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Community and Q&A

Cities are not green

wjrobinson | Posted in General Questions on

How can the “experts” continue to say living in high density is the “green” way versus living in towns? I just attended a town meeting. Our town is staying under budget. Our town taxes in total average one half to one quarter that of cities.

Cities, not towns are going bankrupt or raising their taxes some as much as 78%!

Experts, blogmen explain to me how a more expensive entity is our future green answer. Cities are concrete heat islands. Nothing green growing. No food no water no industry except the one that just blew up the economy, the financial money manipulators. The “financiers” today only provide capital so they have pots of money to gamble with. We are dopes not to break them up and govern their pay. No body needs to earn tens if millions per year when their company is going down the tubes.

Watch how many cities go under this year. Explain to me how they were green. They’ll be green someday. Just like all the great cities are now under the jungles in Mexico.

How many cities in history have forever grown and prospered from their growth?

Alex Wilson, this is a challenge to write a concise blog covering this subject in detail.

Blogmen, GBA members, the challenge is yours.


  1. JoeW519 | | #1

    You're right of course, AJ, about politics and big business and human nature. But that isn't a topic that fits under green building so far as I can see.

    I've never heard anyone say or imply that "cities are green." It's been more along the lines of cities provide an opportunity for a more efficient use of resources.

    Like a fully loaded bus uses less energy per passenger per mile than does a big SUV with only its driver. Of course, people continue to drive their big SUVs rather than take the bus ... but that's not so much a problem of the design of the bus as it is with bad, irresponsiblie, self-centered judgment by the driver.

  2. wjrobinson | | #2

    Green has to include economics and the cost the entities government and the services it provides.

    Please all that address this post discuss specifically the difference in tax levels and the ultimate collapse of cities from the fact that there is a deadly end in the ponzi scheme we call compound interest.

    Compounding anything has to lead to extinction. Basing city pensions on compound growth is absurd. As we all know compounding and ponzi schemes are based on limitless growth. Can the earth hold 7 billion, then 70 billion, then 700 billion, then 1.7 trillion of us in a sustainable enjoyable way?

    Green means sustainable. Which means living in a zero compounding entity. Which means that the taxes and pensions must also follow in a non compounding way to an extant.

    Technology is if course the great hope. But even though the nano world has opened a new frontier to scale exponentially into, we certainly are quickly leaving our known universe behind. Just as e=mc^2 led to the good the bad and the ugly, the nano future will come with some horrendous opportunities for misuse.

    We were a stable human population prior to industrialization. Yes people died of things we cure now. But in the end nature relies on death to stay at a stable point. If we stop dieing then we will have to stop reproducing.

    So, my point is cities as of today do not function as efficient as a town and therefore I believe today's cities will fail like all have in the past. Maybe we will change this. First thing to change to is mandatory zero budget increases for all government bodies. No more relying on compound stock returns. It Is impossible to pick the next Google reliably.

  3. CMB_arch_eng | | #3

    This is a very complex subject. There is much wealth generated from cities. In fact some of the economic advantages of surrounding areas often derive from the nearby urban epicenter. Think marketplaces, universities, technological innovators, theater, music and other arts are often linked to urban areas. With agriculture the flow is from the sparsely populated areas to the more concentrated, but we are seeing an upsurge in urban food production.
    I think there needs to be a balance. Towns with concentrated development are a better pattern than sprawl which eats up farmland and habitat. If you draw a boundary around your town and nothing moves in or out, would it still be economically balanced?

  4. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #4

    AJ... you need to stop drinking so much coffee in the morning... ;-)))

  5. wjrobinson | | #5

    Armando, explain to me the reverse economics of city government costs being worse than a town. And city bankruptcies.

  6. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #6

    I was just poking fun at you... cheers!!!

  7. mortar | | #7

    This is a very complex subject, so you cannot reduce it to "cities have high taxes and still go bankrupt so they must be unsustainable, and therefore not green." As an example approximately half of the real estate (by value) in the city of Pittsburgh is owned by tax exempt institutions (Universities, medical centers); the state provides the tax exemption, so the city is forced to subsidize the city services provided. The city is at the mercy of the state. Likewise, many suburban commuters work in the city but most of their tax dollars go to the suburbs where they live. Certainly there are cities that have mismanaged their money, but the picture is much more complicated than you make it seem. As employment centers (and not everyone working in cities works on Wall St), cities generate much more in tax revenue for the state and federal governments that they don't get to keep (cities that have wage taxes, which they have to ask for approval from state government to impose, are almost always less than either federal or state taxes). While you are right to point out the financial stresses faced by cities today, most of those financial stresses are created by political or economic forces outside of the control of urban leaders.

