Over the past five years, there has been a general scraping for ideas about how to reinvent the suburbs. The suburbs are there. They are not going away. We have already paved over the land. But after a sub-prime mortgage crisis, who is going to live there?
Moreover, many American city infrastructures are built to coexist with a suburban ideal. We built highways, not train tracks. Malls, not mainstreets. Mega-churches, not parishes.
All of these are glaringly obvious realities. They have been exhaustively discussed and criticized by film documentarians, city-dwelling snobs, and environmentalists. Yet none have viably answered the question: What do you do with a paved living space that has outgrown its resources?
If gasoline and heating costs continue to rise, conventional suburban living may not be much of a bargain in the future. And as more Americans, particularly affluent Americans, move into urban communities, families may find that some of the suburbs’ other big advantages-better schools and safer communities-have eroded. Schooling and safety are likely to improve in urban areas, as those areas continue to gentrify; they may worsen in many suburbs if the tax base-often highly dependent on house values and new development-deteriorates. Many of the fringe counties in the Washington, D.C., metropolitan area, for instance, are projecting big budget deficits in 2008. Only Washington itself is expecting a large surplus. Fifteen years ago, this budget situation was reversed.
It goes on to state some dizzying statistics:
In the first half of last year, residential burglaries rose by 35 percent and robberies by 58 percent in suburban Lee County, Florida, where one in four houses stands empty. Charlotte’s crime rates have stayed flat overall in recent years-but from 2003 to 2006, in the 10 suburbs of the city that have experienced the highest foreclosure rates, crime rose 33 percent. Civic organizations in some suburbs have begun to mow the lawns around empty houses to keep up the appearance of stability. Police departments are mapping foreclosures in an effort to identify emerging criminal hot spots.
We have a problem on our hands, and the number of people with the money and ideas to fix it is shrinking. Since there is no sound solution quite yet, it’s important to not only consider what we can do to solve it, but the philosophy with which it ought to be approached.
In terms of environmentalism and sustainability in recent years, the city has won. More people are flocking to urban centers. We have identified an enemy in over-consuming. Green is hip. On this account we should take hope, as the idea of an urban center is once again kindly greeted.
But the problem still stands, what do we do with the suburbs?
A recent article in the Denver Post profiles a developer on the Front Range who is attempting to do some good in this area.The development is called “agriburbia” and sets out to build suburban sub developments where backyards are turned into small farms. TSR Group, the creators of agriburbia, have over 3,000 acres of land in the process of becoming agriburbian communities. But will it work?
The article describes TSR Group’s efforts as threefold:
First, their TSR Group works with homeowners with less than an acre, designing an “edible landscape” that not only provides food for the family but also contributes to the group’s network of restaurants.
The Redmonds [TSR Group] also work with landowners sitting on their property and waiting for the economic revival when they can begin building and selling. The Redmonds manage those empty parcels as “steward lots” that feed local restaurants and deliver cash to the landowner.
And thirdly, the Redmonds are trying to develop farm-cultured communities like Platte River Village in Milliken. Homes surrounding farms already are planned for the middle of Littleton and Boulder, using small spaces to grow organic produce.
“Agriburbia” is not alone in its efforts to make better use of the land upon which we’ve sprawled. Similar agricultural sustainability projects have sprouted (pun intended) all over, in places like Vermont, Idaho, and the Chicago suburbs.
All of this is done with good intentions. But is it getting to the root of the problem?
Imagine waking up in a large suburban home and walking out to your backyard to pick a few fruits and vegetables to eat for the day, all in the name of easing the environmental cost of shipping food. Then you hop in your car to commute 40 miles to work.
It’s like building a garden bed on top of your Hummer.
What’s curious about this development is that it’s a prime example of an increasing sensibility that treats sustainability as merely a salve for our environmental guilt, as opposed to a practical way to solve a big problem. But sustainability is not attained through a feeling.
The idea that sustainability is a penance paid simply through intelligent purchasing is innocently nearsighted, but more problematic is the idea to return to the autonomous indulgences of a sprawl design that’s wrapped in recycled newspaper, claiming that the sum of your repentant emotions is good enough.
There needs to be a focus adjustment. Wouldn’t building more sprawling suburban developments-agriculturally friendly or not-just exacerbate the problem at hand? Isn’t it the idea of a sprawled neighborhood that got us into this mess?
Of course, any efforts toward more sustainable modes of living are, in most cases, a net positive development. But when you go to rehab, they don’t say, “Addicted to heroine? Let’s take it down a notch and put you on cocaine for a while.”
By this standard, our focus on greener cars would be misplaced as well. Whether or not a car is green, the users of the car are still transporting, using energy over large expanses of space, requiring funds for roads that are no longer there. And until someone invents a new, radical, green means of transportation (like, say, the transporter from Star Trek), we will still consume at an unsustainable pace.
Some might argue that curbing the consumerist habit is an acceptable compromise to kicking it. Possibly, yes. But what is more important is not treating the major problems (sprawl, autonomy) like merely pesky items that can be swept underneath the locally made hemp rug that sits in the foyer of our 3,000 square foot McMansion. What needs to happen seems to be a cultural shift that investigates why we want the things we buy.
How do we shift the culture? Live with people. Live closer to them. Community and density are not only tools for sustainability but also tools for economic growth. Where there is density there are ideas, where there are ideas there is commerce, where there is commerce there is work, where there is art, where there is culture, where there is renewal. (Not to oversimplify things.)
A dense urban center is also a farmer’s best friend – that is to say, urban density promotes agriculture by saying that the majority of the earth should be used for a farmer’s cultivation. (In these terms, its important to realize that a dense urban center is not qualified by population, but by space. In other words, a small town is more like a big, dense city than it is a sprawling suburb. This means that suburbia didn’t start as a spread out small town but rather a unique experiment, never before attempted, that outgrew our resources to maintain it.)
I have no answer for what to do with vacant suburbs. But there are slippery slopes and old idols to avoid in brainstorming for solutions, as well as certain practical steps to take in discerning what to do with a failed piece of urban planning.
Our focus should be centered on establishing close-knit, walkable communities, not just reducing personal carbon footprints. We need to view sustainability not as the starry-eyed goal for a greener planet, but as a means for human flourishing. If this happens, then the environmental problems spurred by consumerism will be trounced through a creative social sustainability and a radical, ancient concept that historians have termed “sharing.” To see the big picture means focusing on people as much as innovation; density’s greatest asset is the prospect for creativity in togetherness.
For Further Reading:
The Denver Post: “‘Agriburbia’ sprouts on Colorado’s Front Range”