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Is Suburbia Sustainable?

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In my continuing love affair with my library, I recently took out a book entitled Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson.  I did not read the entire book because it goes into technical details about urban design and planning.  It did make me think and made me want to share what I’ve been thinking about.

I grew up in a suburb of Boston on a street with no sidewalk but plenty of trees.  Most of what they talk about directly relates to my home town.  I rarely used public transportation except on the rare occasions I went into Boston – which required a drive to the closest subway station.  There is a bus that goes from that subway station, passes not too far from the house and continues to the center of town.  I knew no one who used it.  It is a town build around people who have children, yards for them to play in, and drive everywhere.  I am sure the carbon footprint of the average resident is high.  My parents’ neighborhood used to be farmland and was built into a neighborhood after WWII, a time when many similar suburbs were being constructed.  Not much has changed, except some additions to houses.  Some new families have moved in, but many of the residents are ‘aging in place’ including my parents.  I now live in Cambridge, but work at my old high school.  Not much seems to have changed for the high schoolers growing up there now.  They can’t wait to get their license and partly depend on each other to drive them around.  This dependence on cars, or at least gasoline cars, is not sustainable if we want to drastically cut our use of fossil fuels.

There are other ways in which the culture of suburbs doesn’t make as much sense as it used to.  For a long time, each generation was expected to be more educated, get a better job, earn a higher wage, live in a bigger house.  This was the American dream.  It doesn’t apply as well as it used to.  More and more households don’t involve 2 parents, 2.5 children, a dog and a picket fence.  Single parents, couples with no children and various alternative families are more and more common.  Bigger houses surrounded by yards and swing sets may not be what they need.  Wages are increasing, but the lower wage jobs aren’t increasing as fast as the higher wage jobs creating greater income disparity and leaving the poor behind.  Living near where you work may be more important to these people, as well as having easy (and no car necessary) access to shopping centers.  This would mean having housing options for janitors, secretaries, CEOs and managers with or without families all in the same area.  That’s not really how suburbs were built, but maybe it’s time to change.

Changing suburbs could decrease our reliance on cars.  Heating smaller houses could help cut our fossil fuel consumption.  Consolidating workplaces, shopping centers, cutting down on the amount of acres per house could allow us to have bigger parks and wooded areas.  It’s possible to imagine a greener, healthier, happy kind of town.  Change, however, is inevitably slow, painful and difficult.  People don’t like the idea of altering their way of life or the way of life they have dreamed of for their children.  But it’s something to think about.

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