Region Forward Blog

Global Fridays: What are we exporting?

Apr 29, 2011


President Obama wants to double America’s exports over the next few years. Given our massive trade deficit that’s probably a good goal. However there’s one thing we shouldn’t attempt to export: bad planning.

One of the benefits of countries like China and India experiencing their large-scale urbanization now should be that they can learn from mistakes made by the U.S. and other developed countries. China’s significant investment in high-speed rail (much larger than the U.S.) and other forms of mass transit is a positive sign. However car ownership is still regarded as a sign of wealth and status in the developing world. As Eric Morris points out at the Freakonomics blog many of these countries are entering the per-capita income level where mass auto adoption usually takes off.

A very interesting interactive tool over at Visualizing shows the breakdown in population of the world’s major cities over time and into the future. Cities in the developed world particularly China India and South America dominate the latter map. If we’re going to have a chance to save the planet from the worst effects of climate change that’s where great urban planning and smart growth are going to have to be the most effective.

If developing countries with large populations want to look to the West for models of growth they should look to examples of dense transit-oriented urban cities like Paris Seoul Manhattan or Barcelona; not Houston Ottawa Phoenix or Melbourne. The U.S. and Australia in particular have a bad habit of taking up much more land than is necessary for their populations given how much land area they have. This lack of density is environmentally unsustainable and reduces healthy options liking walking or biking for residents.

China and the U.S. are approximately the same size in terms of land area however China has more than three times the population. India has roughly the same population as China and even less land. Reliance on automobiles for transportation and widespread suburbanization simply can’t happen in these countries to the degree it has in the U.S. (at least without ravaging the planet even further). It’s not a matter of denying newly-developing countries the “pleasures” that come with wealth. Hundreds of hours a year of lost sitting in traffic and lung-clogging smog are not pleasures. They are things to be avoided if at all possible. Let’s hope the world’s next generation of leaders recognizes that.

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