    Cities should be green, because people living in cities tend to use many fewer resources than people living outside them (on a per capita basis). Apartment buildings are inherently more energy efficient than single family houses because there is much less building envelope/capita. Additionally, many city dwellers use less space, which again contributes to energy efficiency. Mass transit systems are much more efficient than private vehicles (as long as there are enough riders), and if the system is good enough, most people don't need a car. People who live in cities can also bike and walk to many places they need to go. Infrastructure (water, sewer, electricity, gas, even roads) are much more efficiently used by city dwellers (though pricing structures of utilities often force city dwellers to subsidize these systems in the suburbs), since the same mile of pipe (line, whatever) may serve 10,000 people instead of 500 (and the larger diameter pipe is only marginally more expensive). So there are physical efficiencies that make cities more miserly users of natural resources.

    Of course cities could be greener (especially with regards to the heat island effect you mentioned) by planting more trees, green roofs, etc., but if done right, cities can be quite green. Some people may not want to make the lifestyle changes that often go with living in the city (smaller living spaces, fewer physical possession, using more public spaces instead of private ones (parks instead of back yards), so it's not for everyone.

    It may be possible to live greener on a farm (or in the woods) by using outhouses (or septic systems), solar/wind generators, etc., but most people would have trouble sustaining themselves economically without interacting with a broader market, and I don't think there is enough arable land on the planet for everyone to live that way.

  8. wjrobinson | | #8

    Kent, every government overlay district has higher property tax that I know of locally. Our village has higher tax than the town every local city has much higher taxes.

    In any city the cost per sqft is as much as ten times that of a typical town.

    A town can go bankrupt and it is a non event. When NYC went under decades ago it almost took our state down. They multi-decade illegal bonds to bail it out. They stole our local low cost electricity and gave it to them. A huge bank starts to fail and our government has to stupidly bail it out in order to save the entire planet's economy. Bigger is not always better. How many giant Mayan cities survived? So many more, not enough space to list all the other cities that grew to their death point.

    As you said, cities "should" be greener. Maybe a Small dense town is the answer, I think so. Size matters but the limit is hit at a point far smaller than the worlds largest cities and even all cities.

    I think money shows straight out efficiency. No getting around the fact that traveling a mile in a city takes longer and costs more than in my town. A thousand sqft costs $100,000 here, NYC it costs a million.

    Go to Tokyo and people live in closets stuffed with quad bunk beds.

    Living in less space that costs more is greener?

    If I filled my house like a city apartment, my $300,000 home could hold 12 people and instead of each paying $600-1200/month(2 people sharing a small flat) they would pay $200.

    Greener is a no go if greener is economically ten times the cost.

    Greener has to also be the most efficient system IMO to be the most sustainable.

    Trying to maintain population growth and go greener is not possible yet. Not sure when it will be.

    Technology will if we survive make just about anything possible.

    Someone explain how more expensive more dense areas are greener.

    By the way non taxed property is not an excuse for most areas of higher density. Pensions relying on the falsehood of endless exponential stock price increases are the problem. And payrolls that pay workers 60 years for twenty years of work. IE, pay with benefits $100,000x20years but now also add in 60 more years at reduced pay but still full benefits so say $80,000x60. $2 million + $4.8 million = $6.8 million. Which also means every tax year what should be set aside on top of wages and benefits for pensions should be 4.8mill/20= $240,000. Are any government bodies/politicians doing this, or school districts? No way. They are all basing their costs on paying someday later and also betting that their pensions grow at 10 percent compounded. Nuts. And we nuts go with this nuts. We should be squirrels so we could enjoy the nuts of all this.

    Somewhat off track. Bring me back. Cities are not economically viable entities. Like Kent said, they don't even own their own water and farm for food. They don't own access to any resources. It is all outsourced. Everything is outsourced. Not a smart system in the long run. IMO anyway. Prove otherwise.

