by Adelaide Grady
When I was young and blindly idealistic, I was given a copy of The Consumer’s Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. This relatively brief book, written by the Union of Concerned Scientists, laid out the handful of really big things about our lifestyle that are having the most detrimental effect on the environmental condition of the planet. I call it a relatively brief book because in comparison to other earth-saving instruction manuals on the market at the time and today, a handful of things was and is pretty revolutionary. This book argued, among other things, that the activists’ mission a la mode – paper vs. plastic? Cloth diapers vs. disposable? – mattered little in the face of the really big things. My naïve brain told me: just spread the word about this amazing book! Just a few things everybody can do to save the earth?! How easy is that?!
The problem was and continues to be that we, as hardworking, successful, deserving Americans, can’t stomach the kind of sacrifice it takes to do these really big things. We want to move up in the world. But changing the world is not just about making thoughtful substitutions for everyday conveniences while we climb the ladder of life. It’s about completely revising the way we live and move up through life. We must live in smaller homes closer to work, drive more fuel-efficient vehicles or skip driving at all, and eat less meat.
Let’s leave the question of Saturday night’s porterhouse steak to the culinary blogs. The other two big ones – where we live and how we get to work – seem like questions a real estate developer should grapple with. After all, it’s the developers who create the built world we live in, right? If a conscientious developer knew how important smaller homes closer to business hubs and public transit were to the environment, surely (s)he would create more of them, right? The truth, of course, is that demand drives development. We, as consumers, are the creators of the built world we live in. The developers just enable it.
But every so often government steps in to impose change on this codependent relationship. One recent imposition has been micro units. The most progressive cities in the country are telling developers: if you want to build here, in the heart of things, where people want to be, you have to build small. Really small. Micro seems to be the solution to all of the stakeholders’ concerns. Micro units are more affordable (though not, of course, on a per-square-foot basis), they put less stress on the city’s infrastructure, they increase density, they offer more revenue per square foot, etc. Finally, my 22-year old self is shouting, finally real change is coming!
I do think micro units are a good thing for cities. And I do think that, despite the conflict between the requirements of accessibility codes and the need to maximize space in tiny units (the smallest legal full bathroom we’ve been able to design is about 60 square feet which, in a 450 square foot apartment, is over 12% of your space), people will rent these units. But I don’t necessarily think they’re a green revolution. Why? Because I don’t believe they’ll instigate a revision in the way we move up. Young professionals who live in cities are generally living in multi-bedroom apartments with multiple roommates. They live this way for however long they need to until they can afford not to and then they live alone. More affordable single-person units will enable young professionals to live alone sooner, which will actually result in an overall increase in environmental impact. Now, instead of sharing your refrigerator and its energy consumption with your roommates, you have your own refrigerator. I lived in an 800 square foot apartment with three roommates when I was 25. 450 square feet all to myself would have felt like a luxury.
The environmental benefits will come if and when people living in larger spaces choose to live in smaller ones. Will the allure of urban living be enough to overcome the drive to move up?