There’s a philosophical debate about what is “sustainable.” The two dominant camps tend to advocate on behalf of either the hyper efficient dense city or bucolic rural self sufficiency. Personally, I’m not a fan of either.
The more finely tuned and efficient any system is the more vulnerable it is to disruption. There’s also an inevitable concentration of authority in large systems that doesn’t appeal to me.
The picturesque farm out in the country has a romantic allure, but the reality is mostly isolation, lack of economic opportunity, and a stifling culture.
Almost all of the built environment in North America is actually suburban which is neither fish nor fowl in terms of the urban/rural divide. And that isn’t going to change anytime soon.
At the moment suburbs have none of the efficiencies of the urban core and none of the productive capacity of the countryside. Suburban residents are just as dependent on large centralized systems as people living downtown. Where does suburban food come from? Energy? Water? Where does suburban trash go? Sewerage? Who owns everything? (If you have a mortgage… the bank, not you.) A small family farm in the country can manage all these things right at home on a tight budget. But the average tract house is no different from a high rise apartment.
That private vehicle that sits in the driveway appears to be a source of personal freedom unlike the city bus or subway. But the car is invisibly tethered to gas stations, pipelines, refineries, and ultimately to the oil fields of North Dakota, Venezuela, and Nigeria by way of massive corporations and no small amount of Big Government. Wall Street also finances these cars as well, so add that to the mix of dependencies. Suburbanites believethey’re more independent than city people. They aren’t.
Historically this tension between efficient urbanism and rural productivity was resolved by building compact medium density towns that were immediately surrounded by farmland. Economic opportunity, high culture, and great efficiencies were baked in to every level of the built environment. Take a fifteen minute walk from the center of town and you’ll find water, grain, grazing livestock, orchards, and all other essentials for supporting the population. A two thousand year old settlement like this one in Spain demonstrates pretty clearly that this is a sustainable model. But how does it relate to American suburbs?
The typical suburban home is surrounded by a modest patch of garden. Instead of growing a lawn (the largest single crop in North America) the land could be producing fresh food. Ornamental shrubs and specimen trees could just as easily be fruit bearing. No need to truck in refrigerated lettuce from 1,500 miles away. The supply chain is effectively reduced to a matter of feet. There’s no need for battery hens from a distant factory farm. This transforms a consumptive landscape into a productive property. No one is suggesting this is “self sufficient”. But it’s a huge step up from having a kitchen full of Lean Cuisine, Fruit Loops, and Go-Gurt from the supermarket.
In addition to home gardens suburbia is full of places that can be transformed into community gardens. Every church, school, and vacant parking lot is a potential veggie patch or orchard.
This solar water heater is the biggest bang for the green buck. A couple of tanks, some black boxes covered in glass, a little pump… and you’ve got free hot water for decades. The cheapest and greenest energy is always the power you don’t need to use in the first place.
A modest number of photovoltaic panels can often provide nearly all the electricity for a suburban home, particularly if the house was first fitted with high efficiency lights and appliances. Combine this with loads of insulation, solar hot water, and a food garden and a suburban home begins to resemble a small family homestead in the country.
The weakest aspect of suburbia has always been the impoverishment of the public realm. Suburbs are first and foremost about private space. In order to become more vibrant parts of the suburbs need to be activated with shared community spaces. These strip mall parking lot cafes may not resemble Paris, but they do the job in a straightforward cost effective manner. The food is good. The company is pleasant. Commerce and culture can start to take baby steps. If many more such places are allowed to gradually evolve and connect they might eventually turn in to something more refined and dynamic.
There will always be people who prefer to drive no matter what. And the suburbs do provide serious challenges when it comes to alternative forms of mobility. Public transit rarely works well in dispersed sprawling environments. Honestly, I don’t think it’s worth even trying to serve most suburban neighborhoods with transit. But knitting together the viable parts of suburbia with bike infrastructure is so incredibly cheap that it’s worth doing in places where people value the option. Most folks may still drive, but they may not need to do it nearly as often if walking and biking are at least reasonable options.
While I’m at it, I’d like to describe what isn’t sustainable. Massive solar arrays on suburban rooftops appear to be a step in the right direction. But look closer. This homeowner could have installed far fewer panels and spent the remaining money on added insulation and energy efficiency instead. But being frugal and productive was never really the goal here.
Next to the sterile lawn are all sorts of toys that run on liquid fuels. I’m not saying people shouldn’t have playthings. I’m saying these items are expensive and disposable and were almost certainly bought on credit. The extended cab pick up truck has never seen a sheet of plywood, an eight foot length of pipe, or a bale of hay. It’s sport. Not utility. The speed boat isn’t exactly built for fishing. This is standard suburban debt and consumption. It’s fragile and unlikely to hold up well over the long haul.
John Sanphillippo lives in San Francisco and blogs about urbanism, adaptation, and resilience at granolashotgun.com. He's a member of the Congress for New Urbanism, films videos for faircompanies.com, and is a regular contributor to Strongtowns.org. He earns his living by buying, renovating, and renting undervalued properties in places that have good long term prospects. He is a graduate of Rutgers University.