    Don't get me wrong, enjoy my city visits. Just think they prove their lack of green-ness in almost all ways.

  9. wjrobinson | | #9

    red green blue

    Go to Youtube and paste the following;

    Bob Metcalfe discusses the Enernet

    You will need an hour

  10. user-1087436 | | #10

    AJ, besides being a writer and a potential "green" home buyer, I also drive a bus in a big city. So after 32 years of taking it (threats, curses, expectoration, middle fingers) and dishing it out (just try cutting me off) at the wheel of a 60-foot 22-ton monster (non-air-conditioned until the last two years), you don't have to tell me the faults of our urban environment. Also, as a public employee who's about to retire (nearing age 70), I am well aware of the precariousness (and sometimes over-generosity) of pension financing. That has to get straightened out, and I have a feeling it will get straightened out. Self-employed guys like you are quite justified in your resentments. In the end it has to do with all of us learning to get along on less (and I do mean the 1-percenters!), which as far as I can see is the only way that mankind has any chance of surviving, and is the essence of any truly "green" future. But isn't that what people are talking about when they say cities are "green"? People in cities walk to get places. They don't have gigantic yachts (nautical and RV) in their driveways. They don't buy huge pickup trucks (on the theory that "a man needs a truck") and then drive them around with only Tube Sand in the back. You get the drift. But they do live and work in absurdly inefficient glass towers, so there's your balance.

    As for your declamations about compound interest, I think you need to get a grip. Compound interest is about as likely to disappear as the American cheeseburger. And calling it a Ponzi scheme does no good. All in all, I think the promiscuous use of the term 'Ponzi Scheme' is beginning to approach Communist, Socialist, and Fascist and a jillion other terms (including jillion) in its overuse. When Glen Beck uses it, you know it's getting bad.

    Last, your statement that cities are not economically viable is, well, hilarious. They may get into financial difficulties, God knows, but they aren't going anywhere. People like living in them and visiting them. They generate huge amounts of cash.

    All in all, it's a pretty bleak landscape. But take heart. Everywhere, in the sidewalks, in the streets, even in the cracks of Interstate 5, beaten and battered by decades of overuse, little green things cling to life. Along the edges of the freeways, at on-ramps and in medians, saplings of maple and Douglas fir sprout in the weeds. These are organisms that think in centuries, nothing like our evanescent whims. They're tougher than we are, they're waiting, and they'll win.

  11. user-413221 | | #11

    David Owen in his book Green Metropolis discusses energy use, greenhouse emissions, etc. as they relate to urban versus non-urban areas; this book is a great place to review information on some of the discussions in this thread.

  12. wjrobinson | | #12

    Green discussions pertaining to cities completely ignore the cost shifting that takes place. It's akin to Soviet era centralized systems. Ie, a city bus instead of me having wheels, yet the bus line runs in the red. Every city entity runs a loss. They can't charge enough to cover costs because no one would pay. IE, USPS is beyond broken and broke and bankrupt. Billions beyond folks.

    A green entity (city) must be the most viable on a spreadsheet without subsidy such as compared to a town. The cost of the governing body included. No phony bonds, or ponzi pensions. None.

    The fact that yes a person living in a closet, working in a cubicle, does indeed use less energy is meaningless if not on the same spreadsheet as the entire fully funded government that does not include ponzi style future income growth.

    Point me to that book and that discussion, and we can have a discussion that relates to this thread.

    Douglas, Your favorite book is exactly at the point of my thread. That your author and this site think a city has NO COSTS. LOL. If all the costs are shifted to tax based city entities, of course it "looks" like the individual is using less resources. It's the worst smoke an mirrors game ever foisted on all those interested in learning to be green. THE WORST.

  13. wjrobinson | | #13

    Gordon, thanks for posting. OK. Ponzi. Most understand that Ponzi refers to a scheme that grows to a miserable end. So instead of explaining my interest in exponential anything, I refer to Ponzi. Compound interest, you said that not I. I mentioned compounding which basically is referencing increasing value assumed to be coming by taxing authorities for things like impossible to fund pensions that pay wages for 80 years out of 20 years of taxation and work output.

