Spill, Baby, Spill

What follows is the fifth in a series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities. More than simply complaining about America’s attitude to growth, these posts call attention to how our wasteful land use patterns relate to many of the contemporary crises that challenge our economy, ecology, energy and security. What do you think? Is growing up instead of growing out the answer? Leave a comment in the comments field below or email an op-ed to us here. –C.S.

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on April 29th, 2010, day 9
The 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on April 29th, 2010, day 9

As oil spills into the Gulf, blood spills in the streets of Greece, and cash spills from terrorist wallets into the hands of willing airline agents, one wonders who can clean up this mess. We tell our children to clean up after themselves, but can we? Disciplining a child is a perilous affair, but in the end self-discipline is the challenge. Self-discipline requires introspection, but how much of it can we muster in a world careening towards 9 billion people?

Do we, for instance, have the introspection to understand that drilling for oil, mining for coal, and supporting the oppression of petroleum regimes should all go the way of the Dodo? Do we understand that extraction is tantamount to extinction?

Conversely, do we have the introspection to understand that when a liberal juggernaut like the Kennedy family fights a wind farm in their own view shed, it’s an invitation for Sarah Palin to invoke us to “drill, baby, drill?”

And when we drill, do we have the introspection to understand that we fuel all the craven instincts most Americans are tempted to hold dear, like driving a minivan to get a quart of milk, or tearing down a 2000sf house to build a 6000sf monstrosity? A friend recently sent me floorplans of his sprawling home that he now plans to expand by building a third garage spot for his new electric car. Given that New Delhi, not New York, has converted its entire bus, taxi and rickshaw fleet to compressed natural gas, is a Honda Insight in a huge suburban garage really that insightful?

The Delhi Transport Corporation boasts the world’s largest eco-friendly compressed natural gas (C.N.G.) bus service.
The Delhi Transport Corporation boasts the world’s largest eco-friendly compressed natural gas (C.N.G.) bus service.

As goes our land use, so goes our economy. As our bodies grow horizontally with our cities, we spend more money per capita on healthcare then any nation on earth. And as we feed our cravings by pouring money into roads instead of rails, care instead of prevention, and oil wars instead of renewable resources, we finally arrive at the gaping sprawl of our deficit.

Introspection demands that we ask ourselves – as our children who pay our debts shall – are we a BRIC or are we PIIGS? The BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India, China) are projected to have a larger combined GDP than that of the G7 by 2050. By contrast, the PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain), could plunge the world into deep economic chaos due to their profligate social spending. There is speculation that politically deadlocked Britain may falter next.

The future of the West is resolved for some. Mike Geoghegan, chief executive of HSBC, recently announced the relocation of Britain’s largest bank to Hong Kong.  His rationale for their move was unambiguous: “I believe the 2010s will bring about the close of the Western-centric mindset,” he said. “We have now reached a point of no return. In a few years time, who’ll remember the G7?  We’ll remember the E7 – China, India, Brazil, Russia, Mexico, Indonesia and Turkey. These are the ones which will matter.”

Yet the West does matter to those who chant “kill, baby, kill.”  We matter to those who would blow up a gas-guzzling Pathfinder in Times Square, those whose days are spent devising explosive underwear, those who are financed by the spoils of our SUVs and our regional air travel. The GOP’s response is to drill domestically even though our economy, if we tried to fuel it solely with our domestic oil capacity, would grind to a halt in a scant four years. The Democrats’ response is continually to privilege entitlements over investments, relegating hard tasks like taxing carbon and stripping highway subsidies to the President Gore that alas shall never be.

The 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on May 4th, 2010, day 15
The 2010 Gulf of Mexico Oil Spill on May 4th, 2010, day 15

But the ultimate question is “Do we matter to ourselves?” Do we have the introspection to protect our coastlines, our cities, and our citizens? Do we have the strength to reject the threat that is oil, both foreign and domestic? Do we have the vision to recognize that we have seen the enemy, and it is the suburban house? Do we have the will to embrace high-density living as the only solution, the only land use that limits our energy use, our healthcare costs, our vulnerability to petro-dictators, and our free fall into a sprawling national deficit?

Let us cry over some spilled oil, but let us then find some introspection in the tragedy. Let us rebuild this nation by being the America that built Grand Central Station and Park Avenue, by being the America that built the inter-continental railroad, by being the America that once welcomed striving immigrants to the shores of her cities, by being the America that invented the internet and alternative energy. Let us build a new America that desires density and shuns suburbs.

Let us not be babies who drill, spill or kill. Let us build a Country of Cities.

An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico
An oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico

Images (top to bottom):

Oil Spill day 9: NASA Goddard photo and video

Delhi Transport Corporation Bus: Flickr user antwelm

Oil Spill day 15: NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL

Oil Rig: Flickr user alwright1

Vishaan Chakrabarti, AIA, is the Marc Holliday Professor of Real Estate and the Director of the Real Estate Development program in the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation at Columbia University and the founding principal of Vishaan Chakrabarti Design Collaborative (VCDC, llc), an urban design, planning, and strategic advisory firm based in Manhattan. He is a registered architect in the State of New York and lives in Tribeca. Read more…

The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.


