Should Retrofitting Our Suburbs Take Center Stage?

In this opinion piece from The Huffington Post, Alex Becker argues that retrofitting suburban landscapes with denser development trumps all other sustainability agendas as the single most important path to a more sustainable future.

Becker highlights suburban areas as a prime starting point in the movement towards more sustainable, resilient cities in the United States. He states that the answer to how we should best utilize our existing suburban infrastructure is "simple," and that planners and policymakers should aim first and foremost to "Move things closer together!"

Becker continues:

"Calls to be greener and use less energy are all well and good, but ultimately mean nothing unless we can fundamentally restructure the suburban environment in which a large swath of the American public lives. In suburbia, overconsumption may seem like a choice (and perhaps at a certain extreme level it is), but the physical reality remains that large-scale resource consumption is the only way to survive in the environment which we've built for ourselves. 50% of Americans live in suburban spaces only inhabitable with a large dollop of natural resources."

Full Story: Life After Sprawl: Why the Green Revolution Must Start in Suburbia

Comments

Comments

No - let the suburbs be suburbs

The scarce resources available should be to support people who have demonstrated their desire and ability to live in mixed-used, dense urban environments. The center stage should be on urban infill and supporting and extending existing, high-use mass transit corridors and systems. Build on demonstrated success in these areas and give people more choices for walkable urbanism--and they will move to those areas. The effort should be on reforming parking regulations in dense areas of cities to eliminate free or under-priced parking and allow small scale neighborhood-serving stores (like small groceries, hardware stores, etc.) to thrive because of pedestrian traffic.

The burbs are criticized for being a misuse of resources, but it would be a larger mistake to waste resources on areas where people have loudly and clearly indicated their preference. Suburbanite architects, developers, and suburbanites themselves would not likely be capable of understanding, building, or supporting walkable urbanism. Any efforts in this area are likely to lead to a massive expenditure of money on a false front of urbanism--the trappings of what an urban area might offer (a modest mix of uses, pleasant pathways for pedestrians, badly planned transit, etc)--which at its heart retains the obsession with automobile dominance and free or under-priced parking.

Building envelopes do not have preferences.

The burbs are criticized for being a misuse of resources, but it would be a larger mistake to waste resources on areas where people have loudly and clearly indicated their preference. Suburbanite architects, developers, and suburbanites themselves would not likely be capable of understanding, building, or supporting walkable urbanism.

I disagree with the 'loudly and clearly preference' If there were equal choices for all, that would be true. Since these choices do not exist, the assertion is not true.

I also think that building envelopes should be efficient, no matter where they are, even places that do not share some people's urban bias. Fortunately, it appears the US will soon have building standards similar to IBC, so this will get us down that road with or without some people wanting one thing for one place and something else for another based on some random factor.

Best,

D

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

Maybe both Becker and Johndecember are right

An idea: maybe from the standpoint of energy conservation, Becker is right. But from the standpoint of what's politically feasible (and more responsive to market demands) Johndecember is more right.

Anyone want to comment?

Focus On Both Cities And Suburbs

I don't see how anyone this side of Wendell Cox can object to Becker's article. He just says that suburbs should be built in a more compact, walkable form. New Urbanists are already doing this, showing that it is politically feasible, at least to some extent.

The only reason we have disagreements is that we are considering suburb/city development an either/or, while it can actually be a both/and. We should be making both suburbs and cities more walkable and sustainable.

There is not a fixed lump of "scarce resources" that must be used on either suburban or urban redevelopment. If we do not change the zoning in suburbs to allow walkable development, suburban developers will not shift to the cities; they will keep building sprawl, and large numbers of Americans who do not want to live in cities will move to that sprawl.

There are some cases where cities and suburbs compete for resources - for example, for new transit lines - and these cases, the either/or applies. But in general, we should be changing zoning in both cities and suburbs.

Note that Becker is the founder of Roosevelt-Island.net, so he is certainly not against dense, urban neighborhoods. From my experience as a writer, I think an editor (not Becker) probably came up with the sensational headline of his article ("Why the Green Revolution Must Start in Suburbia"), which implies that other efforts are not as important.

Becker makes a good point by saying:

"In suburbia, overconsumption may seem like a choice (and perhaps at a certain extreme level it is), but the physical reality remains that large-scale resource consumption is the only way to survive in the environment which we've built for ourselves. 50% of Americans live in suburban spaces only inhabitable with a large dollop of natural resources."

but I think we would do well to emphasize that this high level of consumption is not only an environmental burden. It is also an economic burden on middle-class suburban families, who would be better off if they had the choice of living in neighborhoods where it does not cost so much to get around.

Charles Siegel

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