Suburban Sprawl is Beautiful

There are three disabling myths that have crippled the economy of California, and the impact of these myths are most painfully felt among California’s poorest and most vulnerable. To live well in California today, one must be affluent enough to be indifferent to a cost-of-living that would otherwise be punitively high.

The three myths that have led to this predicament are the following: Nuclear power and natural gas power causes unacceptable harm to the environment, reservoirs and desalination plants cause unacceptable harm to the environment, and single family homes nestled in sprawling suburbs cause unacceptable harm to the environment. These are myths. They are false. Yet they are being exported to the rest of America, where they will wreak the same havoc they’ve already inflicted onto Californians.

The consequences of the first two myths are chronic shortages and high prices for energy and water. Instead of building state-of-the-art, highly efficient and clean natural gas power plants, and ultra safe nuclear power plants that even reuse the spent fuel, Californians are planning to carpet hundreds of square miles of land with solar panels and befoul thousands of square miles of ocean with floating wind turbines. This brand of “sprawl” will consume far more land than new suburbs ever could, and implementing this scheme will guarantee that Californians never have an adequate supply of affordable and reliable energy.

Similarly, Californians could be building desalination plants and off-stream reservoirs, adhering to the most stringent environmental standards anywhere in the world. Even the environment would benefit from water abundance, as the surplus water would be available to nurture streams and wetlands. But instead, even after a legendary procession of storms blasted the state this winter, California’s lawmakers are planning to restrict indoor water consumption to 42 gallons per person per day. The proposed legislation also intends to require homeowners to implement “watering budgets” for their outdoor landscaping.

And the money that might go to paying for practical water supply infrastructure? That will instead be spent on installing dual water meters in every one of California’s 13 million households, one to ration indoor use, one to ration outdoor use. It will be spent on subsidies to low income households who can’t afford their water bill, since even though the quantity of water sold will go down with rationing, the unit price will go up since most of water district operating costs are to pay fixed overhead and pay off financing for existing infrastructure.

If you don’t have enough energy or water, you can’t build new homes. But to make a virtue out of an unfortunate and altogether avoidable necessity, the third myth was created: suburban sprawl is an ugly blight on the earth. But this perspective inverts reality. Suburbs – leafy, spacious, pastoral and peaceful – and the welcoming, private, detached homes for which they are best known, are the nourishing refuges that anyone raising a family would choose. And there is no reason why suburbs cannot be affordable again. Lack of affordability is a choice made by politicians in Sacramento and Washington, a choice based on myths.

The mythology begins with the notion that California doesn’t have enough “open space” to permit new construction. This is preposterously false. California is a vast, underpopulated state, encompassing 163,695 square miles. The state is less than 5 percent urbanized at present, that is, nearly 40 million inhabitants are crammed into barely 8,000 square miles. To put this into context, imagine what it would take to add 10 million people to the state’s population. Imagine if all 10 million people were to live in brand new, “sprawling” suburbs.

This isn’t hard to calculate. If 10 million people, living in four person households, moved into detached homes that each occupied a quarter-acre lot, it would consume just under 1,000 square miles. Taking into account an equal amount of land set aside for roads, schools, parks, retail centers and industrial districts, these 10 million people and their new suburbs would consume 2,000 square miles. Which is to say that even in the unlikely event that 10 million people moved to California, and every one of them realized the California dream of their own home on a big lot, the urban footprint of the state would merely grow from 4.9 percent to a still insignificant 6.1 percent.

Further context can be offered to these calculations by estimating how much land and ocean are to be set aside for solar and wind development. Again these aren’t difficult calculations. If California wanted to go all electric, at a minimum they would have to triple the capacity of the power grid, and they would have overbuild renewables in order to yield on average at least 100 gigawatts of baseload power. How would they do this?

