This article describes Australian suburbs made up of huge bungalows.
These developments seem badly designed for their environment, with no shade, not many trees, and competing aircon systems blowing hot air at each other. The headline quote from Davina Rooney is that the area will be ‘ultimately uninhabitable’, given the way climate change is going. It’s an area built around an enormous use of water, oil, and energy, and as pressure mounts on resources, that suburban form will just get more and more difficult to sustain.

Although, to what extent is un-sustainability actually a problem? For example I don’t entirely buy the Strong Towns argument which balances infrastructure spending against tax revenue. Partly because the financial (in)solvency of municipal governments is a relative question,1 but more generally because I’m okay with some settlements not being resilient or self-sustaining. There are a lot of places on earth which, in principle, need a lot of outside help to support the populations living there.

But, let’s take the argument on its own terms, there are (unseen) costs associated with urban sprawl, and those costs keep on mounting. The standard city landscape of the USA is criss-crossed with highways, wide roads and parking lots. Residential areas are vast blocks of short single-family homes, isolated without any shops or amenities within walking distance.2
Whether or not those areas pay for themselves in terms of tax, it’s an environmental disaster to keep all the lawns watered, trimmed, and doused in pesticides. It’s a waste of time and petrol to add more cars to the traffic queue. It’s a waste of energy to keep air conditioning units running in hundreds of bungalows.

If you think about the built environment in terms of fixicity, all the ‘unsustainable’ infrastructure represents a fix which is costly and slow to realise. It took several decades to build out suburbia, so it’ll take at least the same amount of time to build walkable communities. These places are also propped up by an entire lifestyle, and that’s difficult to dismantle. It’s a problem of urban planning that once something is built, it takes a lot of effort to change it.

How would you actually go about resolving the situation in Sydney? The houses are all sold and lived-in and the residents have all taken out mortgages. Without some big natural disaster, you can’t just set about demolishing homes.

  1. Also financial sustainability isn’t the same thing as environmental sustainability. 

  2. Most US cities contain urban food deserts.