By Rusty and Joanna Pritchard
Worth a listen: Last week NPR’s Morning Edition aired a pair of stories by Elizabeth Shogren, one about a family that moved out to the Atlanta suburbs, and one about a family that moved intown to a “new urban” development. It’s part of their Climate Connections series. Both stories are about parents trying to do their best by their families, making decisions under lots of constraints. Neither of them created the environment they inhabit; they’re just trying to do their best to live in it.
Two things strike me about the contrast. One is that the family in the suburbs (really the exurbs) appears trapped, rather than living their “dream” lifestyle. They don’t think they can do anything other than what they have done. Their schedule is set by their home choice and yet they spend very little time enjoying that home together as a family. The second family, in the new urban development, are taking advantage of a choice that wasn’t really available to most people even five years ago. But there are changes afoot in how we build our cities, and the new urban story contains seeds of promise. Developers are beginning to provide choices that permit some families to move into dense, walkable, livable communities.
The other observation is that consideration for one’s neighbors doesn’t really enter into either decision. The intown family is actually better off in many ways—avoiding the long commute lets them spend more time together, being in a walkable community helps them stay healthier. They aren’t making their decision to be noble. The suburban family isn’t thinking broadly either, but their lifestyle has huge impacts on creation and on the people who live in it. They don’t think about those impacts either. So the market works well in one case—it aligns social and private costs and benefits—and fails in the other—since deciding for a long commute passes much of the cost off on third parties.
Asked about the environmental impact of their housing decision, the suburban commuting family says "I never really thought about it, because we get so caught up with day-to-day activities, that we do what we need to do to get through that day." "While somewhere on my priority list, being environmentally conscious is on there, but it’s not going to be as high as what can I afford, what does my family need.”
Our public policy has to be about creating choices for people, but also about closing some of these loops that allow costs of development to be passed off to others. The market can help, but can’t do the work on its own. Creating choices by itself doesn’t make people desire community or discipline their choices by demanding respect and love for their neighbor. But the church can help with that, as we build our holistic vision. While home/yard square footage is one part of the where-to-live decision, the expectation of good public schools is the other, and one not addressed in the NPR stories. Low achieving public schools in city centers are not only unjust to those who have no choice but to attend them, but also promotes unsustainable patterns of development.