensitive plan with the greenest buildings and the least cars is interfering as long as we want to live to the standards, we all got used to.

The advocates of building garden cities at the city limits also often claim that housing there would be more affordable. At first glance, looking at the sales prices of comparable homes, it looks like that. But nothing is more wrong. Lower density suburbs do not and cannot offer the same level of accessibility as more central locations can. Public transport in most places is less frequent, less close by and usually slower since it mostly is relying on buses – if there is any public transport at all. The greater average distances that need to be covered in less dense areas also make the bicycle a less viable option, leading to a heavy dependence on cars. As a consequence, vast areas of ground need to be sealed for streets and parking lots – usually the taxpayer shoulders the bill collectively but it remains a cost that needs to be considered when assessing the real cost of housing. For the households it means needing a car to be able to get around. And not to forget – it needs a driver that drives kids to school, to sports or to friends. As a consequence families are more likely to be forced into single income households with all the consequences that has for gender equality and the possibility to pursuit ones own ambitions.

This is not where the buck stops. New low density garden cities need new infrastructure: sewers, power lines, gas pipes, telecommunication networks, firefighters, police stations, schools and kindergartens. All need to be paid for and all are paid by the taxpayer, further adding to the hidden cost of suburbia.

Add to that higher operational cost that freestanding or semi-detached property has compared to denser types of dwelling and add future costs for climate change mitigation then it becomes obvious that suburban housing is not cheaper but more expensive than denser types of dwelling. Suburban housing still is heavily subsidized and therefore only appears as a viable solution to the housing problem.

But there is more: with global population approaching 10 billion somewhere in the middle of the century, nature – our life support system on this planet – is increasingly under pressure. Reduction of species, natural disasters, the effects of climate change, they all put our existence at risk. We therefore need to change course, and we need to change course more radically than we believed is necessary in the past. We need to adjust all our systems, our lifestyles and our economies. All this takes time. It started and it will evolve – hopefully fast enough.

At the same time, we need to radically stop processes that we already now know to create even more problems. We need to stop the land hunger of human settlement. We need to draw a red line around our developed pieces of city and abolish any further extension into the green.

Creative mix of urban program at the example of Tokyo
Source: Made in Tokyo by Atelier Bow-Wow

There is ample room in every city to accommodate many more people while still offering great living conditions and green spaces close to home. There are big parcels of land which have been developed in the past but are not used any more or only with a low intensity. We can use those to allocate new uses and densify. We do not need to build high-rises everywhere for that and should we reach the conclusion that we don’t have enough space – well – then we need to become creative. There are zillions of examples of amazing high-density mixes of program in various cities around the world – from the graveyard on top of a bridge to floating neighbourhoods to rooftop parasites for living to underground shopping worlds. We can start now in simply drawing a line – what could be easier than that???

by Markus Appenzeller

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