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The Suburban Question

How do you green the suburbs?

The bright green mantra, when it comes to the built environment, is that cities rule, suburbs drool. Cities are more (energy) sustainable, resilient, cultural, diverse, better for your waistline, surprise you with presents on your birthday, and so forth. Suburbs, conversely, are bastions of excessive consumption and insufficient sophistication, filled with McMansions and McDonalds, and are probably hitting on your spouse behind your back. My preferences actually align with that sentiment, but I've become troubled with the green urbanization push. The issue of the future of suburbia isn't as easy as simply telling people to move to cities.

Gentle question: when you convince the masses of people living in the ring suburbs to move back downtown, what happens?

(a) Everybody gets a place in the city, and a pony.
(b) Prices for places in the city shoot up, even in "down and out" areas, driving out low- and moderate-income current residents, and stopping all but the higher-income suburbanites from returning. Without any ponies at all.

Encouraging people to move from the suburbs closer to their place of work in the city because it's actually cheaper (when you include transportation) only works when nobody else does it. Once everybody -- or even a lot of people -- gets that bright (green) idea, the combination of increased demand and limited availability drives up prices. As big as cities may be, there are lots of people in the 'burbs. It may be possible to build more housing within the urban core, but you have one guess as to which neighborhoods are likely to be the ones knocked down to make way for new high-rise condos.

We're already seeing the reverse of the old "white flight" trope, where middle-class whites abandoned cities for the suburbs. Gentrification (with the artists as the "shock troops," we're told), re-urbanization, even "black flight" to the suburbs upset the conceptual models of the built environment that remained dominant in the US for the last few decades. Cities are back... and the suburbs may be abandoned to the low-income.

Everywhere? No. Overnight? No. An important trend? Very much so.

Why? Because figuring out how to make suburbs sustainable is increasingly an act of environmental justice. The displaced urban poor and middle-income will be even less able to afford the energy, transportation, and health costs of environmental decline.

We need to figure out how to upcycle the suburbs. It may involve traditional green ideas such as mass transit and bicycles; it may involve something a bit more complex, like a specialized version of LEED for neighborhoods.

But we need more innovation than that. Not just technology -- while cheap solar building materials wouldn't be bad at all, the real innovations in resilience and sustainability will come in the realm of policy and behavior. Society and culture. Not just the physical infrastructure, the connective sinews of communities. Metaphorical language is all we have now to describe it, because it hasn't yet been invented.

But here's the golden hope: the first one(s) to figure out how to do this, how to make suburbia sustainable and to do so at a breathtakingly low cost, will win the world. Because, as much as China and India and South Africa and Brazil are hot to get their hands on their local iterations of the 1950s American Dream -- a house, two giant cars, and a TV in every pot -- they'll be desperate to figure out how to afford it pretty damn soon. They'll be looking for this same elusive model, and will pay well for it.


As a southern Californian I've seen our "suburbs" morph into lumpy mixed use landscapes. My dad commuted into LA, but I think people in the same San Gabriel Valley community would have choices close to home.

I've had a problem with "suburbs are the devil" arguments because I don't see the "commute to the city" stereotype of my dad's day.

I guess it would be funny if the suburb haters lived in just a few cities, and had just a few old-style commuter suburbs to hate.

... gotta go, we have avocado trees in the backyard ... guacamole time.

Shorter: hate the bad practices (wherever they are) and not the place.

Suburbs may be fairly easy to green. Certainly, they more easily accommodate local agriculture and permaculture than cities. A return to street cars and trams might ease the transition from total car culture.

Historical examples of green suburban housing include the Davis, CA 1970s vintage Village Homes development and the Oak Park, IL solar development from Keck and Keck.

Speaking from Melbourne. This city has a substantial urban sprawl (2-3 million people in an area the size of London). More workplaces need to be set up in the suburbs. However, the infrastructure hasn't kept pace: in particular, the rail system has been designed on the assumption that all roads lead to the city centre (extreme example: if you want to go from Murrumbeena to East Malvern by train, you have to travel 10 km into Richmond before you can catch a link back out again. Yet the two stations are 1-2 Km apart: walking distance!

