Questioning the Suburban Norm


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?

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7 thoughts on “Questioning the Suburban Norm

  1. I think I agree with your idea, and suburban single family home should not be the solution for over-populated cities. However, what other choices do we have? I think there is definitely a trend that people are looking forward to live inside a city. But the fact that most cities are already over-populated drive people to live in suburban. If we simply limit the development of suburban, will that lead to more social problem inside the cities because of population? Or even more cities will be created, which will ultimately lead to more environmental destruction? I think there is a huge equation we need to calculate for the trade-offs, but we can hardly to run it with our current knowledge base.

    • The history of suburbs in the US includes a pretty ugly racial component. Some argue, with pretty good evidence, that once White urban neighborhoods got more than around 10 or 20% non-white (in the 1960s and 1970s), White families fled to suburbs driving the growth. This is called “white flight.”That is not the only cause, but it is one.

  2. I think you make a lot of great points here. I agree with you that suburban living does cause more of a negative impact on the environment than living in an apartment in the city. Answering your question Is the suburban lifestyle too important to American life to question its existence, for me I don’t think I could ever live in the city so I would have to say that suburban lifestyle is too important to American life, but that’s just me.

    • What defines the “suburban” lifestyle?

      Are we talking the nuts and bolts of housing configuration, density, and access to services? Or something more aesthetic, like having green space all the way around one’s home?

  3. I just hate the cultural sameness of so many suburbs…

    Maybe it is possible to capture some of the benefits of denser urban living in the lower density suburbs?

    For example, walking and mass transit paths can be built into designs. Housing could better adapt to local ecology- instead of green fields, maybe they could “build houses in the forest?” Commercial and community services could be built within walkable distances?

    I look at the suburbinazation within Lewisburg and it drives me nuts that the overall space, which does not need to be so car-centric, is growing this way in an area with a population of 10,000 or so.

  4. Michaela,
    You definitely touch upon some great points in your critique of the speaker’s argument. It does seem rather foolish to believe that all suburban single-family homes is the most sustainable way to live. Especially, with the point you made about clearing natural areas to make that “picture-perfect” home. The only think I may have to disagree with you about is the idea that only urban areas use brownfield development. I feel like once a suburban town is made, houses are bought and sold using the pre-existing lots. Therefore, it technically could be considered a brownfield development. Maybe I’m wrong. Anyways, good post!

  5. I do think that suburban single-family homes are a large part of the American Dream and our culture, but I also think that there is a possibility for this to change. Our culture and lifestyles have changed dramatically over the past century, and who is to say it will not be completely different a century from now? With the crisis of sustainability hanging over our heads, I do think this needs to change sooner rather than later. If we do continue on this trend of having single-family homes, it will be fine as long as we make other changes in our lifestyles, like some of the possibilities that you mentioned (solar panels, gardens, etc.). I don’t know if a single-family household can be more sustainable than an urban compact apartment, but they definitely can be more sustainable than they are now.

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