It turns out, solar power would be the most space efficient. Utility scale solar farms in sunny California can deliver, taking into account buffering with massive battery storage, about 50 megawatts of baseload power per square mile. This equates to a 2,000 square mile requirement for solar to fulfill all of California’s electricity requirements in a totally electrified state. California’s legislature is issuing exemptions and clearing away every regulatory obstacle ever enacted in order to expedite solar sprawl. One may argue whether or not this is desirable, but they’re right about one thing: There’s plenty of available land. But why is solar ok, when homes are forbidden?

As for wind, it is an amazing space hog. Even offshore, where wind is more reliable, generating adequate electricity would require a stupefying amount of ocean. The biggest offshore wind turbines available, taking into account the intermittency which would require massive battery farms, only deliver about 4 megawatts of baseload power. And because these floating leviathans are 1,000 feet tall, and have to be anchored using cables connected to the ocean floor over 4,000 feet below the surface, each of them requires a square mile of area to operate. That equates to 25,000 square miles, off a coast that is only 600 miles long. And to build and maintain them? The ships, the submarines, the ports, the workforce housing, the undersea cables, the battery farms, the high-voltage connections from remote coastal cities to the main grid?

If you want to know where California is squandering its wealth, look no further. And yet, amidst these sprawling renewables projects, single family homes will supposedly harm the environment. This, too, is a myth, and not only because the amount of land required is a minute fraction of California’s open space. It is also a myth because the so-called “greenhouse gas emissions” allegedly exacerbated by new suburbs are not nearly as significant as claimed. Despite the sanctimonious pronouncements of environmentalist sages who oppose any suburban “sprawl,” and even if you still believe that CO2 and modest warming aren’t benefits to the planet and to humanity, studies claiming excessive greenhouse gas from suburbs are easily challenged.

To begin with, California is on the bleeding edge of going “net zero.” And even if they step back from that impoverishing extreme, vehicles in California are going all-electric, or – hopefully – at the least there will still be a role for combustion engines in vehicles, but the advanced hybrid technologies they’ll employ will result in negligible emissions. And even that is beside the point, because work commutes are becoming a thing of the past. An honest VMT (vehicle miles traveled) study would take into account the migration of jobs to where new homes are, as well as the enduring viability of remote work. Cars will not pollute, and cars will not be used as frequently anyway. The idea that new suburbs will cause too many emissions of “greenhouse gas” is a myth.

There is a powerful economic argument at work in favor of new suburbs, but it is ignored by California’s legislators. The infrastructure cost of densifying existing cities is more than the infrastructure cost of suburban “sprawl.” This is because existing utility conduits have to be torn up and modified atop existing roads and developed properties. It’s much cheaper to install new utility conduits on open land. In terms of building cost per square foot, anything over three floors requires far more reinforcing materials to withstand the weight of the building; the cheapest building cost per square foot are one and two story, wood framed homes. And, of course, when cities are cordoned off with “greenbelts,” the cost of properties is artificially inflated, often to stratospheric levels, at the same time as land on the other side of the “urban service boundary” is dirt cheap.

The necessity of subsidies to construct enabling infrastructure is also a myth in many situations. For example, if energy regulations were lifted and civil engineering contractors were able to swiftly design and build nuclear power plants and advanced combined cycle natural gas power plants, California’s taxpayers and ratepayers wouldn’t have to pay one dime to subsidize renewable energy projects. Energy would be privately financed and energy costs would be affordable.

Subsidies for water infrastructure are more nuanced, because even with major regulatory reform, the cost for some water infrastructure remains prohibitive to ratepayers without subsidies offsetting a major portion of the construction cost. But here again, California’s legislators, including some of those legislators who are against subsidies on principle, go off the rails. Because the subsidies necessary to finance the water supply infrastructure needed to guarantee abundant and affordable water represent one-time, long-term investments that will more than offset the perpetual subsidies that will otherwise be necessary to provide assistance to low income families that cannot afford their utility bills.

There is nothing ugly, unsustainable, or uneconomic about single family suburbs. They are beautiful expressions of a society that has rejected myths, and gotten their priorities properly aligned with the interests and aspirations of working families. Change the codes. Deregulate. Start building again.

An edited version of this article was published by the Pacific Research Institute.

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