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If you drive outside of the city limits of most major American metro areas, including New York City, Seattle or Milwaukee, you’ll go from seeing busy downtowns, public and low-income housing and interconnected, diverse neighborhoods to seeing rows and rows of similar looking, single-family houses with mostly white, sealed off neighborhoods. This is no accident. The suburbs have a long history of racism — as well as negative climate and health consequences.
The first suburb was Levittown, Pa., and it was segregated and uniform. Black people and Jewish people were explicitly barred from living there. Although Black people are now not legally segregated from suburban communities, it is much harder for a Black family to live in the suburbs when the average Black family, due to centuries of stolen labor and discrimination, own roughly 90% less wealth than the average white family. When white people flee to the suburbs, the investments in urban metro areas also flee, leaving blight and poverty in their wake, and those who are left are pushed out through either gentrification, like in Seattle, or natural disasters, like when Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans. Those communities are then further criminalized by law enforcement and blamed for their own conditions. Suburban sprawl has a direct connection with segregation, police brutality, wealth inequality and racism.
Suburbs are also a disaster for the environment. Sprawling suburbs are far more car-dependent and inaccessible than dense, urban areas. Suburban streets are often long, winding and seemingly random, as opposed to uniform, walkable city streets. When cities are not walkable and do not have a decent public transit system – which no city in the United States does – it forces residents, especially disabled or elderly ones, to rely on personal automobiles, which contributes to carbon emissions. Urban lower Manhattan emits about half as much as suburban Montclair, N.J. To perfectly illustrate how bad car culture is for use of space, Florence, Italy, a walkable city of almost 400,000 is smaller than a single highway interchange in Atlanta.
Electric cars are not a serious long-term solution either. On top of requiring energy and minerals to build the cars and batteries, it takes power, often powered by the burning of fossil fuels, to produce the electricity that makes the cars run. Even the tires and paint give off emissions that heat the Earth. We need fewer vehicles on the streets. The Interstate highways, much like the suburbs, also have a disturbing and racist history. According to NYU Law Professor Deborah Archer, the construction of I-95 in Florida decimated the Miami neighborhood of Overtown, also known as “the Harlem of the South,” and it was far from the only one.
In order to address the climate crisis, we need to build out our public transit system and end the rule that allows only 20% of our Highway Trust Fund to be used on transit projects. Public transit moves people from place to place far more efficiently, reducing both traffic and emissions. On top of needing expanded and free public transit, we need to create a culture in which women and queer people feel safe going out in public, because an unfortunate reality is that women and queer people face a heightened risk of being attacked when outside, especially at night. We need to expand bus and train systems within cities, as well as build a high-speed rail system that connects our cities. Affordable housing near transit hubs would also help to address homelessness.
On top of addressing public transit, we need to also address the housing problems that fuel climate change and systemic racism. We need to build walkable, affordable urban metro areas, stop expanding highways and encourage density. Repealing apartment bans and single-family only zoning would go a long way to help this, as well as housing the homeless. We should also densify and desegregate our living spaces.
There is no other choice. A car-friendly city cannot be a carbon-friendly city. At a time when climate change is getting worse and worse, and Black people still face racism in every aspect of public life, including housing, we have a choice to make. Will we promote sprawling, unaffordable, segregated suburbs that further entrench racism and climate change? Or will we build green, affordable, inclusive cities and finally start to address housing discrimination and the climate crisis? The choice is clear, whether we make the right one is not.