Friday, July 5, 2013

Rural Living vs City Living Series - Housing

For the first post in my Rural Living vs City Living Series I will be focusing on housing, since that is the topic that led me to the idea for the series. I realize that there are single family houses in cities, and there are multi-family housing options in some rural areas. I will, however, be focusing on the more common arrangements of high density housing in cities as opposed to single family houses in rural areas. Also, when I use the term apartment as a substitute for the term multi-family housing, I also am including things such as condos, townhomes, etc, including both those rented and owned by the occupants.

I have lived in both single family houses as well as multi-family units. I grew up in a single family home, and live in one now. For a brief period Andrea and I rented a single family house while living in the city. However, most of our time in the city was spent living in apartments. The townhouse in which we lived was in a building with four other townhouses, and an apartment under each, for a total of ten units in each building. When we lived in the married housing on campus, there were forty-two apartments in each building. We also lived, for a time, in an apartment complex with sixteen units in each building.

From an environmental perspective, I think that cities have a clear advantage when it comes to housing. While it is true that constructing an apartment complex requires many more resources than a single family house, there are a lot of efficiencies gained.

The use of shared walls, ceilings, and floors is the most obvious efficiency. This not only allows for reduced materials use, but also provides improved insulation of interior apartments, as well as allowing some units to gain warmth from surrounding units, although it is possible this is outweighed by increased heating requirements of those outer units as the heat is transferred to other units in the complex.

Another significant efficiency is the use of shared infrastructure. Providing utilities and heating/cooling to multiple families in one building requires less equipment than providing them to the same number of families in single family homes. At the very least, less cabling, wiring, and pipes are required as the distance from one unit to the next is greatly reduced over even the most densely populated rural areas. One of the apartments in which we lived had a community pool, which is another example of a shared resource that is much more efficient than each household having their own. Clearly not every house is going to own a swimming pool, but one pool is more efficient, to construct and maintain, than even two or three smaller ones.

Perhaps the biggest advantage to city living is the fact that multi family housing exists, in great numbers. As our population continues to grow, it is going to become more and more difficult for everyone to live in a single family house, especially in desirable areas. The more land area we take up for housing, the less that is available for other uses, such as food production, and for other species to inhabit. That forty-two unit apartment complex we lived in certainly took up much less space than forty-two of even the most modest single family houses would have.

I think that city living also has some real advantages when it comes to simple living. Living in a multi-family complex that has its own maintenance crew allows an individual or family to own far fewer tools than would be necessary if living in a single family home. It is difficult to really simplify, especially if one is striving for minimalism, when living in a single-family home.

When it comes to natural living, though, rural living definitely comes out on top. One problem with multi-family housing is that natural building methods are not very practical, especially with apartment complexes that are several stories tall. Even in cases where natural methods might provide sufficient strength for the structure, it is unlikely that US building codes will ever allow such methods to be used. Of course this isn't the case everywhere, and there are multi-story structures made from cob and other natural materials in some other countries. Modern cities are also plagued by an abundance of asphalt and concrete, with few, if any, natural areas. Even the parks in most cities seem to be landscaped, and criss-crossed with roads and concrete walkways, rather than allowed to be true natural areas, where inhabitants can get away from the artificial life that is city living.

It is in the areas of sustainability and self-sufficiency, however, where I believe that rural living has the clearest advantages over city living. I've already touched on some of these advantages, such as the ability to build with natural methods. In a city everything is artificial. Not only that, but the buildings, roadways, etc require upkeep that an individual can't do on his/her own. It is nearly impossible to be self-sufficient in an urban setting, due to the very nature of cities. Add in the fact that cities generally have much more restrictive regulations than rural areas, and any this becomes even more difficult. There are many people living completely off-grid, self-sufficient lives, in rural areas of the United States. I have yet to hear of anyone accomplishing this in a city in the US. I suspect that things may be different in other countries, especially those that are less developed. In this country, however, I believe that cities have evolved in such a way that requires some level of inter-dependency.

When it comes to housing, which is better, rural living or city living? I don't think there is a simple answer to the question. There are many factors to consider, including ones priorities. For me, rural living is the clear winner, especially since I hope to, eventually, construct a house using natural building materials. For others, however, the environmental advantages of city living likely make it the best option. I expect that we'll continue to see people living in both settings for many years, perhaps until population growth makes rural living all but impossible.

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