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The future of New York City and one more problem with suburban sprawl

In my New York Times this morning, there was a surprisingly fascinating piece of propaganda inserted by the PlanNYC2030 people. It was a clear, well-organized, and compelling brochure [PDF]. It laid out several reasonable goals for New York City to realize between now and 25 years from now.

It fully convinced me that New York City needs to plan now for sustainable, healthy, livable living into the future. I'm not sure what it was supposed to do beyond that--prime me for MTA fare increases to subsidize construction of new lines and repair of existing ones? Prime me for higher taxes? I mean, it wasn't very difficult to convince me that New York City needs to clean up empty polluted lots ("brownfields"), build more affordable housing, maintain existing and construct new public transportation stations/subway lines, and make sure that every child lives within ten minutes of a playground. After perusing the website, I see that there are ten suggestions [PDF] for increasing the sustainability of life in New York City. They all seem reasonable, and if 8.2 million people all did some, most, or all of these things, New York City would clearly be better off for it.

I have mixed feelings about cities, especially New York City, although I am clear on typical American suburbs. I don't like 'em. I was lucky enough to grow up in a suburb that really functioned more like part of a city. It had many parks, excellent public transportation, sidewalks everywhere, and, at least in my neighborhood, mixed residential-commercial zoning. (That is, one could pick up milk and bread at the little grocery store down the street.) Our six-person family always had one car, which my mother used to bring us to school and activities, and to get to work. My father walked or took public transportation to work (about three miles away). If I wanted to go to the movies or shopping with friends, I walked or took public transportation. When I was in summer school in high school, I walked to and from school (about a mile). I also had the suburban advantages of a stand-alone house with a large backyard, and plenty of trees, fresh air, and quiet. I'm not sure how many places there are in the world where one can live that way.

The suburban lifestyle very briefly described in this Scientific American article is anathema to me. I spent nearly every summer of my childhood in Palo Alto, California, and while I loved the wide, quiet streets, fresh air, and financially-sound municipality, everything with the exception of the grocery store seemed so far away! One could ride one's bike around and around the many cul-de-saqs, but to really go anywhere, you needed to be driven.

The suburban culture of driving is so pervasive that people drive even when walking is possible. I was surprised, when I was in Palo Alto recently and walked to the grocery store, that they packed everything into one bag. In Manhattan, they always pack groceries into two bags unless you specifically ask for one, assuming that you'll be walking some distance. It's much easier to walk with two equally-distributed bags of groceries than with one heavy one. At the time, I was carrying milk and other heavy things, and it was hard to carry it all in one bag, mostly because the plastic handles were really cutting into my hands. I ended up carrying it in both arms in front of me, which felt sort of silly. There was really no reason for me to drive to the store for the amount of groceries I was buying, although I'm sure that most suburbanites would. Something similar happened when I was in another spread-out, sidewalk-less suburban environment. I needed to get from the house where I was staying to the shul, and it was a five or ten minute walk. It was a little bit chilly out, but I would never think of driving that distance. My hosts thought I was sort of whack for preferring to walk it, but they let me!

When people in New York question my mile-long trek to Fairway and back, often carrying heavy groceries on the return trip, I joke about it being my weight-bearing exercise for the week. Weight-bearing exercise is particularly important for building strong bones. Ingesting calcium isn't enough. Sometimes I even do bicep curls on the way back. I don't really have time to stand around in the gym doing bicep curls, but I need food anyway, so I figure that this works just as well if not better.

In addition to the fact that adolescents living in cities or tightly-packed suburbs seem to weigh less, there is also the issue of environmental impact. PlanNYC2030 includes a section on the "greening" of New York City and promotes the idea that urban living is best for the environment (more people living closer together means: less energy waste, less rural land taken over from animals for people, more efficient delivery of goods and services, etc.). The problem for me, and one reason why I don't plan to live in NYC forever, is that while it may be best for the environment as a whole, it might not be better for the individual living in the city. The soot levels in New York are much too high. New York City is the third-most polluted city in the US if measured by the exposure burden of air pollution on children. The air we breath is very dirty [PDF], although not as dirty as it once was.1

In conclusion, my ideal living environment would be a walkable city, where a family needs only one car, and where you can walk to the grocery store and do bicep curls on the way back should you desire. I would love to live in a city with excellent public transportation for getting to places that are too far to walk. I would love to live in a city that's not as noisy or smelly as New York City. I would love to live in a city with a lot of parks and green spaces.2 Based on the PlanNYC2030 people's literature, it looks like they want New York City of 2030 to be that city. I wish them the best of luck!

As for myself, I still feel that New York City, no matter how green it becomes, will still ultimately be too large, fast-paced, and expensive for me.

1. I just looked up San Mateo county on Scorecard's website, to see how Palo Alto compared to New York City. There didn't seem to be a way to directly compare the air pollution in the two counties, but it did say that "Based on EPA's most current data, this county ranked among the dirtiest/worst 10% of all counties in the US in terms of an average individual's added cancer risk from hazardous air pollutants." So I guess my idyllic childhood memories of Palo Alto don't stand up to science. And, now that I think about it, I remember my grandfather showing me the grey haze rolling in over the hills and telling me that it was air pollution.

2. I guess I would also really love to live in a city that has apartments, town-houses, and stand-alone houses with backyards, even though that's probably my lowest priority. (I just can't imagine living in an apartment forever, and I like the idea of having a yard for playing in and growing things in, either back or front.)

Categories: New York City, environment

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Washington, DC meets some of these - it's a remarkably walkable city, with good public transit, and a variety of different housing options (apt, townhouse, free-standing).

It doesn't have the market density of New York- one of the things I have always thought was neat about NYC was the markets on oodles of corners - I've never needed to go more than three blocks for milk.

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