“Sustainability thinker” suggests sprawling suburbs can’t really be green

A common target of those concerned with being green and sustainability are American suburbs. While some might suggest that suburbs can become more green (read here and  here), Alex Steffen, a sustainability thinker, suggests it really isn’t possible:

What’s a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Shallow redesigns of suburban life. You see a lot of proposals these days that seem to suggest that all that open space is perfect for farming, or that we can power our McMansions and cars with solar panels, so even the suburbs can “go green.” The brutal reality is that newer, more sprawling suburbs—and especially the cheap boom-years exburbs—aren’t just a bit unsustainable, they’re ruinously unsustainable in almost every way, and nothing we know of will likely stop their decline, much less fix them easily.

Unfortunately, it isn’t really clear what Steffen means by this. What constitutes a “shallow redesign” versus something more substantive? Would Steffen agree with New Urbanists that suburbs can be redesigned in ways to promote green behavior? This statement is also interesting: “nothing we know of will likely stop their decline.” They may be in decline now due to financial concerns (the budgets of local communities, the ability of homeowners to purchase large new homes) but does that mean that they will be on the decline forever? Could we have the same type of sprawl with just more green single-family homes (like LEED Platinum homes)? What sort of suburbs, if any, would he be in favor of?

As I read Steffen’s comments, I thought about the trade-offs those interested in being green and sustainability might have to make regarding American suburbs. Given the popularity of suburbs in American life, both as an ideology and an actual destination of a majority of Americans, can this movement really claim that suburbs as a whole are bad? Instead, most arguments seem to be incremental: suburbs can be modified in ways, such as having LEED homes or more mass-transit or more fuel efficient cars, that retain some of their key attributes without turning it into city life. But even with these sorts of incremental arguments, I wonder how many of the commentators really wish that suburbs would just disappear but can’t admit such things because the American public would react negatively.

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