Can Suburbs and Sustainability Coexist?

Can discussions of sustainability and the built environment progress without devolving into a city-versus-suburb grudge match? Over at Grist, former Streetblog Network manager Sarah Goodyear is asking that question. To say that all suburbs are bad, and all cities are good, from an environmental standpoint, oversimplifies a complex problem, and as Goodyear points out, sorting through is awfully important:

Are the suburbs and sustainability fundamentally at odds? Photo: ## Edward Burtynsky#

The built environment — how much land we take up, how much fuel we use to get around, how our homes are constructed and powered — is emerging as a crucial factor in the battle to reduce carbon emissions. Maybe the crucial factor.

Goodyear poses the perspective of Andrés Duany, the father of New Urbanism, against the sprawl apologist Joel Kotkin, who in a recent post on New Geography warned that “forced densification could augur in a kind of new feudalism.”

Goodyear concludes by calling for a search for common ground between suburban and urban dwellers. But can common ground be found with someone who thinks in those terms about policies that encourage the development of walkable places? Or are there other voices from suburbia that could supercede commentators like Kotkin? Without some sort of cooperation from both important American constituencies it is difficult to imagine how we would solve any societal problem, particularly one as complex and urgent as climate change.

Elsewhere on the Network today: Wash Cycle laments the fact that D.C.’s proposal for regional bikesharing failed to garner TIGER II funding. Cyclicious explores how transit fare hikes led to declining revenues in Santa Cruz, California. And Publicola reports that Seattle’s parking price overhaul has inspired the opposition of City Council.

  • thielges

    Suburbs are fine and besides they’re already built along with the roadway infrastructure to serve them. So even if suburbs weren’t OK we still have to deal with them. Lets make the best of the current situation.

    Continued sprawl on the other hand should be arrested by phasing out the subsidies that allow this to occur. Future growth is best housed by infill developments. Ideally this is done by increasing density on transit nodes. Strip malls can be redeveloped into denser retail developments and become more of walkable neighborhood focal points than random spots of retail that you drive to. Infill will increase density slowly and gradually. Those who want less dense neighborhoods can still have that in the form of the massive amount of already built suburban tracts.

    The result is that we can curb the increased energy consumption caused by sprawl, connect isolated suburbs better, increase liveliness, and improve the quality of life. All the while preserving enough of the suburban environment to satisfy those who don’t want to live in a dense urban area.

    At the core of the argument to allow sprawl to continue you will always find people who own undeveloped land at the fringe of cities and “in the path of development”. They of course will personally benefit by allowing sprawl to continue. We should do what is best for America rather than these self interested land holders.

  • Brandon

    Older suburbs are built in such a way that is denser, more walkable, and can be served by transit. Plenty of more recent suburbs will end up having no place once people pay true cost for energy.

  • thielges

    Brandon – I think that even newer suburbs can be adapted to reduce the energy cost of transport. The repurposing of strip malls is one idea.

    Another is to add bike/ped connections to create more of a “grid-like” connectivity. Those grid connections reduce the requirement to exit the subdivision via its limited “gateways” onto a major arterial, navigate through the high traffic arterial network to the next “gateway” and into the destination. Not only would such grid restoration connections reduce travel distances (putting more destinations with range of cycling and walking) but the route can avoid high traffic arterials, attracting more cyclists and pedestrians.

    It would be great to be able to start from a blank slate, but we’ve got to work with what we already have.

  • There is a need to confront and challenge suburbia. The overwhelming majority of suburbia is horrible for the environment. It forces people into cars and offers poor prospects for walking to things. It also consumes an inordinate amount of land and infrastructure in both absolute and per capita terms.

    That said, I believe in compromise and deal making. Neither the urbanists nor the suburbanists will ever win a complete victory.

    However, I am an urbanist and damn proud to be one. Our society does so much to say suburbia is the only legitimate choice. I vehemently disagree. Through thoughtful planning we can keep most of the good of suburbs (e.g. homeownership) and overcome most of the bad of 19th century industrial cities (e.g. industrial pollution, lack of open space, etc.)

    Climate change is unchecked, overweight and obesity are causing a public health crisis, and too many people are dying in the streets because of cars. Cities are a key part of the solution.

    And this is from someone who has spent the majority of his life trapped in suburbia!


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