Changing American Suburbs Into Nurturing Neighborhoods

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EcoVillage at Ithaca is a cohousing community in New York.
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Sterile suburbs can be transformed into more nurturing neighborhoods.

Changing American suburbs into vibrant, connected neighborhoods.

The classic American suburb is an assemblage of homes connected by concrete and asphalt highways to offices and malls. This arrangement fosters a dependency on the car and discourages strolling, walking or mingling with neighbors. One of the social costs of this car culture is isolation and loneliness. Homes and yards are often sequestered behind privacy fences, making isolation more prevalent; many suburbanites enjoy little contact with neighbors. Returning home from work at night, commuters tap on their automatic garage door openers and are swallowed up into the inner sanctum of their homes, not to be seen again until morning, when the ritual reverses itself.

As new suburbs pop up ever farther from the workplace, suburbanites spend more and more of their lives in their cars. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the average American commuter now spends 443 hours a year behind the wheel — the equivalent of 11 work weeks — often bumper to bumper on crowded highways, breathing exhaust fumes and polluting the air with noxious chemicals while waistlines expand and blood pressures rise.

On the environmental front, the seemingly endless expansion of the suburbs is devouring open land. Verdant fields, lush forests, rich wetlands and productive farms that once fringed our cities and towns are replaced with housing developments that memorialize them in name only: Meadow View, Indian Forest, Running Springs. Today, Americans lose about 1.3 million acres a year to development — much of it clue to the construction of new houses, highways and shopping centers.

Changing American Suburbs: The Suburban Revolution

Do the suburbs truly spell the end of an authentic civil life? With a little effort, I believe they could be transformed in ways that nurture the human spirit, becoming vibrant communities instead of just places to sleep. Suburbia can become Superbia!

Using cohousing (see “Cohousing,” on page 57 of this issue) as a model for environmentally, economically and socially sustainable living, my colleague at the Sustainable Futures Society, Dave Wann, and I have developed a list of 25 ideas (see “Nurturing Neighborhoods,” in this issue) to help people transform suburbs into places they’re proud to call home. The list begins with easy measures, moves on to bolder steps and then reveals the most daring actions to create a lively community that is as good for people as it is for the planet and our pocketbooks.

The Benefits of Superbia

These measures will take time and effort, but can create tight-knit, more environmentally and economically sustainable communities from the failing suburbs. Changes in the suburbs will help foster a sense of genuine belonging and personal security. Those who dare to take these steps will benefit from shared resources and live more economically. After a difficult day at work, imagine sitting down to an already prepared meal with your neighbors in the common house. Instead of doling out your hard-earned money to a fitness center, imagine safely walking or jogging in green spaces you helped establish in your neighborhood. Imagine the delight on children’s faces when they harvest their first organic tomato from their community garden.

Superbia is truly a win-win-win proposition: People benefit, the environment benefits and the economy edges a little closer to sustainability.

Dan Chiras is co-director of the Creating Sustainable Suburbs Project.

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