Why suburbs are more sustainable than cities (and the research that proves it)

Wed, 2013-08-14 06:10 -- Jesse Berst

Does the Smart Cities Council need to become the Smart Suburbs Council instead? New research from the University of Lincoln (UK), the New Zealand Energy Centre and the University of Auckland claims that suburbs have a greater potential to become energy self-sufficient.

Traditional wisdom has it that urban centers are more efficient because they crowd more people into a smaller space. But the research claims this truism is only valid in a world of fossil-fuel generation and internal combustion engines. When we switch to solar PV and electric vehicles, suburbs will have an edge. For one thing, they have more rooftops for solar panels. For another, they are low density, so they will end up with more power than they need.

That said, I don't foresee any slowdown in the trend to move to cities. Residents rarely relocate for improved regional sustainability. Rather, they move for better jobs and better lifestyles. -- Jesse Berst

Here are findings from the newly published research, as featured on Science Daily:

  • Detached suburban houses are capable of producing 10 times the amount of solar energy created by skyscrapers and other commercial buildings.
  • Lower density housing in suburbia has the greatest surplus after its own energy uses have been taken into account, leave it to help with peak loads in the city center.
  • While a compact city may be more efficient for internal combustion engine vehicles, a dispersed city is more efficient when distributed generation of electricity by photovoltaic installations is the main energy source and electric vehicles are the principal mode of transport.

"This research could have implications on the policies of both urban form and energy," suggested Professor Hugh Byrd from the University of Lincoln, who led the research. "Far from reacting by looking to re-build our cities, we need to embrace the dispersed suburban areas and smart new technologies that will enable us to power our cities in a cost-effective way, without relying on ever dwindling supplies of fossil fuels."


Jesse Berst is the founding Chairman of the Smart Cities Council. Click to subscribe to SmartCitiesNow, the weekly newsletter highlighting smart city trends, technologies and techniques.