a subsidy scheme


Twenty years ago I read an op ed in the Globe and Mail that asked the question: what is the biggest public money grab in North America? The answer, the suburb. The suburb is a massive welfare program?

In the intervening period I have read precious little on the topic – ie. specifically tying suburban life to public debt – no doubt because the idea cuts too close to the heart of the truth of how we live. I’m now reading Chakrabarti’s A Country of Cities which kicks off with the bold face assertion that how we live is subsidized.

I sometimes like to think about a solution. If there’s a problem, why not? Clearly the solution here is to delink public money from very expensive lifestyle choices: ie. no more oil and gas subsidies, no more massively expensive infrastructure projects and utility grids that serve less than x people per acre, no more big box market subsidies and incentives, raise the level of investment in efficient means of transport (public) and lower that of the much less efficient means (private cars), etc.  I know, I know, I’m dreaming. But this dream has to do with that hard nosed topic, money, so maybe …

Here is Chakrabarti:

The suburbs, therefore, are not a mere reflection of the way people want to live, or even a reflection of true market forces, but a synthetic consequence of history. The suburbs are largely a creation of ‘big government,’ and explicit policy-driven, subsidized scheme that has guided how we live, work and play. Over the last century, this has created the most consumption-based economy the planet has known – that is until the music stopped: the twenty-first century debuted in America with an epic collapse of the housing market (particularly the single-family housing market), the rapid acceleration of climate change, and the largest division between rich and poor in the postwar era.

Vishaan Chakrabarti, A Country of Cities, p 33.

a country of cities
January 3, 2010, 3:28 pm
Filed under: brave new world, the sweet life | Tags: , , ,

This is a – rather long – excerpt from Vishaan Chakrabarti’s essay A Country of Cities on Urban Omnibus.

He lifts the velvet curtain on the elephant in the sustainability room:  change all the lightbulbs you like, swap out the insulation, carpool, do all these things and you still aren’t close to living sustainably if you live in a suburb.

I know it’s comfy, and it’s what you know, and mom and grandpa live there.  But let’s be honest, it is a bad invention originally based on the myth of going west, settlin’ all over the land, and eventually evolved into an idea of being entitled to expansion and space and consumption.  It also needs to be stated that, beside being a terrible use of resources, sprawl has led to really bad social lives for generations of people.

Chakrabarti’s argument sounds sneaky:  the suburb is subsidized heavily, like a welfare program for the middle class; and we should use the market to get away from irresponsible land use patterns and begin to build cities.  That’s the reverse of what we collectively believe in this culture!  We think the market made the suburb.  C is right, it didn’t.

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