Creating Healthy, Sustainable Neighborhoods — Even in the Suburbs

The rise of the suburbs shifted our focus away from forming communities and preserving the planet, placing emphasis instead on the costly, time-consuming task of “keeping up with the Joneses.” But what if we collectively changed our mindset? Discover how cultivating community could save us money and improve our health.
By Dan Chiras and Dave Wann
February 23, 2012
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The time has come to move from commuting to community, and "Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods," a MOTHER EARTH NEWS Book for Wiser Living, can guide the way.
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The following is an excerpt from Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann (New Society Publishers, 2003). 

The American house-and-car suburb was invented in Los Angeles in the 1920s, but after World War II it became an American institution. Following the war, 14 million military personnel with sudden family syndrome played a frantic game of musical chairs, living with extended family or friends or wherever else they could find, from converted boxcars to chicken coops and garages. Crowds lined up at funeral parlors to get the addresses of newly vacant apartments. One Omaha, Neb., newspaper ad read, “Big Ice Box, 7 by 17 feet. Could be fixed up to live in.”

In response to the emergency, the U.S. government shifted gears and came up with a new plan of attack. We had open land and we knew how to access it strategically. You could say we declared war on American soil, deploying bulldozers instead of tanks to level hills, fill creeks and yank trees out like weeds to build one subdivision after another. And the economy boomed!

Various factors shaped the suburbs, including the availability of open, affordable land; the embrace of the automobile; urban flight from the inner city; and the birth of a glitzy new American dream in which every family aspired to have its own house in the suburbs, filled with the latest new appliances as seen in programs like The Donna Reed Show and Leave It to Beaver on the new technology of television. Even fear played into the equation. These were the days of bomb shelters and elementary school kids obediently covering their heads in basement hallways during air-raid drills. Military experts warned that if a nuclear attack occurred, high-density developments would be more vulnerable, so we should spread development out. Highways would be needed to evacuate civilians after the bombs hit. President Dwight D. Eisenhower met that challenge by signing the Interstate Highway Act in 1956, which authorized and scheduled the construction of 41,000 miles of roads.

Economists loved what the new dream did for the Gross National Product, and the media loved the storyline: “GI Families Occupy Suburbia.” Developer William Levitt, a five-star general on the tract home front, appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and stories about Levittown, the nation’s first subdivision in New York, also ran in Life and Reader’s Digest. How could we question this energetic, giddy, sexy dream? All the pieces seemed to fit together, and money flowed into the country’s green fields like harvested grain through a combine, making subdivisions the last and most profitable crop. In battalions of brand new Fords and Chevies, Americans rolled into the suburbs on highways and streets that now measure 4 million miles — enough to circle the planet 157 times. Just 10 years earlier, only 44 percent of American homes were owned by residents, and fewer than half of the households had cars. But that was changing, quickly.

The ideal of the suburb was country homes for city people — nature without the mud. In the suburbs, a family could have it all: community, fresh air, proximity to the city, and convenience. “The most house for the money” was the mantra for both buyers and sellers. Naturally, people wanted the biggest and best piece of the dream they could get, and the best perceived value was in the suburbs. With the Federal Housing Administration guaranteeing buyers’ loans, the new American dream lay on the horizon — on the outskirts of Emerald City.

But there was a glitch.

A legal precedent, Ambler v. Euclid (1926), in effect made it illegal to put houses, businesses and stores together in suburban neighborhoods. Based on the dubious assumption that residences should be separate from commerce, civic life and even recreation, planning departments throughout North America adopted boilerplate zoning codes. The result was lookalike neighborhoods that stretched from suburban Toronto to suburban San Diego. Rather than being custom designed to fit the needs of each piece of land, subdivisions were mass-produced like automobiles or metal mailboxes.

As Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck explain in Suburban Nation, “A typical contemporary zoning code has several land use designations; not only is housing separated (by code) from industry but low-density housing is separated from medium-density housing, which is separated from high-density housing. Medical offices are separated from general offices, which in turn are separated from restaurants and shopping.” Americans took the habits of the past and technologies of the present and turned them into codes and laws for the future. Because it was assumed that we’d always love our cars, much of suburbia was built with a drive-in mentality. The result: You can’t get anywhere on foot. The new template of suburban design housed fewer people per unit of land than ever before and required much more resource-intensive travel time.

Nevertheless, without much of a trial period, low-density, large-lot housing became the standard, prescribed and encoded in great detail in the planning manuals. The quality of “community” was somehow thought to be automatic or unnecessary — or was not thought about at all. Developers didn’t worry about this intangible quality when the standard formula (code-driven mass production of houses) was very lucrative indeed.

Suburban villages — subdivisions that looked more like small towns with all of the amenities — were rarely an option, so the new homeowners bought what was available.
They let the experts build new kinds of neighborhoods, not realizing their expertise had more to do with engineering than with the design of people-friendly communities. “We live today in cities and suburbs whose form and character we did not choose,” write the authors of Suburban Nation. “They were imposed on us, by federal policy, local zoning laws, and the demands of the automobile. If these influences are reversed — and they can be — an environment designed around the true needs of individuals, conducive to the formation of community and preservation of the landscape, becomes possible.”

How Community Adds Value

What if creating community could save your household $3,000 or more annually in utility, health and food bills, transportation costs, childcare, entertainment costs and lawn care expenses? What if you also gained 200 hours — five workweeks — every year by changing your priorities? Savings like these are completely realistic if neighbors form an alliance and set strategic goals to reinvent the way the neighborhood functions. Once a neighborhood begins to create “social capital” (trust and support) and, in turn, designs ways to become more sustainable, chances are that property values on the block will increase proportionally, yet the number of home sales will decrease because people will want to stay put. This has already happened in many of the neighborhoods across the United States.

