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.

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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.

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