A Country of Cities

A series of opinion pieces in which Vishaan Chakrabarti casts key current events as rallying cries in his evolving argument for urban density, for a Country of Cities.


Rose Dyson May 12, 2010

Great analysis. I will share it with my colleagues in Science for Peace, University of Toronto.

Jeff May 12, 2010

Careful–I think it’s fallacious to equate oil with the times square incident, or the demise of the west. No other country has a “magic energy box”. We’re all in the same boat here.

Furthermore, you cite natural gas as an alternative and ideal, as seen in new delhi buses–but you know natural gas comes from the ground, too, right? It has to be drilled, and it’s still a fossil fuel. and the locations with natural gas might not be more secure, geo-politically.

While I’m on the same side as you politically, the problem seems much more nuanced than you lead on–what are the alternatives? Nuclear/electric? We have a *huge* installed base of fossil fuel burning devices–should we replace all of them, creating more waste and requiring more resources to create batteries, solar panels, etc.? Will lithium (for batteries) be the next oil? And is that any better? I can guarantee you that the oil companies will somehow be involved in the next energy source, too.

City living will help with energy, sure, but it creates other new problems. Waste management, for instance. Or congestion–electric cars or not.

Vishaan Chakrabarti May 12, 2010

Thank you both for your comments. Jeff, you make many good points that should be addressed. Regarding natural gas, I agree it is less than ideal as a fossil fuel and as such is a bridge solution until better technologies arrive, but (1) we don’t and won’t fight natural gas wars (we have huge domestic supplies); (2) it is far safer for people and the environment to extract than coal or oil; (3) it has far cleaner emissions. The much more significant point of the piece is that we have to cut consumption, and cities are our best path to doing that at a scale that matters. Urban waste is being brilliantly handled in Copenhagen and Curitiba, and is far better dealt with than suburban waste. Congestion can be handled through pricing as London has. We can dramatically cut back our energy use through densification by making cities more affordable, desirable and sustainable, all while eliminating the subsidies that have artificially sustained the suburbs since WWII such as highway funding, mortgage deductions and a lack of significant gas taxes. I firmly believe that this would help to clean up our environment, but also our fiscal house. Thanks, Vishaan

Alice Brumbach May 21, 2010

I agree with your point that densification in cities is a better way to deal with population growth than is sprawling in suburbs. However, the U.S. is not only cities and suburbs; a huge portion of the land is rural and some of that land is still being used to grow food. Even if “growing up instead of growing out” can solve a number of problems, there will still have to be either a greatly enhanced rail network and/or renewable liquid fuels for transporting people and goods. For some the choice of small and urban over big and remote has been made for them because of sheer economics. In the near future, I hope that your friend, with the McMansion will become an anomaly; I am currently (possibly incorrectly) under the assumption that because of the tightening up of the housing market, the growth of suburbia has significantly slowed.
I think equally as important as encouraging people who work in cites to live in cities, is the challenge of maintaining working landscapes in a sustainable manner, which includes the homes and vehicles of the people who are working the rural land.

Eric May 21, 2010

Very good points that I think most of us would agree with. Density is great, but not everyone wants to live in a City. Additionally, this country is (partially) the result of the wide open spaces and the movement of people to those spaces.

We are not Europe; we did not develop the same way as other places. Suburbs are in place because people want to live in them.

What this country needs to do is create a “Manhattan Project” for energy. I truly think that if this Country invested money in a public/private partnership, we could solve our issues with energy, and as a result, terrorism.

Wendy May 28, 2010

Well written essay, asking the tough questions. Not enough people ponder the relationship between the fuel they use and the consequences for the world we live in.

I agree with Eric and others that it will be tough for the US to urbanize quickly. Too many people have grown up believing they need their own acre of backyard. The solution is to put a real price on commuting via private automobile from a distant suburb — a carbon tax, tolls on all taxpayer-owned freeways, congestion pricing, parking taxes, etc.

Stop subsidizing the auto-centric way of life, and then let people decide where to spend their money. Why should people who have chosen to live responsibly in a townhouse in a transit-and-walkable community subsidize those who refuse?

Over time if the cost of commuting in a private automobile from a distant suburb is $40/day, fewer people will do it.

Maria June 4, 2010

This whole issue is extremely unforunate for the environmental life and for the global market in many incomparable methods. This problem should have been retricted but these hazards occur. These companies should be held accountable for this new catastrophe.

Sara March 24, 2011

I agree with you guys. I live in Europe, but of course these tragic hazards affect us all!

Gregg Zukowski May 29, 2011

I wonder if the good professor owns and oprtates a gas guzzler himself.


P.S. It’s the supply chain that’s driving us literally to destruction – not mr & mrs suburbanite per se.

Robert September 23, 2014

Very good points that I think most of us would agree with. Density is great, but not everyone wants to live in a City. Additionally, this country is (partially) the result of the wide open spaces and the movement of people to those spaces.