Wednesday, April 20, 2011

What Washing Machines Teach Us About Cities

I live in an apartment building, like many city dwellers and some suburbanites. I live in an apartment not only because the rent is generally cheaper than a detached home- at least, a detached home in any neighbourhood that my wife would feel safe in- but also because apartments are a more eco-friendly choice. A few shared walls dramatically lowers heating and cooling costs, and smaller spaces both lower utility use and lead to less retail consumption. But this post isn't about my building, it's about my washing machine.

In my building, there are 28 apartments- 14 single bedroom units and 14 two-bedrooms. There is also one laundry room, near the elevator, with three washers and three dryers in it. When I moved into my present building, I was worried that waiting to do my laundry would be a frequent occurrence, especially since I was moving from an apartment with in-unit laundry. My fears were entirely unfounded. Even though I share three washing machines with 27 other households, I rarely need to wait to launder my clothes- and I am usually able to do two loads at once, saving me time and reducing wait times for everyone else in the building. Rather than having to have one machine per home, 28 households are able to do all of their washing with only three machines.

Of course, it isn't just the washing machines. We have a pool and spa on our property, which 112 households have access to. It isn't always empty, but there's always been plenty of space for everyone to use. We have a gym as well, and a basketball court. These are all things that you might expect to find in the garage or backyard of a suburban home- serving one household, laying around underutilized most of the time. On one apartment property, just one of each of these resources is used by 112 people, largely without any problems.

The point I'm making here is that cities are about economies of scale. When people concentrate themselves in one place, and get comfortable about sharing resources with others (parks, transit vehicles, pools, community centres, etc.), fewer resources are needed to serve a larger community than would be necessary in a place where people are spread out. The fewer resources we consume, the less impact we make on our planet- and ultimately, the more sustainable our civilization will be. Those who see the cities as polluted and the suburbs and rural areas as pure are missing this point entirely. Of course, we should care about pollution in our cities- but the solution to pollution isn't sprawl.


Chewie said...

You make a good point. I think about this a lot with suburban lawns. Supposedly they're indispensable to human life, yet most of the time, they're completely devoid of people. Seems wasteful.

The point about washing machines is interesting. It is amazing how so many people can get the same level of service with so many fewer washing machines, pools, etc.

Anonymous said...

You might share the laundry machine with 27 other households but I wonder how many of those households are more than 1 or 2 people or have children.

I have 3 children so between them, me and my wife we have at least 5 loads of just clothes. Let us add in towels and cleaning cloths but leave out the diapers. That is somewhere around 8 loads at the least.

I don't even know why I'm telling you this... but I think you'd have to wait a lot more if all your neighbors were like me and my family. I remember when I didn't have my own washer/dryer and the long waits at the laundromat with the many other families. Or perhaps your neighbors are like me but they do all their laundry at the laundromat because they prefer to do all their laundry at the same time.

I agree that many things are mostly left unused and alone in garage/closet. I also agree that many people would benefit from not owning those items and simply using community owned "what-evers" when they needed them. But ask almost any mother with children at the laundromat if a washing machine would make her life MUCH easier and she would probably say yes.

So while 1 machine per household is probably too much, I doubt that sharing one per 27 households works out well if you consider the stress that goes along with sharing. (I know you aren't preaching the word of 27 households per washing machine but I thought there should be some input from someone with a different situation)

JN said...

@Anon- If you read the post, it's actually three washers and three dryers for 28 households, which works out to a roughly 1:9 ratio. While you correctly ascertain that my floor consists mostly of singles and couples, the 2- and 3-bedroom units downstairs do attract families. You can see the kids running about the property, splashing in the pool or playing basketball. We seem to make it work okay.

Of course, you may be right in saying that there are fewer families with children on the property- most likely because Americans perceive a detached single-unit home as an absolute necessity for child-rearing.

Anonymous said...

You respond quickly.

I did misread the proportion but consider what I said. If the downstairs families are larger then it is meaningless to say that there is an n washers to m families ratio as you said as that assumes the families spend an equal amount of time washing. For instance 1 washer shared between one person and a five person family isnt a 1 to 2 ratio like a washer shared between two single people. You have to have the concept of a family load and then figure out the total number if family loads shared between the washers.

Point being it's usually easy to overlook this when your family is below the standard load and it's easy to work in the amount of time you need to do your load compared.