Once upon a time, there was a neighborhood comprised of rows of houses that stretched endlessly along paved roads, hugged by neatly-trimmed patches of grass, and illuminated by fresh water drops from sprinklers. In this ideal town, families would laugh passing by in their minivans that carried children to good neighborhood schools and parents to work downtown in comfort. Later, the parents would drive home and pick up their kids from after school activities, make a stop at the supermarket, and return to their safe, green-lawned havens to finish the evening with a family meal in a spacious dining room. This is the modern fairytale – Suburbia: dreamed of by many, yet its implications considered by few.
Common images that come to mind when thinking about unsustainability and pollution are overcrowded city streets and black smoke piping out of buildings. This makes it hard to imagine how a neat, sunny suburb could even come close to having the same level of environmental damage. A sustainable urban city can be seen as an oxymoron by definition, as no city, as currently conceived, can be sustainable on its own. Cities are incomplete human ecosystems, as they are primarily consumers that rely on countrysides to supply enormous quantities of food and degrade massive quantities of waste. Yet, according to Popular Science, suburbia’s carbon footprint is actually four times the size of urban residents’.
There are a number of reasons why suburbs are ecologically unsustainable, one of the most prominent ones being that they tend to span for miles outwards from urban centers. This results in residents being forced to drive much longer distances to get to work, releasing enormous amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. On the other hand, city dwellers are much more likely to rely on walking, biking, or public transportation to commute to work, as the distances between housing and job sites are much shorter. According to the Philadelphia Design Advocacy Group, city transportation developments such as subways lines tend to be larger and more robust to best serve all residents of the city, connecting places that many citizens want to go. Contrastingly, there is no municipal body that oversees such development across suburbs, resulting in infrastructure that makes little sense, such as streets that don’t lead to anywhere in particular, or giant parking lots in front of strip malls that make pedestrian traffic difficult between shops.
Furthermore, suburbs offer residents larger homes with more lawn space for less money due to lower population density, which results in higher energy demands for heating and electricity. Even though the size of the average American family is shrinking, bigger and bigger houses are being built with stick-style construction that is inexpensive, but not built to withstand more than one hundred years, resulting in the usage of more materials to rebuild homes in the future. Another issue is that residential lawns themselves, picturesque representations of the suburban beauty ideal, greatly contribute to environmental degradation. They are artificially constructed environments that require chemical solutions, energy-demanding machines, and large quantities of water to upkeep. In cities, there is not as much space to construct large homes with sprawling lawns, and living spaces are more compact and expensive. This encourages citizens to consider housing options more proportional to the realistic spatial needs of their families. The thoughtless waste of resources for economic benefits of construction companies and aesthetics in suburbs proves to be an unsustainable system in need of reform.
Additionally, suburbs make it more difficult for local businesses to survive due to the popularity of widespread, large chain stores. In cities, small businesses have more opportunities to thrive due to residents’ ability to walk to the nearest grocery store or boutique. In many suburbs, the nearest place to find groceries demands a car ride at least several miles away. Small businesses are more sustainable as they are more likely to receive their products from local sources, such as local gardens or artisans, versus large warehouses stocked with imported goods. Cities’ easier access to small stores makes the community’s economy thrive while encouraging more environmentally-friendly product distribution.
So, if cities are inherently no good, and suburbs are even worse, where should we live? While there is no one right answer, cities and suburbs at the very least need to begin to reintegrate and combine the areas in which we live and work, as well as produce and consume within our own means. Although suburbs could make many improvements based on what is found in cities, urban regions also need to begin to develop centers for producing their own food and sustainable energy instead of relying on imports from outside areas. With this idea, what we now call cities will begin to transform into more complete ecosystems, rather than isolated fragments of preexisting ones. The thing about fairy tales is that it is easy to get caught up in their imaginary world where life is simple, instead of focusing on the complexities of the real world.. Yet, with time, the dreamland fades away and reality will catches up. Our job is to make adjustments to the way we live now so that the harsh truth does not hit when we have run out of time to recover.
Written and Photographed by Taiya Tkachuk