Abigail Doan

Uninventing Suburbia and the American Dream

by , 07/17/08

California suburbs, Uninventing Suburbia, Dot Earth Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth Suburbia, Suburbia and Sustainability, Suburbia and the American Dream, The End of Suburbia documentary film, Grist, Worldchanging, Worldchanging Alex Steffen, sustainable suburban planning, sustainable urban planning, suburban retrofillingphoto by Jill Fehrenbacher

With alarming reports of crude oil prices now hovering close to $145 US dollars per barrel, and home mortgage lending going bust, it is increasingly apparent that the 1950’s inspired American Dream of cul-de-sac ‘oases’ and paved highway transport is really on the verge of an all-out collapse. The environmental costs of suburban life were starkly highlighted in a feature story in the NY Times earlier this spring – a harbinger of sorts to the summer of 2008 where cries about SUV-fill-up costs have supplanted soccer-mom chat. Andrew Revkin at Dot.Earth also addressed the topic with a provocative blog piece that suggested ‘retrofilling’ suburbia as a means to ‘uninvent’ the mindless sprawl. Whatever the strategy to come, it is more apparent than ever, that reinventing our consumption habits and our notions of living ‘the good life’ will be a vital action item as we search for new ways to define sustainability in lieu of behemoth malls and suburban plots of American neighborhoods.

Uninventing Suburbia, Dot Earth Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth Suburbia, Suburbia and Sustainability, Suburbia and the American Dream, The End of Suburbia documentary film, Grist, Worldchanging, Worldchanging Alex Steffen, sustainable suburban planning, sustainable urban planning, suburban retrofilling

Given that fast-growing developing countries often mimic what appears to be the most desirable aspects of American living, it is no secret that we cannot afford to continue to export our failed model of suburban housing and our daily co-dependency on the gas-guzzling automobile. Granted there are noble efforts to revitalize malls and walkable civic centers, but the real inefficiency and negligence exists in our inability to accept planned density as being a noble American scheme.

Alex Steffen of Worldchanging.com wrote a great piece about how ‘land-use change’ should really be the future focus of our efforts to move towards true sustainability and greenhouse gas reduction rather than our tinkering around with greener car designs. His ‘My Other Car is Bright Green City’ really brings to light our addiction to car-centric living and the commuter ease of inhabiting tract developments rather than denser, connected car-free living.

Uninventing Suburbia, Dot Earth Andrew Revkin, Dot Earth Suburbia, Suburbia and Sustainability, Suburbia and the American Dream, The End of Suburbia documentary film, Grist, Worldchanging, Worldchanging Alex Steffen, sustainable suburban planning, sustainable urban planning, suburban retrofilling

Steffen writes, “Sprawled-out land uses generate enormous amounts of automotive greenhouse gasses. A recent major study, Growing Cooler, makes the point clearly: if 60 percent of new developments were even modestly more compact, we’d emit 85 million fewer metric tons of tailpipe CO2 each year by 2030 — as much as would be saved by raising the national mileage standards to 32 mpg.”

“In other words, there is a direct relationship between the kinds of places we live, the transportation choices we have, and how much we drive. The best car-related innovation we have is not to improve the car, but eliminate the need to drive it everywhere we go.”

Another take on the issue was highlighted in the award-winning 2006 documentary film, “The End of Suburbia”, and its excellent overview of how the suburban lifestyle evolved and the future, or lack thereof, of maintaining manicured lawns, inefficient McMansions, and uncontrollable sprawl. A trailer of the film on YouTube highlights many of the hidden and now more overt costs.

Trailer for “The End of Suburbia”

Ellen Dunham Jones of Georgia Tech’s Architecture Program and the Congress for the New Urbanism puts forth the idea of retrofilling suburban landscapes as a means to provide alternatives to sprawl. Granted there are essential individual household steps being taken by responsible citizens throughout the US, but eliminating pesticides and lawn-chemicals, switching to CFL light bulbs, carpooling, and using solar-heating for pools! is still not enough to make the true dent that we need to. Grist reported recently that there is indeed a noticeable migration back to cities where families feel that they can live a more sustainable and cost effective lifestyle.

The important message here, it seems, is that the burst of the housing bubble and the peak of fossil fuel production are two factors that will inevitably wake us from a dream we simply have been reticent to shake ourselves from. The ‘uninventing’ will be the tricky part, as we simply cannot afford to pave over what blatantly does not work, either here or on foreign shores.

+ Dot Earth: Can We Uninvent Suburbia?
+ The End of Suburbia/the film
+ Worldchanging.com

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6 Comments

  1. xinxin December 1, 2008 at 4:51 am

    confused..

  2. Nick Wright July 26, 2008 at 10:55 am

    Another well-informed article from your consistently interesting blog…

    As a planner working in Scotland, I find your blogs a fascinating insight into things on the other side of the Atlantic. Hopefully my irregular blog will help to spread the word about yours in a small way over here – see http://www.nickwrightplanning.co.uk/credit-crunch-sustainable-development.htm for reference to yours

  3. jlord July 18, 2008 at 1:32 pm

    Also check out Paul Lukez book, Suburban Transformations.

  4. Taylor Gilbert July 17, 2008 at 10:30 pm

    Announcing ” The End of . . .” something is a time-tested way to get more attention focused on your favorite subject. People have been issuing warnings about the death of suburban life for decades. Most people still live in the suburbs. Assuming that gas prices continue to rise or maintain their price, living patterns will, of course, adapt, but it will be slow and probably quite subtle for a long time. Don’t expect anyone to tear down vast stretched of houses in suburban areas and erect carefully planned dense living and working areas in their place anytime soon, if ever. Sure, new developments will be denser, favoring nearness to city centers. But no one is going to summon an army of bulldozers in repentance for their “evil” suburban ways tomorrow just because gas pushed over $4.00 a gallon. As hard as this is for city dwellers to understand, some people actually like mowing their yard.

  5. Matthew July 17, 2008 at 4:27 pm

    Similar issues were addressed by Christopher B. Leinberger in the March 2008 issue of the Atlantic Monthly. The title of the article was \”The Next Slum? Fundamental changes in American life may turn today’s McMansions into tomorrow’s tenements\” (http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200803/subprime). I believe the article is an excerpt from his recent book Option of Urbanism (http://www.optionofurbanism.com).

  6. Bruce July 17, 2008 at 1:58 pm

    The most important change needed for people to live in cities is for governments to relax zoning ordinances that make it unaffordable for most people to live in cities. As long as cities make it difficult to tear down old row houses and build large codominiums, the cost of housing in cities will be too high for many Americans. These laws artifically limit the supply of housing, which increases the costs of housing.

    http://www.economics.harvard.edu/pub/hier/2002/HIER1948.pdf http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/glaeser/files/Manhattan.pdf

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