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Suburbia: The Natural Evolution of Development?

Is suburban growth really a product of the natural progression of human development, and if not, could a a different growth pattern better meet our desires and reduce our impact the climate?
February 19, 2008, 5am PST | Ashwani Vasisth
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This article is adapted from a presentation made as part of a "Focus the Nation: Climate Change Solutions for America" event at the California State University, Northridge. It was intended for a lay audience, and so begins by stating what may be obvious to most planners.

Photo: Ashwani Vasishth

Where we live, work and play matters because the relative locations of such places most directly influence the extent to which we must travel in the course of a typical day. If we live, on average, some 25 miles from where we work, and if where we go to play is similarly distant from both these places then we end up racking up more miles. And there is a direct correlation between how far we drive and the amount of greenhouse gases we emit each day.

Suburban growth is shaped by the proximate location of detached single-family homes arranged into dispersed residential enclaves, organized by socio-economic status, and relying primarily on single-occupancy automobile use as the dominant mode of transportation. Smart growth, as some planners advocate, is a pattern of development that is constituted by higher density, transit- and pedestrian-oriented settlements, showing a more mixed land use pattern-with shops, offices, entertainment venues intermingled with higher density residential buildings.

It has been estimated that half of all Americans, and two-thirds of urban Americans, live in suburbia. Here are the key questions: Does suburbia exist because it is the natural "culmination of urban development"? If we were to reboot society, how close would we come to the same present? If we had it to do over again, would we return to where we are, because this is the natural order of the human universe? Do Americans live in suburbia because this is what they actually, and proactively, want-detached and segregated and sorted by type? Is suburbia simply an expression of personal preference?

If it is, then, in a democratic frame, we have no business messing with that expressed will of the people.

But, wait. What if it is not merely the "will of the people," but rather a strange mix of at least somewhat arbitrary social policies and practices that have shaped how people came to live, and then, in subsequent generations, came to determine what people think of as "normal," and so desirable? Do the rules of the game change, then? Now can we "shatter it to bits, and remold it closer to our heart's desire"?

The conventional story of the emergence of suburbia is as a "natural" outcome of urbanization. As the city grows more dense and intense, those who can afford to do so move outward to the cleaner, more civilized outskirts. As congestion and crime and pollution mount, those who have the wherewithal to escape flee to more attractive climes. And that's simply the nature of the beast that is urbanization.

What if we told the story differently, though? What if, for instance, during and after World War Two, there were very few houses built, because the nation was focused on the war effort for all those years? Housing would be in short supply in the post-World War Two years, and-with the terms of a mortgage something like 50% cash down, and with a pay-back of five years-out of reach for most young ex-soldiers.

And then, wonder of wonders, two things were to happen: The US Government offers the banks loan guarantees if they will change the terms of a conventional mortgage to something more like 10% down, pay-back in 30 years. And the lessons of Fordist mass-production are applied to a massive home-building program. Given economies of scale, it's way cheaper to build thousands of identical homes than to build as many distinct and individualized homes. And a detached single-family layout scheme better pretends to portray the held European ideal of "country living."

If we buy this second story line, then there is nothing inherently sacred about suburbia, because it is not, primarily, the outcome of expressed or revealed preference. It has become the stated preference for many people, but not in any innate sort of way. Then we are free to challenge the ideals inherited by subsequent generations, as these ideals are no longer the pristine outcomes of democratic market forces and emblematic of revealed preference, but rather the products of a messy mash of policies and programs.

The typical American emits about 20 tons of greenhouse gases each year. We would reduce our carbon footprint if at least some of us were to instead live, work and play in closer proximity to each other. This is an argument against an exclusively suburban growth and for a smarter way to grow. We could reduce our per capita carbon footprint by choosing a different land use pattern, based on smart growth. Free at last, free at last-free to be what we want to be. Actually.

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Ashwani Vasishth is an ecological planner and an Assistant Professor at the Department of Urban Studies and Planning, California State University, Northridge.

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