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 Grist.org.) 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...)