Categorized | Energy, Fossil Fuels

To Grandmother’s Condo We Go?

“Over the river and through the woodsPainting of Gradma's house

To Grandmother’s house we go.

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow. Oh!”

This classic winter song belies our traditional demographics and settlement pattern wherein young families live in urban centers and make holiday visits to their aging parents and grandparents living in the country.

Today, those demographics are generally turned on their head.  Young families – in search of the American dream and drawn by decades of cheap houses, cheap gas and ubiquitous roads – typically settle in the suburbs and exurbs.  Cheap land allowed rampant development to push well over the river and clear cut the woods to make way for subdivisions and big box retail.

This unbridled development has wreaked havoc on our natural resources and consumed habitat at an alarming rate.  The National Resources Inventory estimates that we have now developed more than 111 million acres, and 40 million of those acres were developed between 1982 and 2007.  That means more than one-third of all land that has ever been developed in the lower 48 states was developed during the last 25 years.  That is an increase of 56 percent in just the time that MTV has been on the air.

Unbridled development is the evil stepchild of rampant road building.  Driving has grown by three times the rate of population growth over the past 15 years and is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2030. Not because driving is an American pastime, but because communities are built and not planned, leaving people with no other option but to drive everywhere. Those multi-lane highways make it possible for people to commute to well-paying jobs from further and further away where houses and yards are bigger and bigger.  More people move there, creating more pressure for more housing.  More people mean more cars. More cars mean more traffic. Traffic worsens, creating more pressure for more lanes.  Rather than solving the problem, more lanes attract yet more people, causing yet more congestion in what is called “induced traffic,” and the cycle continues.

Meanwhile, Grandmother has had enough. She has long since lost her small town and is moving back through the woods, to the other side of the river, back to the city.  Grandmother’s house is now more likely Grandmother’s condo.  Empty nesters are flocking back to urban centers where they can enjoy easy access to the culture, open spaces, a sense of community and the many services of the city in a walkable setting.  Baby boomers are giving up their station wagons for bicycles and leaving traffic behind for the comfort of transit.

In response to this new trend, many cities, like New York City are making efforts to become more “age-friendly.”  According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and age-friendly city is “an inclusive and accessible urban environment that promotes active ageing.”  WHO statistics show the global proportion of people aged 60 and over will double from 11 percent in 2006 to 22 percent by 2050.  For the first time in history, there will be more older people than children.  By 2030, the number of New Yorkers age 65 and over — a result of the baby boomers, diminished fertility and increasing longevity — is expected to reach 1.35 million, up 44 percent from 2000.  Cities have the economic and social resources to become more age-friendly and are better equipped to undertake the necessary changes for a changing society.

Maybe more people should follow Grandma’s lead.  Cities are better equipped to serve the needs of people of all ages in the most efficient, environmentally friendly way. Denser development means we leave more wild areas wild and more natural resources available to provide services like clean air and water.  As of 2007, over half of the global population now lives in cities. By 2030, about three out of every five people in the world will live in cities.

So before you move “over the river and through the woods,” remember Grandma’s wisdom.  If we want to keep healthy, functioning rivers and woods, we need fewer people moving there.

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- who has written 5 posts on dotWild.

Trisha White is the director of the Habitat and Highways Program, which seeks to reduce the impact of roads and highways on wildlife and encourage state and local authorities to incorporate wildlife conservation into transportation and community planning.

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dotWild is the blog of scientists and policy experts at Defenders of Wildlife, a national, nonprofit membership organization dedicated to the protection of all native animals and plants in their natural communities.