Buses tend to be used to link the rail lines, but they don't have the same carrying capacity and they, in turn, tend to radiate from the nearest shopping centre.

I think that transport systems need to be laid out in a series of interlocking rings. That should reduce the hassles with getting from generic a to generic b.

I still don't buy the "cities always good" argument. Where does all the food come from and where does all the waste go, and where do the resources come from to pay for all that transport? And how does one account for the risk of a pandemic in such a dense population? Since leaving the bay area, I no longer get the 3-week flu/cold from hell that I used to get regularly.

In my suburban backyard, I have a good 1600 square feet I could use to grow food should I get tired of my yard. (And in my last home, we had a 200 square foot garden that provided more veggies than we could often eat.) If you put some effort into it, one can grow a *lot* of veggies in 1600 square feet and can/preserve the excess for the winter months.

Tack on a deep well and a septic tank and my need to import/export food drops dramatically.

Also, my suburb was well served by streetcars in/out of the nearest city until those were shut down in the 50s and replaced with cheap American autos. Bringing back a regular streetcar would certainly curtail my need to drive 7mi into the city.

Well of course it would be nice if the world could sustain everyone living with a nice deep well and a 40x40' garden; but it can't. What (jet) describes is kind of an artificially propped up civic elitism. It's not spun that way in the states, and certainly no one living there thinks of it that way, but that's because the US is both very rich and extremely sparsely populated compared with most of the world population.

True that much of the needed work will be culture and policy, not infrastructure - but I'm a designer, so I think most about that.

No silver bullet, but perhaps "silver buckshot" - a host of things we can do.

I thought of about 20 things before realizing that this needs to be collaborative design, networked learning - in short, A Pattern Language for Sustainable Suburbs. That should be part of a larger, web-based Pattern Language of Sustainability. The Patterns would form like wikis: widely-distributed peer review and vetting. Not just descriptions, but actual instructions, specific enough to follow, yet adaptable to different regions and climates.

One model I think of often are the dense villages I've seen in travels: Italian and Spanish hill towns, French hameaux, small-yet-dense settlements with a local food base and ecosystem services. I'm not advocating a return to a mythic past, but suggesting we study models that used to work for useful lessons now.

Certain kinds of throughput will always be more difficult in suburbs than cities, so we'd need to compensate by making other throughput easier: probably food, water, sewage - maybe fuel, but not until distributed "smart grids." Services are tough too, as anyone who sees school or hospital consolidation can attest.

Enforcing an unbuildable boundary around cities might help, too. Suburbs have many causes, but a prime one is people seeking the edge between city and country, wanting the benefits of each. The city needs to be a starfish, not a blob: fingers of urban interleaved with fingers of green space. Then the "fingertips" need a discrete boundary, with smaller, denser settlements allowed again some distance away.

One change in our thinking should be about scale: when we say "urban," we usually think of large-scale infrastructure. When we say "rural" or "suburban," we often think of household scale. But we're unpracticed in neighborhood and community scale, where we may have the most room for progress. Hard to do smart grids, living machines, district heating, local food and other good ideas at household scale or at mega scale.

David, your "starfish" image and description bring to mind another image: How about *fractal* cities? They have a center and numerous "fingers" that each replicate the structure of the center, and each finger then sprouts subfingers with all the same properties. Obviously, there are physical limits to how many levels you can have when designing cities this way. But I imagine a large urban core, suburb-sized fingers, neighborhood-sized sub-fingers, and then perhaps particular blocks where families live.

Each has some form of local energy source, water, waste handling, gardens, etc. Each each feed into larger systems at the next level up.

Kim. credit for the "starfish" image goes to Chris Alexander and his colleagues, authors of A Pattern Language. It's a Pattern called "City-Country Fingers." That idea, and your interesting take on it, illustrate how we might write a Pattern Language that could give adaptable instructions for transforming suburbs. It would be like a collaboratively written "genetic code" for generating the solutions to this huge problem.

