What does it really cost us to live in the places we call home?
We seldom ask this question, or at least we dont ask it completely. There are at least three kinds of costs associated with where we live: 1) our own household costs; 2) the public sector costs to sustain our community; and 3) the less quantifiable social costs of certain kinds of communities. We often think about the first kind of costs, but not the last two.
The household costs are, theoretically, the easiest to measure. Where you live affects your cost of housing, your job opportunities and income potential, and many other line items in your household budget. For example, you may choose to move from Cuyahoga County to Lorain County for lower housing prices, lower taxes and lower car insurance costs. But you may end up with much higher transportation costs as you commute farther to work. A recent study found that the average Northeast Ohio household spends $6,384 per year on transportationnearly 18 cents out of every dollar, or more than is spent on health care, education, food, or even housing.
Where you live also affects the public costs to sustain your larger community. A move to a new suburb may include the costs of new roads, extending sewer and water lines, building new schools, and duplicating other services that already exist in other parts of the metropolitan area. If you live in a community that requires your family to have a caror, more likely, multiple carsthe public costs of this extend far beyond the transportation costs to you. According to some experts, if you take into account the pollution and waste associated with the production, use, and disposal of an automobile as well as the complete costs of the oil it uses as fuel, the initial cost of a typical car would be at least $100,000, and a tank of gas would be $250. If we are paying so much less for our cars and gasoline now, who is making up the difference? We all are. We pay tax dollars to fund hazardous waste clean-ups. We pay subsidies to the oil industry and taxes to the military to defend foreign oil fields. And our children will pay tomorrow in the form of lost environmental quality. Transportation is not the only example: we are also paying in many other ways for lost farmland, water pollution, air pollution, and energy consumption that are associated with our choices of where to live.
The remaining costs associated with where we livesocial costsare the most nebulous, but they are directly related to our well-being. If we all move so that older cities become disinvested shells and sprawling suburbs become monotonous seas of traffic congestion, who will pay the costs of social isolation and alienation, degraded sense of safety, and missing connections to nature? What price tag do we put on our timethe increased hours spent commuting between work and home, juggling family needs, and getting between restaurant, grocery store, school and home? Just because we dont measure these costs in the Gross Domestic Product does not mean they are not real. We are already paying the price. Our children will continue to pay it.
Communities without trade-offs
Ideally, we should have communities that dont force us into unfortunate trade-offs between these different costs. But today many people feel forced to spend more money, use more resources, and waste more time in order to feel a greater sense of safety. Or they compromise access to nature in order to have shorter commutes and the opportunity to walk to the grocery store.
The goal of an ecovillage, as conceived for the Cleveland EcoVillage project, is to create a community where these trade-offs wont be so drastic. Ecovillages should allow people to live affordably, have transportation options, maximize free time, reduce social and environmental costs, and maximize healthy social environments.
Its a lot to ask for. But we should demand nothing less than great places that help us live well while reducing our impact on the earth.
Manda M. Gillespie
We should demand nothing less than great places that help us live well while reducing our impact