The Problems With Suburbs Are Numerous. Is a Change of Course Possible?

American suburbs are growing, and understanding the evolution of suburban sprawl is a useful guide for the future.

November 17, 2018, 5:00 AM PST

By Camille Fink


Single-Family Homes

Stephen Plaster / Shutterstock

[Updated 11/19/2018] In a piece written for his new book, “The Urban Fix: Resilient Cities in the War against Climate Change, Heat Islands and Overpopulation,” Doug Kelbaugh reflects on the history of suburban sprawl and the challenges its continued growth brings.

Kelbaugh isn’t a fan of suburbs — he refers to suburbia as a virus — and he draws from the writings of various academics and journalists to look back at the spread of modern suburbs in the United States, starting after World War II. Suburbs were not only heavily subsidized notions of the American Dream, says Kelbaugh; they were also an attack on nature. “It’s tragic that America not only smeared the suburban compromise of town and country across its 50 states, but it also exported it a world only too happy to embrace the seemingly happy lifestyle they’d seen in the movies and on TV,” he laments.

He continues through the many problems with suburbs. They are unsustainable by encouraging auto dependence, low density, big houses, and environmentally unfriendly lawns. The architecture is soulless. The parking lots are expansive. The intersections are too big. “This is the land of big asphalt, which absorbs solar radiation and creates heat islands even in low-density suburbia,” Kelbaugh notes.

But while cities offer more of what millennials want, they still are moving to the suburbs. Kelbaugh, however, thinks millennials will drive the transformation of suburbs with their desire for more sustainable communities:

Drone deliveries, ride-sharing, car-sharing, AVs that park themselves and connect to house lights and thermostats will be commonplace, as will up to a 50 percent reduction in paved area. Less hardscape won’t be difficult, given the absurdly wide streets in contemporary subdivisions. There will be fewer fences and more common land for recreation, gardens, ponds, woods and wetlands.

The environmental issues with suburbs — the heat, the consumption of precious resources, the air pollution — make reining them in a global concern, says Kelbaugh. Particularly in developing countries with fast-growing metropolises, he believes containing sprawl is imperative in maintaining the quality of life of residents in highly populated areas.

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