Thursday, May 7, 2009

Death by Suburbs

I have developed a love-hate relationship with the suburbs. On the one hand, I enjoy the tree-lined walkways and greenbelts. On the other, I yearn for stores and offices within reasonable walking distance. There’s no getting around it: If you live in the ‘burbs, you’re going to have to drive your car. Driving is simply the most practical (sometimes only) way to get from Point A to Point B.

Once considered the ideal nesting ground for the all-American family, suburban communities that sprawl out from urban epicenters to the countryside beyond are now blamed for a variety of societal ills from the destruction of farmland to traffic congestion and air pollution and even, peripherally, to obesity in a society that has become almost slavishly dependent upon the automobile. However, that may be changing.

Currently, there are individuals, businesses, and community leaders who are developing alternatives that will revitalize urban centers and create a healthy, affordable space for people to live and work more productively. The Congress for the New Urbanism is one such group. A non-profit organization that promotes “walkable, neighborhood-based development as an alternative to sprawl,” the CNU is currently working with the U.S. Green Business Council to draft a LEED rating system for neighborhood development, called LEED-ND.

The Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Green Building Rating System™ is an internationally-recognized certification program that has been around for 10 years. Builders cannot just claim to be green; they have to have an independent, third party verify that their projects have met consensus-based criteria. More and more builders and project managers are recognizing the benefits of building to LEED standards, not just from a sales and marketing perspective but from a bottom-line perspective. Though the up-front costs may be more expensive, proponents claim the costs of operation are considerably less, leading to significant overall savings. In addition, many cities are now providing incentives; Austin, Texas' Green Building Program and Portland, Oregon’s proposed “feebates” for green builders are two examples. The Database of State Incentives for Renewables and Efficiency (DSIRE) has information about rebates, permit waivers, and other incentive programs within the U.S. and its territories.

While building individual homes and office buildings to green standards is a laudable goal, unless there is a bigger sustainable picture, sprawl is still an issue. The Form-Based Codes Institute consists of city planners, urban designers, architects, policy experts and others who are interested in developing alternatives to conventional or land-use zoning policies, which tend to ignore the overall form of development within a given area and focus instead on the individual use of land on a given parcel. The FBCI recommends the use of form-based codes that “address the relationship between building facades and the public realm, the form and mass of buildings in relation to one another, and the scale and types of streets and blocks.”

Other groups, such as the Smart Growth Network, formed in 1996 by the EPA and other government and non-profit organizations, offer tips to those communities which want to—among other things—preserve open spaces and farmland, create walkable neighborhoods, and provide a variety of transportation choices. According to the SGN, the top walking cities in the United States are San Francisco, Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago; however, any community can implement the basic principles of smart growth. Last year, downtown Silver Spring, Maryland won the EPA’s National Award for Smart Growth Achievement award for Overall Excellence in Smart Growth. Like so many downtown centers, Silver Spring was once a vital hub but, over the years, lost many of its businesses to enclosed malls in surrounding areas. Today, the city center is once again a hub of activity, with a wide variety of offices, residences, retail outlets, and even a refurbished 1937 theater along pedestrian-friendly streetscapes that connect to public transportation facilities.

All of this gives me great hope, as I trod along my suburban streets. With more and more communities beginning to embrace the concept of…well…community, maybe walking-the-walk will no longer be any big deal and urban sprawl—death by suburbs—will be a thing of the past.


Patricia Stoltey said...

It would be great if I had something within walking distance besides a donut shop. I lived in a small town in France for two years and walked to the market (and, of course the cafes) several times a week. I was a lot thinner then.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

This is very interesting. I agree with your mixed feelings on suburbia. I hate the way the sprawl makes for more traffic backups (and worse smog) and the fact that we're destroying the natural retreats for wildlife. Thanks for the post.


Anonymous said...

I've lived in both urban and suburban settings. They both have their upside3s and downsides, true.