Why apartments are more sustainable than houses

A week or so ago I wrote a piece about recycling food scraps in which I repeated the theory that apartment blocks are less sustainable than standalone houses. You can read how I reached that conclusion here. But Andrew Chuter, a fellow member of the Sustainable Apartments Facebook page has put forward a fairly compelling argument as to why I may well be wrong. Read on …

I think on the face of it, one would expect apartments to have lower carbon footprints because of economies of scale: it’s easier to provide the same resources over a smaller area. The distances of travel are shorter, therefore walking and cycling becomes more feasible, the infrastructure of pipes, drains, sewer, wires, footpaths, and roads are shorter per capita.

Parks, libraries, schools, public transport etc are shared and more efficiently used.So people who choose to live in that situation can make financial savings and should end up being wealthier than those who don’t.

Unfortunately some of that extra money just goes into make the cost of housing in those areas greater. That’s an inefficiency of the market though, not something intrinsic.

A related issue is Jevon’s Paradox (aka ‘induced demand’). Any improvement in technology that makes using a resource more efficient can result in more of that resource being used.

‘Apartment living’ can be viewed as an improvement in technology relative to ‘suburban living’ in this respect. The spare money that apartment dwellers save, is often used on international flights, fancy appliances, weekend driving trips etc.

Anyone who has travelled to Japan will realise this is the case. How can a country with so little land and resources be so wealthy? Because they live compactly and efficiently.

Imagine if Australia had almost no mineral resources and only a small fraction of its agricultural land? We’d be reduced to poverty in no time.

Another factor that is not talked about is the effective subsidy denser inner urban dwellers are forced to pay to outer suburban dwellers. For example, although public housing, public transport and water infrastructure are state government responsibilities, some inner urban councils pay for those things out of their own pockets to make up for state government’s shortfalls.

City of Sydney uses ratepayer money to help pay for social housing, public transport (money went to the new light rail), and the new trunk drain from Zetland. Outer suburban councils don’t have the ratepayer base because of lack of density to afford to pay for these things, so the state provides the full amount for them.

Effectively it’s a cross-subsidy. If these factors were reversed, then the obvious benefits (financial and environmental) of denser living would be more apparent.

For example, governments could provide more public housing in inner city areas for all people, not just ‘welfare’ housing as has now become the norm. Or state revenues spent on infrastructure could be allocated on a per capita basis by council area instead of being skewed to outer suburban and regional areas.

Or a carbon tax put on petrol ($1/L is a median estimate to cover the social cost of carbon). Or charge drivers for the distance travelled by car.

How about a system where people who drive less than 10,000km per year get a dividend? Abolish free parking and use the revenue to plant trees. There’s plenty that could be done. And if these things were done, many more would move into apartments and actually see the environmental benefits as dollars in their wallets.

Of course, you can still live in a large house in the suburbs, you’ll just have to pay the correct price for that lifestyle decision. – Andrew Chuter

One Reply to “Why apartments are more sustainable than houses”

  1. Jimmy-T says:

    If you want to start a discussion or ask a question about this, log into the Flat Chat Forum (using the Forum link on the menu at the very top of your screen). More people will read it there and you can more easily keep track of responses.

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