Monday, April 18, 2011

City Mouse, 'Burban Mouse

A Greenmom Visits the Big City...

It’s kind of funny, but I’ve never before really considered what being a “suburbanite” meant to my identity as a human being. I mean, obviously I know that’s what I am, it’s a significant part of my whole blogger-ness, it’s what I am familiar with and write about. But after spending three whirlwind days in midtown Manhattan, and really looking at it through my suburban Greenmom lens, it’s making me think a lot harder than I ever have before. (I’ll do a more intensive “What I Did Over The Weekend” post on my own blog in the next few days.)

I grew up in the suburbs. I went to college in the city, but my graduate work was in a small town, and once I moved to the Chicago area to work I pretty much lived in the burbs and worked all over the place. Then I married, and my husband and I, you guessed it, bought a house in the suburbs. So it’s pretty much who I am and what I know.

There’s a fairly large portion of the green-living movement that views suburban living as absolutely antithetical to sustainable living. (Many of them work for They may be right. Many of these same people see urban living as the solution to our climate change and sustainability woes, not just from the point of view of “by definition urban areas are where the most people are and thus the highest climate impact thus they must be part of the solution” but with the impression that cities (walkable and well-transit-ed communities) are the best way for people to collectively and individually reduce their climate footprint.

So, I wonder, is it true? Do cities rule and suburbs drool?

I’m not sure.

One reason for my skepticism may be that the kinds of “cities” these urbanites are talking about are not generally found in the U.S. –Europe, Australia, Canada maybe, but not really the States. So I maybe just haven’t seen those kinds of cities. I also am a suburbanite who generally has been able to work close to my home or even do significant telecommuting, rather than being someone who attempts to commute to the city. I totally get how that is anything but a sustainable way of life, although I also get that it’s unavoidable for a lot of people as things are now. I think a lot of cities are moving in a good direction— Increasing pedestrian-only spaces (like New York’s Times Square), increasing food accessibility in places like Chicago and Philly, even Wal-Mart’s new rooftop garden plans…this is good stuff. (I just used the words “Wal-mart” and “good” in the same sentence, didn’t I? Look! Up in the sky! Is that a winged pig I’m seeing up there? J)

But…I still don’t want to live in the city. I don’t like high-density-people-places. I like space, and I like room for plants in places other than roofs and the three foot space between one building and the next. I like asymmetry. I like being able to bike places. I like my sprawl disorganized garden. I like my corner grocery stores, our farm market, and being able to stop pretty much anywhere I would need to on my way home from work. Sure, it’d be better if I were walking and biking to work every day, but when one 10 mile roundtrip commute covers work, children’s pickup, library, groceries, post office, bank, and the occasional splurge on Chinese takeout, and I have to do almost no other driving, is that really so bad?

Sustainable urban development is getting tons of press right now…but what about sustainable sub-urban development? It’s happening in some places—Montgomery County, Maryland, where I grew up, is in fact focusing a lot on “Smart growth” and creating sustainable, walkable communities. This is awesome, in my opinion…but I’d love to see more. And not just new development, but ways to make where we already live work for us--it's true for cars, it's true for homes--what you already have will almost always be more sustainable and less carbon-intensive than throwing it out and starting over.

Isn’t there something between high-density urban communities and living in a yurt spinning my own wool from my dairy sheep and eating canned veggies from my edible garden, something that can qualify as a “sustainable” lifestyle?

Shouting out to Booth readers again—where do you live? What’s it like? I think it’s fairly clear that the word “suburban” is one that calls out particular images to a lot of people which may not match; our nice little Illinois suburb with the farm-stand a quarter mile away probably bears very little resemblance to California’s sprawl or the Metro-accessible Washington D.C. suburbs.

What do you think of all this? Can our suburbs become sustainable? What would have to happen or change to make it possible?

--Jenn the Greenmom (who would actually love to go hang out in that yurt for a while...)


Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

My husband and I both grew up in small towns. When we moved to DC, our apartment was on the red line, but after a year we bought a house in the burbs. We hated it and swore we'd never live in the suburbs again. Here in Raleigh, I feel like we've found a good balance in our small house and small yard but a mile from downtown, but sometimes when I drive out to friends' giant houses and huge yards in the suburbs, I am very jealous. I think it really depends on the area. The suburb we were in in Maryland had no sidewalks, traffic was crazy, and we had to drive forever to get anywhere. The suburb you're in sounds lovely.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Erin, can I ask which MD burb you were in? (I grew up near Rockville, which is also--now--along the Red Line, though it didn't make it out there when I was younger.)