Suburbs are not innately evil. Sprawl is not innately evil. Development is not innately evil. (Where would all these people be living if not for development?) Having a garage and a driveway is not evil. Even driving to work is not evil.

People like single-family homes (SFH) for good reasons: privacy, living space, potential for expansion, small garden areas for exclusive use, garages for workshops and hobbies of all kinds. Those reasons are as true now as they were 300 or 500 or 2000 years ago.

And people like dense city apartments/condos for good reasons: short commutes, energy efficiency, space efficiency, community, density-supported arts, food, and entertainment. Those have been appreciated for thousands of years too.

And people like rural homes for good reasons: the beauty of the outdoors, isolation and peace, or just the need to be in proximity to vital agricultural work.

And there is an infinite grading between these three kinds of living.

Any analysis that starts with the idea that one of those things is evil and needs to be bulldozed into oblivion is childish and useless. Similarly any analysis that says that families with children "must" live in only one of the three, or similar ideas. People have different needs, different aesthetics, differing incomes, work in different places, have different pastimes.

The danger of suburbanization has been its fetishization and the demonization of city living, which continues apace. In the US this has been driven by ugly racism that has only slowly been declining. Suburban living has been elevated to an ideal as opposed to one of several attractive options, and suburbs have become a caricature of themselves as walkability vanishes, footprints expand, endless expanses of 3-car garages face the street, transit is banned, gates and guards prevent any social interchange. Suburbs have been built lately to be unlivable. This is insanity.

Meanwhile in the cities, the binary options of blight and gentrification compete; once the rich colonize a neighbourhood, densification tends to end and the cost of living spirals out of reach; the rich essentially stake a claim to the best infrastructure of the city and bid it out of reach of most people, who are forced to the suburbs where infrastructure is sparse again. And as this continues we build over the best land for farming with ugly subdivisions of impractically-huge houses with water-guzzling lawns and acres of concrete, and all diversity erased by the ant-like replication of strip malls and shopping centers.

What we need is a little sanity. We need to understand that owning a 6,000 sq ft house is not going to make you and your family any happier; that no sidewalks means no community; that quarter-acre lots mean you can't walk anywhere; that homeowner's associations make a very poor local government; that suburbs need buses and trains and apartment buildings and stores and workplaces. That it's better to have a neighbourhood park and 3500 sq ft lots than no parks and sprawling private gardens that are never used.

We need to understand that cities always grow and plan for that, and make sure that development & preservation of character balance out, and to make sure that infrastructure and development fit together. It's no use building trains and then refusing to build apartment buildings near the stations, as the BART system demonstrates.

I think we can have cities that combine ultra-high-density living in the center with suburbs that gradually reduce in density as you move outwards, with transit both to the center and to different workplaces in the suburban areas, with a reasonable freeway infrastructure in the less-dense suburbs and outside the city. Less-polluting cars and finally electric cars running on renewable power would be sustainable, with of course efforts to make road construction and maintenance less polluting. "Sprawl" per se is not the problem; the problem is sprawl that is impractical because it requires cars, cannot support transit infrastructure, has lots that are too big and houses that are too big - too big to be any benefit to the people who live there. That requires a social change because it requires that the prestige of overconsumption be diminished. If some people genuinely want a 6,000 sq ft house for their collection of antelope heads or their library or their art gallery or just to skateboard down at night, I don't begrudge them that; but what we seem to have in the suburbs are people who have enormous empty houses that bring them no pleasure at all. If we could put them in sensible suburban houses or in apartments that were actually suited to what they want to do, and somehow get the prestige of overconsumption out of the picture, they'd be happier too. Living in sane ways makes you happy.