    Writing, great, I would like to read what you have written. Buses, not my favorite mode of getting someplace but great fun in Puerto Vallarta.

    Getting along on less, I only agree that we need to eventually get along with a limit to population/resources availed. Technology, innovation, is making great strides now to alleviate some of our current strains and most likely much of our future strains. Just in time is a huge part of nature. Just in time. A cliff edge gives one focus to act for sure.

    Please, you killed me with the Glen Beck mention. I see us in error as to how a city is greener than a town but I also see that we will figure this out and move forward just dandy.

    Your last two paragraphs... are in all not understanding of my line of thought. What we think of as a green city to me is nonsense. We will move forward past this latest speed bump once we truly scientifically analyze complete community entities including the overlaying costs of government entities, and outlying resources and and figure in fully funded pensions and the cost of outlying prisons and more and more. Then thankfully with the incredible pace of innovation now in the connected information/communication/nanotech era, I say again, we will go forward.

    But I remain in belief that it is not as simple as a city has citizens using less E because they live in such a dense community. I believe that books like "The Green Metropolis" have very narrow understandings of that which they expound upon. Of course I do too!

    So, show me a study that aggregates specifically all the real costs wrapped up in a large urban enviroment as a city like NYC. Not just a tiny treatise suggesting I can walk to the corner for a latte.

  14. wjrobinson | | #14

    Googles of interest, first

    Exponential Economist Meets Finite Physicist


    Then I googled an idea I thought might pertain, and quite the google, a bit past my pay grade, but giving it a shot;

    Cascading exponential growth-decays in stable and unstable states

  15. JoeW519 | | #15

    I get your point, AJ. And as I said in my first post, I agree, but don't see what it has to do with green building. Can you make the tie for me?

    Your outrage at government/business abuses repeats what all of us feel all the time, or at least many times. And by all I mean world wide: Egypt, Greece, Atlanta, Australia, Japan ... and in individual households where, it seems, living beyond our means is an epidemic.

    I'm curious if you have a solution in mind. Especially one that can be effected by architects, builders, homeowners .... I'd be interested in your thoughts re: solving the problem. What do you have in mind?

  16. user-1087436 | | #16

    AJ, I think basically we agree; we're just stating it differently. I'm totally with you on pension plans that may have made sense once, but no longer do. All in all, I am extremely pessimistic about the human race. But I think we ought to do the best we can while we're here.

    fyi, when I write, I mostly write about Turkey and Kurdistan. ( The subject of my book, Dr. Asahel Grant, 1807- 1844, was from near you--Waterville and Utica, NY. One of his associates, coincidentally, was named Albert Holladay, distant cousin of a certain Martin Holladay. [Building note from way back: When Dr Grant and wife arrived in Persia, 1835, the plaster of their mud house was so fresh that wheat (from the straw in the matrix) was sprouting from their walls. Many places in Iran, they're still building that way.]

  17. wjrobinson | | #17

    Gordon, thank you for your latest post as to your interests and your blog.

    Green- the definition, the journey. My point I think is that we need to include the amount of our personal resources (money paid in taxes) and how these taxing authorities use these resources (money). And as we do include fully these costs we will make more informed decisions in our journey to sustainability individually and as communities and countries.

    I am a greenie. I fully believe as we close out present unsustainable growth systems new systems are taking there place. One interesting thought is that after real world growth there still is growth such as we have in all of us attaining more knowledge more choices, and we are creating digital life, like this site and Gordon's blog.

    For now, my point is recognize an a town or suburb or small city or large cities tax costs in evaluating its green sustainability.

    Alex Wilson, Dan, GBA, I would like to see this addressed. And maybe I am way off the mark. You gents are the experts. Some thoughts and or a blog topic.

  18. GBA Editor
    Martin Holladay | | #18

    Thanks for your suggestion of a future blog topic. Regardless of what Alex, Dan, or I write, however, I think you've made your own choice about where you prefer to live, and I doubt whether the analysis of any expert will change your opinion.

    Most Americans are just like you, AJ. Most city dwellers like living in a city, and they can come up with all sorts of reasons defending their choice of living there. Similarly, most rural residents like living in the country, and they can also come up with all sorts of reasons defending their choice for living there.

