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.

| February 23, 2012

  • Superbia
    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.

  • Superbia

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.

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