I don't envisage some kind of forced change, but just a change in preference and in what we value. Some of that does seem to be underway, and though the housing market's lunacy has caused a lot of problems, when I see high-rise luxury apartments coming up in San Francisco I cheer - rich people who want a big, brand-new apartment in the city can finally get it and stop bidding ordinary people out of the normal housing stock in the city. Now lately a connected problem has been that the rich are getting so much richer than everyone else that their overconsumption is bidding ordinary people out of damn near everything. We have to work on that, because if a system tilted that way it can never work well for everyone. Not to mention that eventually down that path all there is is revolution among the exploited - which has always involved horrible violence and usually failed to improve things very much - or violent suppression of the masses. We have to spread things around some more to have a happy and sane society. But I think that reduction in inequality and reduction in prestige-from-overconsumption go hand-in-hand, though, because the disproportionate respect accorded to extreme wealth pushes the system ever-more towards inequality.

So. Yeah. Demonization of suburbs is unhelpful. We have to be precise in what we criticize, and understand what people genuinely like about suburbs, or about city living, or about living in the country.

Great comment Jacob.

What about migrating away from the cities and the suburbs, back to the country?

If we're looking at the US and Canada, there's enormous possibility here. The practical traditions of country life, which are going to become increasingly important as peak oil deepens, are alive and accessible here. There's plenty of room, even along auto roads and railroads.

David Foley's comments about scaling up thinking about rural life (above household) are germane, here.

The problem is 6.7 billion people living in a land area of 150 million km^2, only the minority of which is arable.

This is where the activists kick into gear - the grassroots teams aligned with technologies like Bright Neighbor (www.brightneighbor.com)

The fact is Americans are addicted to buying things, and consumerism is our way of life. So until we have that taken from us (as is happening), our behaviors won't change. What happens is each person's true character shows through in the way they respond or react during stress and duress - whether it is in the form of financial, relationship, transportation, or variety of difficulties.

We are all pegged to a falling dollar - and while people are owned by their possessions, they will cling to the behaviors that allow them to keep / acquire them.

Tyler Durden had it right.

I think reduction to European-sized lots in the suburbs would be a good starting point - when I came to Columbus, I immediately noticed that the lots are huge.

I made some comparisons between American and German suburbs here - you might find them interesting.

Go back to Ebenezer Howard and the garden city idea ... suburbs were originally meant to be walkable and neighbourhood-like, a hybrid of the city and country providing a mix of the advantages of both. There's nothing inherently wrong living at lower density ... the problem is terrible urban design and zoning that creates suburbs with no walkability, public space or character.

The other thing is we need to separate the issue of oil and climate change from the long-term sustainability of suburbs. The argument goes "suburbs are bad because driving is bad because it produces emissions and we are running out of oil" ... but there is a massive existing suburban legacy which cannot simply be written off, and if people really want to live in car-dependent suburbs we will eventually make electric cars that allow them to do so.

Total car-dependance is a bad thing, but not because oil is running out. Transit is very important but not because it produces less emissions. "Transit-oriented development" forces the creation of walkable, convenient neighbourhoods with public space, facilities etc. That's how the first suburbs were built - along streetcar lines or the outer stops of the London tube ... building cities around transit produces better cities, as shown by the fact developers are building "transit-oriented" suburbs where no rail lines exist or are even planned, because these suburbs command a 40%-200% price premium over conventional development. http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2007-06-10-transit-village_N.htm

Suburbs should be about choice: choose to live in a townhouse or low-rise apartment building over "main street", or a little further away in a freestanding house with a garden ... choose to let your kids play in the backyard or take them to a park ... choose to drive or take transit ... a variety of uses and facilities instead of monotonous isolated houses.

What's the future of suburbs? I think the economic and preferential shift back towards "city" living will result in plenty of infill development of the type espoused by people like Peter Calthorpe, with little compact centres and transit corridors popping up amongst the suburbs. Over time demand may cause areas of traditional suburbs to be transformed or abandoned but both lower and higher density living will remain, in close proximity to each other ... you will be able to CHOOSE. But ideally everyone would ultimately have easy access to transit, schools and facilities.

One more interesting thing to think about is personal rapid transit which Calthorpe and others like Peter Hall have voiced as the future for urban transport ... this could link suburban neighbourhood centres much more quickly and conveniently than conventional transit, strengthening the TOD pattern I'm talking about ... and despite efforts by rabid light rail supporters to discredit it is actually quite realistic and close to arriving.


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