Suburbia’s climate change nightmare: The devastating cost of surviving winter’s wrath

The winter of the polar vortex is finally over. But the assessment of its calamitous cost is just beginning

Topics: Dream City, suburbia, urban planning, polar vortex, Winter, Climate Change,

Suburbia's climate change nightmare: The devastating cost of surviving winter's wrath (Credit: Reuters/Dave Kaup/Vadim Georgiev via Shutterstock/Salon)

It’s April, and the winter of the polar vortex is finally over. It leaves behind a slew of bad effects, including the worst pothole season in recent memory.

But few things can succinctly express the extended and extreme nature of the cold like the high cost of heating. According to a March release from the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average cost of heating a home with propane will be more than 50 percent higher this winter, due to a demand-induced shortage. The average winter heating bill in New England is expected to climb by more than 20 percent. And the greatest cold snap was in the American South, which was 20 percent chillier this winter than last.

That’s bad news for American homeowners, of course. But it’s also troubling for cities that have set targets for reducing their greenhouse gas emissions. Buildings are responsible for two-fifths of energy use in the developed world, but in cities the proportion is much higher. In New York, energy use in buildings accounts for 74 percent of the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. And most of that energy is used for heat.

Sixty-three percent of the greenhouse gas output in New York City buildings comes from heating. In Europe, 70 percent of building energy use is heating-related. And a winter as cold as this one underscores the challenge for cities like Minneapolis and Durham, N.C., which have set targets for reducing their environmental impact. For a city looking to improve its carbon footprint, cars, air conditioning and industry may be more attractive opponents, but there is no bigger target than the inefficiency of heating.

You can see why cities from Boston to Melbourne are coaxing and prodding building owners to retrofit. Washington, D.C., Seattle, Philadelphia and Austin have instituted benchmarking laws that track building efficiency year over year. New York tracks the energy use of more than 24,000 buildings. These public databases not only help the city keep track of areas for improvement, they also serve as a resource for homebuyers and developers, who can evaluate the energy efficiency of a property along with its square footage and ownership history.

Yet, despite this wave of record-keeping, it has remained difficult to say for sure whether urban neighborhoods are more heat-efficient than their suburban counterparts. A new, landmark report from LSE Cities at the London School of Economics puts that debate to rest.

Urban design, it turns out, is an accurate predictor of heating efficiency. Based on the urban morphology – the general shape of a city neighborhood – the amount of energy required to heat a living space can fluctuate by a factor of six. And suburban housing, of the type that dominates the American built environment, is the worst possible way to design a neighborhood for heating efficiency.

Optimal heating efficiency, by contrast, correlates with the same characteristics of urban design – height and density – that also promote a city’s levels of walking, transit use, commercial vitality and affordability.

Even if I’ve convinced you that heating efficiency is a crucial element of urban sustainability, this may sound hopelessly abstract. Don’t worry: The study analyzes dozens of real neighborhoods in London, Paris, Berlin and Istanbul. If you’re having trouble visualizing what a heating-efficient neighborhood looks like, think of classic Parisian urban design. Six-story apartment buildings filling every block from curb to curb, creating a cityscape of high-density, medium-height buildings, and a very low amount of empty space.

Out of all the neighborhoods the paper examines, the one with the lowest heat-energy demand (measured in kilowatt hours per square meter per year) was Courcelles, north of the Arc de Triomphe on Paris’s Right Bank. It’s classic Haussmann-era Paris. Not coincidentally, it was the study’s second-densest neighborhood, with a floor-area ratio (FAR) of 4.88. In fact, nearly all the “compact urban blocks” that feature in the study score very highly, with heat-energy demand below 100 kWh/m^2/year. The average U.K. home, for comparison, uses about 180 kWh/m^2/year.

Intuitively, it makes sense that density is associated with good heating efficiency. Shared walls between apartments and between buildings reduce heat loss. The low ratio of surface to volume — facade to living space — also means there are fewer opportunities for heat to escape. But proving the energy efficiency of denser urban habitats has been tricky because of one important factor whose effect is difficult to measure: the sun. The sun plays a surprisingly large role in heating buildings. For the average dwelling in the U.K., a nation not known for its sunny days, the heating contribution of the sun runs between 10 and 15 percent. In sunnier U.S. cities, the sun can be used to greater advantage still. Estimating the number of hours, over the course of a year, during which the sun would hit the various facades of a neighborhood was the study’s major breakthrough.

What they found: Compact blocks of buildings, like London’s Paddington or Istanbul’s Tarlabaşı, are the most efficient for heating; detached housing — think of your standard American suburb — is the least. Not one sample of detached housing from the four cities had heat-energy demand below 110 kWh/m^2/year. That means the best-performing detached housing development would require twice as much gas as the worst-performing compact block in Paris.

Row houses in Berlin also performed well, as did more modern apartments in Istanbul. Urban building type fails as a predictor only when the group looked at slab housing and high-rises, where high and low heat-energy efficiency values could vary (within a city) by as much as a factor of two. The researchers attribute this spread to what they call “the mixing-in of other configurations,” meaning that many sample areas are corrupted with other housing types.

All this might not be particularly important news for homebuyers. A LEED-certified house in the suburbs will always heat itself more efficiently than a drafty 19th-century loft, and might save the buyer $1,000 a year in heating costs. But for cities, it indicates yet another advantage of promoting denser urban development. Of all the metrics measured against heating efficiency, density had the strongest correlation.

“Humans have always worked with basic design to achieve positive outcomes,” said Philipp Rode, the executive director of LSE Cities and the paper’s lead author. “I think there’s an underappreciation of how much we can achieve with design without even touching sophisticated technology.”

By using zoning and tax incentives to encourage the creation of an urban environment in which heating costs are low, cities don’t just check a box on their greenhouse gas scorecard, they also save residents money. And save the planet, of course.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows


Loading Comments...