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Uncle Sam: Smaller living spaces are better for the environment

American houses are big – some of the biggest in the world. On top of that, they are growing; when suburbs were first being developed in the post-World War II era, 983 square feet was the average home size. By 2018, that figure had jumped to 2,623 square feet. The rise of the so-called “McMansion” in the United States is a logical outgrowth of trends of increased consumption. Today, owning a large home is perhaps the single greatest status symbol in our culture.

However, such large homes come with a significant price tag – and I don’t mean monetarily. Occupying more space leverages a significant toll on the environment. The residential sector already accounts for 21% of total energy consumption in the U.S., and larger homes don’t exactly reduce that figure. As such, it behooves us to ask ourselves how much living space we really need.

It isn’t difficult to wrap one’s mind around why larger homes may mean more consumption: they require more materials, which have to be extracted from the earth and shipped across it. Larger homes have more space that must be heated and cooled, often through the power of fossil fuels. Larger homes tend to have more appliances, which also require more electricity. They take up more land, which eats into important habitats and ecosystems. Finally, they contribute to urban sprawl, which augments reliance on personal automobiles instead of more environmentally friendly methods of traveling.

There’s simply no getting around the fact that, with the environmental crisis looming, we must pay close attention to how and where we live. In broad brushstrokes, the living arrangements with the greatest capacity to reduce consumption are smaller homes and, especially, apartments. Households in apartment buildings with more than five units use half of the energy of households in standalone homes. This is not only attributed to the fact that apartments tend to be smaller but also to the concept that apartments share walls, meaning heating and cooling become much more efficient.

Apartments also allow for density, which promotes sustainable modes of transportation – like walking, biking and public transit. With this in mind, it should come as no surprise that New York City, where living spaces per person are among the smallest in the country, has been called the greenest city in the nation thanks to its compactness. Indeed, using less energy in their living spaces and less fuel to get around, New Yorkers consume energy at a rate well below the American average.

In Athens, we may never have the high-rise buildings and microscopic living spaces that New York City does – and, for many of us, that is a good thing! All the same, the rules that apply elsewhere will hold true in Athens; apartments and otherwise smaller homes are generally more sustainable options. This is certainly something for students to keep in mind as they finalize living arrangements for the next academic year and for the city government to remember as new developments are created.

Of course, living in apartments or small homes does not singlehandedly certify a sustainable lifestyle; one could live in a small space and still drive a gas-guzzling vehicle all over creation, or produce copious amounts of waste, or consume goods in destructive ways. All the same, smaller living spaces are steps in the direction toward sustainable living, and they may even save you a little money. For all these reasons and more, apartments and small homes are options that we should be hesitant to pass up.

Sam Smith is a rising senior studying geography at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnist do not reflect those of The Post. Want to talk more about it? Let Sam know by tweeting him @sambobsmith_. 

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