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The Lorax and the Once-ler: Density & Parks

Ed Glaeser has some thoughts on how building compactly is better than sprawl, using a somewhat provocative comparison to the Lorax. In a post on the NY Times Economix blog, he notes:

In Dr. Seuss’ environmentalist fable, “The Lorax,” the Once-ler, a budding textile magnate, chops down Truffula to knit “Thneeds.” Over the protests of the environmentally sensitive Lorax, the Once-ler builds a great industrial town that despoils the environment, because he “had to grow bigger.” Eventually, the Once-ler overdoes it, and he chops down the last Truffula tree, destroying the source of his income. Chastened, Dr. Seuss’s industrialist turns green, urging a young listener to take the last Truffula seed and plant a new forest.

Some of the lessons told by this story are correct. From a purely profit-maximizing point of view, the Once-ler is pretty inept, because he kills his golden goose. Any good management consultant would have told him to manage his growth more wisely. One aspect of the story’s environmentalist message, that bad things happen when we overfish a common pool, is also correct.

But the unfortunate aspect of the story is that urbanization comes off terribly. The forests are good; the factories are bad…. Contrary to the story’s implied message, living in cities is green, while living surrounded by forests is brown.

Persons per Acre Around Central Park, Prepared by The Trust for Public Land

Glaeser cites a recent study he conducted that showed a seven-ton difference in carbon emissions between the residents of Manhattan and Westchester County.

Living surrounded by concrete is actually pretty green. Living surrounded by trees is not. The policy prescription that follows from this is that environmentalists should be championing the growth of more and taller skyscrapers. Every new crane in New York City means less low-density development. The environmental ideal should be an apartment in downtown San Francisco, not a ranch in Marin County.

The problem with this argument is that one can be surrounded by trees and green in the city. Around 20 percent of the land area in New York City and dense San Francisco is actually parks. The neighborhoods around Central Park, some of the nation’s densest, are within a stone’s throw of forests.  (See map showing population density around the Park.) Plus, street trees can abound in urban neighborhoods — think Brooklyn’s Park Slope. The nearness of these places within compact living is what makes it not only environmental, as Glaeser describes but livable and environmental as perhaps the Lorax would describe.

In the end, with livable compact cities, the Lorax and the Once-ler can be neighbors.

2 Responses

  1. Good post here. Something to think about when listening to economists say you have to choose between vast natural areas and smart growth. Central Park alone is 840 acres of green space!

    P.S. Good comment on the Economix blog, too!

  2. […] Parks are an Important Part of that Density (City Parks Blog) […]

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