  19. cornwalker | | #19

    The question of city financing is not and can not be the same as the question of whether a city is green.
    I live in a town of about 3800, give or take. Our fire department is volunteer. Our town government is open meeting with a board of selectmen. Our largest costs are the two schools, followed by the public works departments. We have very little by way of non-taxable entities and tax free land use. So yes, our taxes are low.

    Cities do not have these luxuries. And they provide far more services than our town does. I pay for every bag of trash I haul down to the transfer station. I pay for trimming of the city-owned shade trees in my front lawn. There are no programs offered, no social services, no shelters for the indigent, no foot patrols for crime prevention (a recent burglary spree would have gone unsolved, but fortunately criminals are usually not the brightest among us).

    Cities scale incredibly well. It was in the 90s again today, like in much of the country, and I was looking at the cost of running the 600 ton chiller in a large building, and it comes out to about .6 kWh per ton. In contrast, a 2.5 ton air conditioner costs about 1.4 kWh per ton. That's the very definition of "green" right there.

    But with any large organization, sometimes scale allows for greed and waste. There's mismanagement, graft, and corruption. And sometimes there is simple incompetence or wishful thinking. You referred to the pension system as a ponzi scheme. It's not that simple. As designed, pension systems are no different than your savings account at your local hometown bank. You save a certain amount of money, and you assume it will increase both from additional contributions and from interest payments (which are compounded, thankfully). But pensions have gone wrong for three reasons:
    They assumed a rate of return that was unrealistic. A decade ago, your savings account was probably paying about 3.5% APY; today it's more like .25%APY (.5% if you're lucky, both of which are lower than inflation), whereas many pension systems assume annual rates of return between 6 and 8%.
    People are living longer. As a defined benefit program, they use actuarial tables to figure out how much money they will need to pay out (and consequently pay in), but didn't account for how much longer all of us live today. And for those that provided medical as well, who would have guessed health care costs would rise at 30% per annum?
    Contributions to pension funds were too low. Too many governments, short on cash, wrote IOUs to their pension funds or decided the market would continue to grow at 10-11% and therefore they didn't need to contribute as much.

    But that's not the entire story of government finance. In addition to property taxes, many cities rely on a local sales tax or state contributions to finance operations. In a recession, sales tax receipts collapse and consequently so does revenue. Keynesian economics suggests the best way to combat this retraction is for the larger government entities to temporarily fill the gap left by the abandonment of private capita, made possible through issuing government debt. It also calls for government to cut back spending when the private sector is booming and instead pay down accumulated debt. Unfortunately we do the opposite, and cities and states are suffering for it. Instead of keeping things on an even keel, we usually cut taxes during boom times and cut government spending during bust times. This results in a double whammy during recessions and no "rainy day fund" or payoff of accumulated debt during growth periods.

    That's not a problem exclusive to cities - it's just that their scale combined with a government filled with ideologues and crony capitalists make them more susceptible to these swings in the market. On every measure of what "green" means to me (energy use, water use, emissions, sustainable buildings, heating and cooling costs, etc) cities win hands down. To say cities aren't green because they sometimes go bankrupt makes as much sense as saying a leed platinum house is less green than a conventional house because the rate on the adjustable mortgage was too high and resulted in a default.

  20. kevin_in_denver | | #20


    Great question, and one of the few issues I'm undecided about.

    There may economies of scale with a city. Skyscrapers can still work because you can run the elevators with PV.

    A high percentage of folks prefer the amenities that come from dense living, so as long as we can still pump the energy and necessities into an urban area, cities will be desired and desirable.

    Kunstler doesn't like 'em though:

  21. wjrobinson | | #21

    Clarification. My view so far is....

    I like cities, towns, mountains, beaches, green, net zero.


    The suburbs and promoting cities as "the most efficient" WITHOUT adding in any of the "tax" costs at all. The costs of city efficiency is offloaded to taxing authorities. And taxing authorities offload costs to subsidized bonding authorities. And eventually this loops back to the green person using less resources (they think) yet at that point adding in the tax to said green person with all the lost overhead costs, we may be very inefficient and therefore not more green but in the end, LESS GREEN.

    I believe that once the tax costs are properly included in all green analysis that then we can refine our progress toward sustainable living no matter what type of area, city, town etc.

