Self Storage--A Growing Way to Consume Even More

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Where to put all our solid waste has been a big question for many decades now. Recycling has reduced the amount of stuff being incinerated or dumped into a landfill. We are still filling up big holes in the ground at an appalling rate. Now it seems that we are filling up a lot of above-ground space with stuff that we own, but don’t use and don’t want to throw out yet. Jon Mooallem, writing in the New York Times Magazine about the growth of self-storage dropped some fascinating data and a few stories to liven up the numbers.

The numbers are pretty remarkable.

After a monumental building boom, the United States now has 2.3 billion square feet of self-storage space. (The Self Storage Association notes that, with more than seven square feet for every man, woman and child, it’s now “physically possible that every American could stand — all at the same time — under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”) According to the Self Storage Association, one out of every 10 households in the country rents a unit, making facilities like Statewide among our last national commons — places where nearly every conceivable kind of American still goes.

I did a little arithmetic to convert the footprint to the volume of storage. Using an average height of 8 feet, the total volume is 18.4 billion cubic feet, equivalent to a 9000-acre fifty-foot deep hole in the ground, or about the same volume as 1.2 million average size houses. With 2.6 people in a house, this volume is equivalent to a city of detached homes with a population of around 3 million. That’s somewhere between Chicago and Los Angeles. Just imagine another Chicago without any people, just stuff filling all the dwellings. Since storage units tend to be more densely packed than a house is, we might have to add New York as well to the list.

The article points out that much of the recent demand for storage comes from people losing their homes due to the economic crunch. Still, more than half is occupied by people that simply have more stuff than they can or wish to keep at home.

“A lot of the expansion we experienced as an industry was people choosing to store,” Litton told me. A Self Storage Association study showed that, by 2007, the once-quintessential client — the family in the middle of a move, using storage to solve a short-term, logistical problem — had lost its majority. Fifty percent of renters were now simply storing what wouldn’t fit in their homes — even though the size of the average American house had almost doubled in the previous 50 years, to 2,300 square feet.

Maybe the recession really is making American consumers serious about scaling back, about decluttering and de-leveraging. But there are upward of 51,000 storage facilities across this country — more than seven times the number of Starbucks. Storage is part of our national infrastructure now. And all it is, is empty space: something Americans have always colonized and capitalized on in good times, and retreated into to regroup when things soured. It’s tough to imagine a product more malleable to whatever turns our individual life stories take, wherever we’re collectively heading.

Maybe this story is, as the author writes, just part of the American dream, but is also another example of cultural voices that encourage us to consume. The credit crunch has forced people to reduce their buying, at least for a moment. The massive Federal effort to fix that problem promises to restore consumption, but maybe not all the way to where it was.

The reality of the solidity of exterior walls of homes used to place another constraint. There just wasn’t enough room for another piece of furniture or workbench in the cellar. It seems that even this obstacle to acquisition of stuff has been overcome. Any way you want to think about sustainability, it can’t come unless consumption in the usual sense of material goods is drastically reduced. It makes little sense to continue to build cultural (advertising and easy money) and physical (storage) infrastructure that moves people in the opposite direction.

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