I should have mentioned--my grad school small town years were VERY happy ones, and that was honestly a great place to live.


ruchi said...

California sprawl touches on a nerve for me.

I actually think that suburbs can be quite sustainable ... done right. Exurbs, probably not. I live in San Francisco, but I think the "suburbs" (they really aren't suburbs in the classical sense are actually quite sustainable in a lot of ways. I think I've written about this before as has Green Bean, but there is decent access to public transit through much of the Bay Area and many of my friends who live in the "suburbs" are still within walking distance to shops, restaurants, schools, libraries, etc.

Los Angeles is a bit of a different situation and there's no question that there is some sprawl in Southern California, but LA is actually surprisingly dense, and it's a city that appeals to a lot of people for the reasons you mention. Not everyone likes high rise, high density. LA is low rise, high density. They manage to pack a number of small houses with room for plants in a relatively small area. My friends recently bought a two bedroom house there, and yes, if they had lived in the suburbs they would have gotten more space. But they still have a garden, they still have room for their cats, they still have a house. They have space. But not THAT much space.

Plus, CA has the advantage of an incredibly mild climate meaning people living here do not spend as much money on heating and cooling (which is a major environmental problem to be factored into the telecommuting issue. Telecommuting is great in that it cuts down on car emissions, but it's not so great if each individual is blasting their A/C instead of having one office building with A/C.)

I also think there are major differences between Illinois suburbs, but that's a whole another story. Clearly Evanston is different from Skokie which is still different from Lombard.

Moral of the story, yes, suburbs can be sustainable, but we have to create public policies that encourage suburban sustainability.

Jenn the Greenmom said...

Thanks, Ruchi, for the perspective; that makes a lot of sense. Maybe it's just the articles I tend to run across--I feel like every week or so I'm reading something about how Suburbs Suck and Rural will Never Work so we should all live in cities. That's MY nerve that gets touched whenever I read it.

A friend of mine used to live in Redondo Beach, I think, and she said that most people she knew in LA didn't think of LA as one city, they thought of their community as the place where they "lived" and the rest of LA as somewhere you didn't want to drive to. So yeah, that sounds consistent with what you're describing...

And you clearly know Illinois! Yes, those are very different suburbs--and your last sentence is right on the mark.

Erin aka Conscious Shopper said...

We were in Silver Spring. We started out in an apartment on Georgia Ave near Wheaton, then moved to a townhouse way out heading toward Colesville. I'm just a person who hates driving, and we had to do so much driving there. We loved the neighborhood though.

Thinking of Ruchi's comment, I like the idea of villages like they have in England. When I did a study abroad in Cambridge, I lived in a village called Histon about two miles away from the college, but it had it's own shops and restaurants. I've always thought that's what Green Bean's town sounds like, and I think it's an ideal blend of low rise but dense living with walkability. There's a "mixed use" development near us, and I keep telling my husband that if we move out of downtown, I want to live there.

Kristen said...

I grew up in a small town and now live in a suburb of Phoenix (completely unsustainable--but that is a whole other discussion). I think it is harder to live an eco lifestyle in the suburbs just because there isn't the same availability to public transportation, farmers markets, local restaurants, etc as there is in the city. I lived in Seattle for a little while and loved that it was very easy to live a green lifestyle there--lots of bike lanes, access to locally grown food, etc. That said, I just don't feel connected to the environment living in a big city. It is hard to feel passionate about environmental responsibility when you are removed from the environment. So that's why I prefer living in the suburbs now. I am within biking distance of National Forest. Can't get that living in a big city.

ruchi said...

Jenn, yes, I actually did my undergrad in Evanston. LOVED it. I think Evanston would be a fantastic place to raise a family except that I hate the cold! Which brings me to another related point: college towns are often fantastic places to raise a family (often have good schools, fun events going on in town etc) and are usually quite sustainable with lots of things in biking distance and reasonably good public transit.