    And as to dislikes... Never ever liked suburbia. Just driving into such an area gives me a fight or flight reaction. At least I agree with greenies about one area.

  22. wjrobinson | | #22

    Kevin, to me, Kunstler made some sense. I see our best direction to head being a combination of tech, to pre car days, to green, to natural.

    My small town could run off one windmill. Our town us walkable. We can produce goods and services and food and fun. Riversong style building could be how all is built sustainably. Our taxes could drop to net zero if we go back to all volunteer governing and community servicing. If we integrated increased time off with community servicing it would work. Retired work loads going to zero is nuts. Most should live a much richer life if still actively participating in community.

    And don't get me started on finance, healthcare and lawyers. Their days of change are here now too.

  23. David_Gregory_CZ3_CA | | #23

    AJ et al -

    Here's a conundrum: When I moved into my apartment in the city, I bought a few small plants. Dutifully watering them, they began to grow...exponentially!!!

    That's right; every new leaf they put out (i.e., energy dividend from the original capital stock re-invested in growth) allowed them to grow even faster! And when bits broke off, I foolishly put them in water, where they now plants are taking over my home! I don't even know how many I have now. From their perch outside one window, they've dropped pieces onto the roofs 8 stories down which have somehow clung on and started to grow! This can't go on for much longer...much to my chagrin, my attempt to be 'green' in the city turns out to be completely unsustainable!

    If there were winter here, or some municipal pruning authority, we would be saved; but no such luck... ;P

    On a more serious note, if you are (or anyone else is) interested in municipal finance and its sustainability (or lack thereof), the way that cities and their regions relate to each other (and other city-regions) economically (hint: no town is an island), or other similar topics, I'd look elsewhere than GBA. There's a wide body of literature, no need to google esoterica like "Cascading exponential growth-decays in stable and unstable states" (which for me only turns up this forum...!). For instance, Bendavid-Val : 'Regional and Local Economic Analysis for Practitioners', and 'Understanding Your Economy – Maclean and Voytek'. There's also JJ's lesser known 'Cities and the Wealth of Nations', works by Glaeser, Scott and can check course syllabi from planning or public policy departments for more (municipal bond finance! thrilling stuff...). You should be able to walk over to your local library and pick up copies...or if it's too small to have them, they can order it for you through inter-library loan, and have it mailed for you to pick up there, at no (direct) cost to you, perhaps via USPS's more-than-normally subsidized 'media mail' rate... ;)

    As a builder, I bet you know your way around a spreadsheet; so I'd suggest channeling your obvious passion for the issues into working the numbers yourself (lots of public data available), and steer away from the broad theories and proclamations of others.

    Have fun. And lay off the coffee, will you? Or whatever it is that's got a bug up your rug...;)

  24. wjrobinson | | #24

    David, great post, fun reading. Just skimmed one of your sitings, boring, off topic, not relevant.

    And be careful with moisture with your exponential plant world, don't forget what's coming.... exponential decay of all that leading to a giant cleanup and possible huge release of CO2...

    City taxes should be lower than towns to prove that their larger scale is more efficient IMO period.

  25. wjrobinson | | #25

    Cities hide and distribute their huge costs everywhere. When NYC went belly up in the seventies upstate NY electric rates took part in the bail out.

    Illegal bonds, unelected bond agencies, more whacko offloading.

    I like cities. I think they can be green. We need to straighten out their budgets and all the rest moving forward greener and greener.

  26. wjrobinson | | #26


    San francisco: $1500/300sqft micro studio
    My town: $1500/2500sqft home

    I need help seeing cities as not just cost shifting and in need of improvement via discussions starting like this. Let's improve these numbers.

  27. Martin-Holladay | | #27

    What does the rent in San Francisco indicate? Each transaction includes two parties -- a willing landlord and a willing tenant -- who agree on a mutually acceptable price. I guess what that means is that lots of people like to live in cities like San Francisco, and are willing to pay high rents for the privilege.

    I guess that means that people are different. AJ likes to live in the Adirondacks, but many Americans love San Francisco. Imagine that.

  28. wjrobinson | | #28

    So every cost of city life costs more to live in tiny spaces and yaa all think that is more green. Goofy. Six times higher city living costs fudges
    cities green credentials IMO.

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