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.