I attended most of the presentations and discussion panels during Thursday’s Sustainability Symposium. I was excited to see that there was faculty from a wide variety of disciplines sharing their expertise on the issues of sustainability. So often we view sustainability as an environmental issue only when, in fact, it is so much more. On that same note, however, it is important that when these other issues are discussed in relation to environmental issues, they need to be well-informed.
One of the panelists discussed the typically critical view of suburban living – the traditional single family home. His argument that these homes are an important piece of the American Dream. While many environmentalists argue against them, they are actually sustainable in many ways. His examples to support this statement included more solar panel area per person in the home, as well as greater capability for personal gardening and food harvesting. In addition, falling in line with Schorr’s argument for plenitude, there is the potential for participation in the shared economy within these suburban neighborhoods.
I have to respectfully disagree with this argument. While solar panels and personal gardens are helpful components of a sustainable home, they are minimal in comparison to the larger issues. First, suburban homes are almost always built on greenfields. This means that natural habitat, such as forest or prairie, is destroyed to make way for a big new house. In urban living, there is a much greater opportunity for brownfield or greyfield development (building on a previous industrial or commercial property). In addition, the large suburban homes require mass amounts of lumber, concrete, drywall, and more per person who will be living in the house. This amount is largely disproportional to those who live in apartments or multi-family housing units. The strain on those resources, as well as the manufacturing, transportation, and construction required, is irreparable. (The list goes on and on…)
I commend this speaker’s efforts to combat a typical argument within environmental sustainability. It is important to consistently question and review our common ideas on this topic as we strive to improve our work. However, I cannot agree with his argument. While he is correct in stating that some small changes can create a more sustainable home, we must consider the full life cycle of this home before making any conclusions. In fact, it may be interesting to study, rather than theorize, the effects of his changes to these homes, and find out which option is truly superior.
What do you think? Can a suburban single-family home be more sustainable than an urban compact apartment? Is the suburban lifestyle too important to American life to question its existence? What did I miss? What did our panelist miss?