Can new suburban developments be sustainable?

A long-proposed big suburban project north of Los Angeles aims to be sustainable:

Photo by Dhyamis Kleber on Pexels.com

The company’s proposals promise a reprieve from California’s existential crisis about its way of life, suggesting that the environmental consequences of the state’s notorious sprawl can be reformed with rooftop solar panels, induction cooktops, electric cars, and careful bookkeeping. The threat of wildfires can be held at bay by stricter building codes. These proposals preserve the idea that, although the climate may be changing, the California dream of sunshine, a single-family home, and a two-car garage needn’t change at all.

But the debate it intense about whether the sustainable features of the development offsets what suburbia brings:

Cheap fossil fuels, the supremacy of private-property rights, and the maximization of shareholder value have, for decades, dictated the patterns of land use in America. People need homes, and, in Southern California and other growing metropolitan areas, those homes get built in areas far from the centers of cities. Disasters that follow this approach are attributed to natural causes or climate change, rather than to the avoidable flaws of poor planning. Consider the Marshall fire that burned a thousand homes last December, including all of a hundred and seventy-one properties in a nineteen-nineties-era subdivision built on the outskirts of Boulder County, Colorado—or the disappearance of water from exurbs constructed in the two-thousands in the Rio Verde Foothills, outside of Scottsdale, Arizona. Even reasonable predictions on a twenty-year event horizon are seen as fussy impediments to construction…

California has a severe housing shortage; a recent state assessment called for more than a million new units in Southern California to meet demand. Barry Zoeller, an executive at the Tejon Ranch Company, told me, “That’s going to have to take, in our estimation, a combination of both infill development in urban areas and also new master-planned communities of sufficient scale that can also meet climate-change criteria.” But many environmentalists argue that the imbalance between jobs and housing in Los Angeles can not be solved by building houses that are a thirty-minute drive from the city’s outermost suburbs. “Aren’t there better places to build?” Pincetl asked. “Yes, but you don’t own the land, so no.” She added, “If we’re turning over the provision of housing and the land markets to private entities, their motivation is not to house people. Why are private-equity firms coming into the real-estate market? Tell me. Not to provide housing.”…

I used my phone to scan QR codes and open the self-entry locks on a handful of model homes by Lennar, KB Home, and Toll Brothers, among others. The houses were built close together. They were large and well appointed, with gray laminate floors, giant appliances, many bathrooms, and cold air-conditioning. Some stoves at Valencia were electric, but many were still gas ranges—the era of banning natural-gas hookups hadn’t arrived when this development was approved. Some of the planned homes were already sold out, and a steady stream of racially diverse prospective buyers in luxury cars made their way around the neighborhoods-to-be. It looked like every other subdivision I’ve ever been in: paved-over farmland with a few transplanted trees, an island in a landscape hostile to pedestrian life. Maybe I just wasn’t seeing it with new eyes. The wind blew hot and the sun beat over the newly built homes, and from far away came the faint screams of people riding the roller coasters at Magic Mountain.

This is a decades-long issue as suburbs, first found in the United States in the 1800s, exploded in popularity and policy in the 1900s. With the expansion of driving and highways, the postwar suburbs sprawled in all directions from big cities and have not stopped since. All of this comes at an environmental cost: all of the materials used, the pollution from all of the driving, the inefficiencies of single-family homes, and the loss of land and habitat.

There are numerous ways to make suburbs more sustainable. This includes the moves suggested above as well as increased suburban densities, mass transit options or walkability or other transit options so that driving is not the only options, and better locations nearer population centers and jobs and away from important land and habitats.

So, where exactly is the line where suburbs might be “sustainable enough”? The article above suggests this line is in flux as communities, states, and other interested actors negotiate and set regulations for new development. It is unlikely that all suburban development will be banned or limited and it is unlikely that all suburban development will just happen without any questions about the environmental costs. This line can also vary across contexts as the local concerns are different outside of Los Angeles than they might be outside Columbus, Ohio or Jacksonville, Florida.

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