Life in the Unsustainable Burbs


Did you catch this interesting piece in yesterday’s New York Times about suburban communities trying to go greener?  First it focuses on my town, home of enviro activist Mike Tidwell, but quickly takes us back to the reality of regular, nonhippie suburbs and the fact that with their larger and larger homes and ever-growing commutes to work, they’re hotbeds of unsustainability.

One cool thing got my attention, though – the federal Safe Routes to School Program, that has successfully doubled the numbers of kids cycling or walking to the local school where it’s been tried.

And THE question of 2008:  Is growing food the most environmentally responsible thing to do our land, as some are suggesting?

And back on a local note, obviously cities need to grow up, not out, so isn’t it time to allow buildings in our Nation’s Capital to add a story or two? Our Height of Buildings Act is a major cause of sprawl in this area – the very opposite of smart growth. 


  1. I didn’t read this but in our small community there is going to be built one of those sustainable communities not far from where I live. I think it will be interesting to see if it works in our community that is so small in the first place.

  2. A life based on cars sucks in every way.

    Suburbs are obsolete. They are going to have to become cities, or they are finished.

  3. I did see the article, and I think that suburbanites are vital to the effort to reduce greenhouse emissions. I wonder what advice could be given to suburbanites who want to go greener without giving up their house. Surely there are other alternatives to a lawn besides a vegetable garden. A sustainable landscape with minimal lawn can include shrubs,trees and groundcovers. It would be interesting to see a list of suggestions for suburbanites.

  4. Yeah, lets turn DC into NYC. All dark streets with no trees. Yeah, real smart idea! Then will come more people, so more cars, so less green space. More congestion, because, as anyone who has been to DC knows, streets are closed off daily for one conference security check or another. And not to mention ruining some of the beautiful architecture this side of the Atlantic, because people do so prefer to live in cramped high rise apartments instead of homes with , oh yeah, gardens and air! Yes, you DID detect some sarcasm!

  5. But not every city is New York. Some of them are very green. Walkability is the test of cities, big and small, in my opinion.

  6. Seems to me that Mr Tidwell’s silo full of 200 tons of organic corn is full of food not fuel. Why doesn’t he use wood pellets which are a byproduct of wood processing and made from what would otherwise be waste material.
    I agree with Michele that car-centred communities are no longer sustainable. Nor are large houses, the trend towards MacPalaces is unsustainable. Smaller, high density row housing is one way to go. Small is good.

  7. I’m going to stick up for our DC height-limit — there are still many, many 100s of buildable lots in the city that are empty and many others that need revitalization. A walk along H St NE spelled that out with crystal clarity last Saturday. We have a long, long way to go until we need to start discussing knocking on heaven’s door.

  8. Let’s see. About New York, according to this NYT article and others, residents of NY City are much greater than most Americans in terms of carbon footprint per person, mainly because they don’t have cars.
    And about that corn silo in my town, I’ve heard lots of enviro experts opine that we shouldn’t be adding to the problem of growing MORE corn, especially to be used for fuel. Another case of best enviro practices evolving, I think.
    And I confess to being facetious in asking what the most “environmentally responsible” use of our yards is. I agree with Commonweeder that there is NO ONE right thing to do – whether it’s growing food, organically growing the mixture of ornamental plants she mentioned, or turning it all over to wildlife. Okay, asphalt parking spaces, not so much, but at least those three options seem awfully good to me.

  9. Blanket statements of city good, suburbs bad make me nervous. One size does not fit all and there are pros and cons for both.

    I’m a suburbanite (don’t hate me). I confess, we do some right and some wrong things. On the wrong side: largish house (but not McMansion, please I don’t want to clean that much house), 3 car garage, and limited mass transit options. We drive more than walk to shop, although that’s not always a factor of distance. Time is limited and, while I love to walk, I don’t always have a chunk of time to do so. I like being in a neighborhood but I also like having elbow room between my neighbors and me (but understand that elbow room in Portland Oregon ‘burbs is much less roomy than other suburbs).

    On the right side: I work out of our home and my husband travels 3.5 miles to his job. If we lived in the city, his commute would be much farther. I garden organically, include native plants in my garden and garden for wildlife (my garden is a NWF Certified Backyard Habitat). My bird list includes more than 30 species, something not likely to happen in dense, urban environments with less vegetation.

    My carbon footprint isn’t as big as one might think given where I live. It’s less than average – quite a bit if I recall correctly. That’s good but it can be better. What I hope to see more of are conversations full of facts and options to help us make informed decisions, regardless of where we live, size of house or lot. Kudos to those on the forefront of the movement.

  10. reporting live from one of those hotbeds, it’s funny the way your mere zip code becomes a badge of dishonor. personally, i live as a renter in the bay area, and i feel really fortunate. we found a house that isn’t huge in one of them “bedroom communities”, and the commute is nice and short. on top of that, it’s so tiny i can literally call up the mayor. my footprint is a lot larger than my parents’ is, since they live in ny and cities are far more efficient than suburbs. but i hope that i can help steer the community i now find myself in, in the right direction. it’s a real luxury to be able to choose where you live; and the important thing is whether you choose to do right by it. thanks for the interesting article and thoughtful comments.

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