Erin, I'll let GB speak for herself, but I personally think England's villages are more picturesque. But in terms of having their own little shops and restaurants, you are correct. Most of the "suburban towns" in the Bay Area look nothing like the suburbia one typically imagines ... they are not simply filled with strip malls with Cheesecake Factories and Target Greatlands (those exist but they are not the only stores or restaurants available and they aren't extremely numerous.) Instead, most of these towns feature their own little downtown with a number of local eateries and shops.

Actually not too different from the small towns around Cambridge ... where there are also strip malls and enormous Tescos- such is the way of the world everywhere these days. ;)

Condo Blues said...

When I read those Big Cities are Greenest Way to Live Articles I can't help but think the authors are My Way or the Highway types. Of course, every person is going to thing where and how they live is best or greenest. It is for them. Urban dwellers may point out that they have ready public transportation but suburbanites can easily point out urbanites don't have yards to grow food or allow their children to play.

Beate said...

Like Kristen said, in order to be able to live sustainably I think it's important to understand and connect to nature. I believe that's especially true for our children. How can I instill true love for nature when they are not surrounded by it?

Julia (Color Me Green) said...

I live in NYC, in Brooklyn. I have all of these things below too - not sure why you think we don't have them in the city?
"I like being able to bike places. I like my corner grocery stores, our farm market, and being able to stop pretty much anywhere I would need to on my way home from work."

I grew up in the exurbs of New York (rural farm area turning increasingly suburban) but living in the city has taught me that we don't need all of the selfish space that we think we need. so i guess i'm more on the grist end of the perspective ;-)

Dea-chan said...

I believe it's Sharon Astyk who will mention that some suburbs are unsalvageable, but others will do fine.

Also, a lot of east coast and early mid-western suburbs are more like spread out towns rather than suburbs. Apparently, there are parts of this country where the suburbs are an endless stretch of developments. I've never lived there, and clearly neither have you, but they exist and are scary.

Where my grandparents live used to be farmland until developers came in. Now, Clifton Park, NY is a terrible, ugly sprawl. If you drive 15-20 mins, you'll reach the mall. That's about it. And it's a BAD mall, and has been dying for years. When your whole "town" is really just 15 developments... no I would not call that sustainable.

Super random ramblings again.

Rosa said...

Lots of Chicago's suburbs are really just small towns that got developed out to. And a lot of them were intended as trainsit-oriented garden suburbs - every house to have a food and herb garden, every little town to have a train station for getting to the city. That would be a green dream.

But that's not where we went with more recent suburban development. A car- and truck-oriented development has a huge concrete-to-green space ratio, way worse than most cities if you pull out the acreage covered in actual buildings. Other things are more resource-intensive-per person whenever things are spread out - sewers, roads, schools, electric service.

I would bet, if you're in a close-in suburb, my small-city inner city neighborhood isn't any more dense than yours. And it was developed at the same time/pattern that a lot of the early suburbs were - someone put in a trolley line and a bunch of people built houses.

'Becca said...

I just found your site and really like your green phone booth--makes me wonder if you are a "Doctor Who" fan?

I live in Pittsburgh, where most neighborhoods have a really nice level of density, in my opinion. This is true of most of the older, closer suburbs, too, and many of them have pretty good public transit. The outer suburbs horrify me, but few of them are as bad as the sprawling town in Oklahoma where I grew up. In fact, even Oklahoma City (which has a larger land area than L.A. for a much smaller population) is in many areas a wasteland of huge lawns, no sidewalks, strip malls, and highways cutting through everywhere.

I grew up in a ranch house on a half-acre lot; there were 11 houses on the block. I now live on a block that is slightly smaller but contains 62 dwellings (rowhouses, duplexes, and a few single-family houses), a synagogue, an office building, a gas station, and 10 small businesses. My six-year-old recently earned (by demonstrating good safety skills) the privilege of walking around the block by himself. Every time is an adventure! There's so much to see! And despite the density, that includes some nature: trees, squirrels, birds, wildflowers, and in the back yards one might find a rabbit, groundhog, or salamander. We live within blocks of two huge city parks with much deeper nature. So I feel it's a richer setting than my childhood block, where there was far less human activity and most of the outdoor space was crewcut pesticided lawn.

But there are good and bad suburbs. There also are urban areas I wouldn't want to live in. It's more a matter of specific locations than of city/suburb/town.


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