We’re not proposing you make personal sacrifices to create a livelier neighborhood; all you need is a change in priorities and an interest in working cooperatively. We know you’re busy. In our current culture, we all are, partly because “keeping up with the Joneses” takes time. We may be able to help you slow down, turn off the TV and create your own life. Tangible rewards — such as savings of time, money, and human effort, along with improvements in health — can result from basic cultural changes accessible to anyone. By working with our neighbors we can have a less competitive, less judgmental neighborhood and a more fulfilling “Net Neighborhood Product,” or quality of life.

For example, how much do we work to pay for a flawless landscape? The care and feeding of a lawn covering a third of an acre typically costs $500 or more a year, including lawn equipment, 10 pounds of pesticides, 20 pounds of fertilizer, 170,000 gallons of water and 40 hours of mowing labor. According to the Audubon Society, the pollution generated by a gas-powered lawn mower for that mowing is equivalent to driving a car 14,000 miles — more than halfway around the world.

A water meter reader told us about three homes that consistently consume twice as much water as others on the street, apparently to outdo their neighbors in lawn appearance. How many such competitions are going on across the continent? Instead of watering and fertilizing to the richest shade of green, no matter how much it costs, why don’t we just develop an informal, mutually beneficial agreement with our neighbors? Why not change the rules, with a neighborhood “mission statement” to make front lawns more productive and less consumptive? Why not plant low-maintenance strawberries as ground cover and a few dwarf fruit trees in sections of our front lawns, then set up a neighborhood consulting enterprise — call it Lawnbusters — to show other neighborhoods how to do it?

There are support organizations for alcoholics, gamblers and drug abusers — why not create a neighborhood support group to battle suburban affluenza? If members of each household evaluated the size and shape of their Household Domestic Product (HDP), they would find many ways to eliminate consumer debt in their own homes and then could help neighbors do the same. Many cost-saving synergies occur in a healthy neighborhood, not the least of which is that when a person’s self-esteem rises, less money is spent to fill the emptiness. Being active in a “we” culture rather than passive in a “me”/TV culture can elevate self-esteem and calm the costly storms of consumer splurges and binges. In a nutshell, our neighbors can help us redefine the term “wealth.”

It might be useful to look at how much money is spent on specific purchases in an average household, and then examine opportunities to get more value from less money. In a recent report, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked the consumer spending patterns of an average Milwaukee family with a $37,000 income. This family spends about 35 percent of its income ($12,950) on housing, which includes the house, utilities, furniture and supplies; 20 percent ($7,400) on transportation; and 12 percent ($4,400) on food. Each of these categories represents huge opportunities for reducing waste, stress and “disposable” income with the physical and social support of the neighborhood. If family members re-evaluate and redistribute their expenditures — making spending decisions based on an item’s ability to meet their needs precisely — they will discover they maybe don’t need such a large income, and leisure time will become more abundant and enjoyable. If purchases (and decisions not to purchase) bring more durability, greater intellectual growth and more laughter into their house, a family’s quality of life expands.

For example, rather than spending nearly $13,000 a year on housing, the family could win back time, money and human energy by living in a house with efficient appliances and good natural lighting, buying well-built furniture that doesn’t need constant replacing, and having a different attitude about what a house is for. If they consider it mostly a display unit, they’ll spend hours a week decorating and redecorating it, cleaning it or paying someone else to clean it. If they simply consider it a home, they’ll be more interested in comfort than in impressing the neighbors.

By working with their neighbors to research and implement improvements that will make houses more efficient, households can save money and enhance the comfort of their homes. One example of neighborhood cooperation to make individual homes more efficient is the “EcoTeam.” Global Action Plan, an international group that organizes EcoTeams, reports that average savings from such improvements are in the range of $265 to $389 per year, including a 45 percent reduction in garbage costs, 30 percent reduction in water costs and 15 percent reduction in gasoline and other energy costs.

If the house is located near work, school, friends, groceries, banks and other amenities, the Milwaukee family can reduce transportation costs by at least 10 percent, or about $750 per year. Getting rid of a second car would yield even greater benefits.

The family spends 12 percent of its income on food, which is down from the 30 percent their grandparents spent in the 1930s. However, since 43 percent of that is for food eaten away from home, the family could save $500 a year by eating out less frequently. More important, if the food they eat delivers energy rather than lethargy, they’ll exercise more and participate in sports rather than buying season tickets and cable sports channels. We spend billions every year for exercise tapes, drugs, tummy tucks and “thick, delicious diet shakes,” partly because we don’t exercise enough and partly because a strict regimen of packaged food delivers about 50 teaspoons of sugar daily. If we eat more from the garden and from local growers, health care costs will be lower and weight loss equipment and programs won’t be necessary. With better food in our lives, we’ll go to the doctor less and require less insurance. We’ll spend more social time eating quality food, reducing our entertainment costs. And almost certainly, we’ll feel a greater sense of contentment and wellness.

By slowing down the speed of life and getting to know who their neighbors are rather than just what they seem to have, the Milwaukee family can become more than just an “average” family. They can be an exceptional family. Instead of disposing of their income, they could save it, share it, eat it, and live it.

As a final example of cost-saving synergies in the neighborhood, imagine a creative group of neighbors pooling their expertise and aspirations and starting a computer-based business in a well-designed, remodeled, triple-bay garage. Each ex-commuter would now save expenses for driving, work-related clothes, childcare and food, given that they’ll eat at home more.

After running the cost-benefit analysis described here, we think you may agree that the appropriate question isn’t, “Where will we find the time and money to create synergistic, sustainable neighborhoods?” The more pressing question is “How can we afford not to?”


Reprinted with permission from Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, published by New Society Publishers, 2003.


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