What’s wrong with suburbia

Suburbia is where the developer bulldozes out the trees, then names the streets after them.
~Bill Vaughan

One of the things the author of The Long Emergency hit upon over and over again is the fallacy of the suburbs.

But a house in the suburbs, somewhere that’s green, is the American Dream. Your own home, with your yard, your kids, your dog, your garbage disposal, and your picket fence if you so choose. What’s so wrong with that? Aren’t houses more energy efficient than poorly-build and poorly-insulated apartments?

Yes, and no. Houses are more energy efficient per square foot, yes, but those square feet house fewer people than an equal square footage of apartment building. And more importantly, there’s the issue of space. If each person on Earth, all 6.8 billion of us, were allotted our own little equal square of the planet, we’d each get about five and a half acres. That’s it. Five and a half acres to house us, feed us, entertain us, and provide for wildland. And that includes Antarctica, the Arctic, and mountains, desert, and unarable land. You gonna use a large portion of that up to have a house with a lawn? The fact that we can get away with this should tell you just how many of us are living in squalid conditions. Conditions that make my 600 square foot apartment shared with a roommate look like the Waldorf Astoria. I have running water, for starters. And a roof that doesn’t leak.

I’m not saying that because some people live in squalor that we should all seek to live in it. That was just a mental exercise to get you to think about just how little room we have on this pale blue dot.

Suburbia also makes travel by other than car impossible. You’ve got this huge area, filled with track homes, over and over and over again. Stop. Now you’ve got a grocery store, a few other stores, maybe a shopping mall. Those are servicing several miles of the same damn thing. Rinse and repeat. There’s nothing just down the road. Your friends probably live across town. The grocery store I mentioned is several miles away. Unless you’re a seasoned bicyclist, or just that crazy, you’re not going to get your groceries in anything but a car. And your job is probably just as far, if not farther. And that’s true even if you’re single. For families, it’s even more impossible. Herding two kids several miles to the store, even on bicycles? Any parent will tell you “yea, right, you get to carry the milk.”

I live in a college town. Sure, there are lots of houses, and if you go to the south end of town, suburbs. But for the most part, it’s high density apartment housing. I can walk to the grocery store, bike to work (once a week, for now), and pretty much get wherever I need to go without a car given an hour. On weekends I’ll do nearly ten miles of biking and walking to run errands and visit people. It’s only possible because of that high density housing and the compact nature of the town. If you do live in a college town, here’s a tip: find out where the international students tend to live, and live there. Chances are most of them don’t have a car, and thus they live where there’s easy access to everything.

It would be one thing, I suppose, if people used their yards for something other than chemically maintained deserts of St. Augustine grass. I have lived in suburbs, and that’s where I first learned how to grow my own food. We had a huge vegetable garden in our backyard. We grew corn, new potatoes, tomatoes, bell peppers, squash, pickling cucumbers, and whatever the hell else tickled our fancy and grew well in our area. We also kept laying hens. Good thing there wasn’t a homeowners’ association. Our neighbors were quiet about it because we gave them the extra eggs we didn’t eat. Between that and the deer my father shot during our deer lease “vacations,” we ate well for poor people. We were eating local before it was in style.

But most lawns I’ve seen don’t have gardens. And if they do, they’re ornamental gardens. Nothing wrong with things looking pretty, but if we’re talking sustainability, that’s a waste of perfectly good space.

And of course, houses tend to be large, and thus need more Made in China crap to fill ’em up. So even more fossil fuels for the creation and transportation of your new Ikea furniture and whatever gadgets, gizmos, and other assorted bullshit you’ve forgotten about in your closets.

Sure, I’ll take a house. But I’ll sell it as soon as possible. Give me something small and perfectly situated any day.

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8 Responses to “What’s wrong with suburbia”

  1. Admittedly, I want a house. But it doesn’t need to be very big. I want enough room for an art room, a bedroom, a living room and kitchen, and maybe a garage for some extra storage. And I want a yard for a dog, chickens and/or rabbits and lots of yardening. Plus not having shared walls would make this insomniac very happy. But I want to try and make said house as sustainable as possible. There’s a lot of old houses here in PDX, most of which are kept up well, and a couple of different places that salvage building materials from torn-down buildings, so lots of precedent for green house upkeep. But I’m also spoiled by this place!

    • Your area’s also a lot more walkable, in general, than here.

      There are some very tiny little duplexes just down the road from my apartment and they are really quite nice. Little tiny yards for a garden, and what looks like just enough room for two people…they’re not very big.

  2. shimmerhawk Says:

    Well said. Have you read Suburban Nation?

  3. Craig Says:

    Boy, do I hear you on the suburbia issue. I live in Perth, Western Australia (the most isolated capital city in the world I believe) and pretty much the entire city is one large suburban sprawl, housing something like 1.65 million people. There are some apartments, flats, units etc, but they are really in the minority, and tend to be found only in certain areas, typically ones closer to the center of the city than the outskirts.

    The city is somewhat emblematic of the problem we face in AU, in that it’s generally a long way to anything, which means that having your own car is pretty much expected. When you do run across someone who doesn’t have a car, it’s always a little bit of a shock.

    It seems to me that suburbs really aren’t going to help create a more sustainable society, not unless they can be retrofitted to help better sustain the locals, and in effect become small cities/towns that people don’t need to leave so often, and where they might be able to walk/cycle to get local goods. Here in Perth, there have been some moves to make suburbs more localised, which is good, but I get the impression that the suburbs that exist in America tend to be fairly devoid of local amenities.

  4. WhiteFox Says:

    This is why I love where I live. It’s a suburb, but an older one that’s 50+ years old. Not only is that enough time for the trees that were planted to become thick and tall again, but the builders at the time didn’t bulldoze everything to the ground and erected huge, wasteful houses in their place. The houses are mainly small ranch-style ones, which make good use of space. Much of the original forestry was left alone, in both the many parks scattered around and in the yards, and the trees replanted in them contained many natives, allowing the local animal species to continue living here. Hell, there’s even coyotes regularly walking down the sidewalks and rearing pups in the parks.

    I look at suburbs being built nowadays and find myself wondering why more places don’t take a page out of our book.

  5. I liked your post about suburbia, the quote at the top speaks the truth about bulldozing the trees and naming streets after them. I’ve left you a trackback.

  6. Dr. Curiosity Says:

    Visiting various places in the U.S., the large swathes of surburbia with their logistics based around having a car didn’t look appealing at all.

    I’m in a city of around 350,000 people – fairly large by NZ standards. I have two malls and a shopping centre within two miles of me. While some of the local options have been reduced or even demolished recently due to earthquakes, I have still plenty of options for supplies. My friends and family do live across town, but across town is less than an hour by bicycle (even when detouring around the parts of the central business district that are structurally unsound). We also have a bus system that generally fails to suck, and road systems that are pretty cycle-friendly.

    We definitely have the luxury of a low population density, compared to many places. Our infrastructure tends to be more decentralised across the urban space, so while retailers don’t have the same economies of scale, consumers have more economy of travel.

    That said, our density is creeping up. Older properties getting subdivided so a house can be built where once there was a yard, villas getting demolished to make way for blocks of flats, and so forth. The outer suburbs are starting to get more outer, and in a couple of decades may merge with a few more outlying towns. Some of the roads in suburbs with major thoroughfares and commercial centres are starting to get more congested, so there are definitely problems on the horizon. There will be lifestyle changes ahead, whether we like it or not.

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