Thursday, September 11, 2008

Retrofitting the Suburbs

Since World War II, the majority of development has been in suburbs, that much-maligned accumulation of single family housing, empty lawns, and soul-deadening strip-malls. From a historical perspective, it makes sense that people wanted to get away from the industrial pollution and crowded conditions of the inner city, to have a nice breath of fresh air and see some greenery every day. But we went too far!

The problems and evils of suburbs have been aptly chronicled elsewhere, but here they are again:
  • Difficulty in getting anywhere without a car, since suburbs are built for cars, not people
  • Conversion of fertile cropland into sterile houses, streets and lawns
  • Lack of community or interaction with neighbors
  • Less contact with nature and wilderness
  • Building of large McMansions which require many resources to build and which are difficult to heat and cool
  • Single family homes on large lots (= low density) make public transportation difficult to support
  • Insane use of energy (both gas and electricity) to support the suburban lifestyle
  • Insane use of pesticides, herbicides and gas for lawnmowers/blowers to support the vision of suburban perfection
  • Lack of interesting things to do - bored, isolated kids

I could go on, but I imagine you get the picture. In fact, you may live in a suburb, as I do. I live in an "urban" inner suburb in the middle of NW Oklahoma City. I call it urban because it was built in the 60's and so it has had time to develop some infill and there are shops and necessities within walking/biking distance. Surprisingly, there is also a bus stop near me. Perhaps the only bus stop I've ever seen here in OKC :).

The point is, if we are to do well in a future of energy descent, of higher prices for most food, energy, and consumer items, most of us will have to adapt where we are. We can't all move out to the country, or into the city. And many people want to stay near family. Some far-flung exurbs will undoubtably wither and die, or become like ghettos. Oklahoma City, having been built almost entirely after WWII, is in fact one gigantic suburb, and so this concerns every one in this city.

Essentially, we need to transform the problem of too much spread-out land into the solution of lots of land for gardening and home-based businesses. We need to turn our difficulties into advantages. So how can we retrofit the suburbs? (Note: I know that I am drawing these ideas heavily from books like Food Not Lawns and Superbia! and David Holmgren's work, but since I read them so long ago they have all meshed together in my head :)

The problem of unsustainable housing:

  • Transforming some single-family to multi-family dwellings
  • Allowing "infill" of small Katrina-homes for elderly or other family members
  • Converting garages to insulated add-ons for rentals or extended families
  • Retrofitting houses to be well - insulated and usable with minimal electricity
  • Retrofitting houses with PV systems, solar hot water, wind turbines, where sensible
  • Converting garages to mini-factories, businesses, bakeries, etc.

The problem of lack of community:

  • Reclaiming abandoned homes in neigborhoods to become community buildings (such as canning kitchens, or medical clinics with fridges for insulin and other needed medicines)
  • Creating barter networks
  • Pooling resources such as rarely-used tools, children's items, etc.
  • Creating local knowledge sharing networks to teach gardening, solar cooking, food preservation
  • Creating work groups for community projects such as retrofitting homes to become community buildings

The problem of transportation:

  • Creation of needed businesses and services within each neighborhood (health clinics, bakeries, farmer's markets) - in garages, homes and abandoned houses
  • Building or just allowing bike lanes and paths to develop
  • Park n' Rides springing up in church lots and other empty parking lots
  • More crosswalks and pedestrian right-of-ways

The problem of energy-intensive lawn and median maintanance:

  • Converting lawns to front and backyard gardens and orchards
  • Converting big empty lots to community gardens or forage for goats/chickens
  • Converting big empty lots to mini farms of corn, beans, and potatoes
  • Converting big empty lots to forests to attract rainfall and yield wood, fruit, and nuts

As the energy contraction begins, these types of actions will be painful for many people, an affront to sensibilities, and a danger to property values. People will be shocked, shocked! At every downturn in the price of energy, people may go into denial and try to claim that such "extreme" measures are not necessary.

But if we hope to be here for the long-term, if we hope to maintain a decent quality of life, we need to start letting go of our old ways now and begin transistioning to a sustainable way of life. The ideas listed above are just a small start on the road to sustainability. There are so many more possibilities. It IS possible to live well with much less energy - even without miracle technologies - when we get creative, change our expectations, turn our problems to solutions, and work together. And did I mention getting our a$$es in gear today?


Lewru said...

One thing I saw a lot in Senegal and recently in Greece was tiny little corner stores. They were literally about the size of a large closet but carried drinks, cigarettes, media, snacks, fruit, lighters/matches, bread, etc. Slightly more expensive than the market but ultra-convenient. Wouldn't it be cool if we saw these spring up in people's garages? Or little barter stations to trade food and things? I think that would be great.

MeadowLark said...

I would love to see more of this near my home. Unfortunately, I just don't know if it will happen. We are surrounded by people who came in and bought because we were the #1 greatest real estate increase in the nation for a while. Then we were the #1 most over-valued market in the us. ;) So the area is odd in that many of the homes are investment homes that will soon be sitting empty. Many of the people that live here bought into the "we are so hip and uber-trendy and recently moved from California and have lots of money and..." and are into STUFF as opposed to living life. So we'll see... but I don't have much positive hope for the place. :(

Verde said...

Because we are semi-rural I thing it will become an easy deal to allow some livestock closer in.

Heather said...

I read this and thought of Beaverton Oregon. Some of the most fertile and gorgeous farmland on the westcoast...that is now covered in asphalt and cement. Hello overly huge Nike campus.


I live in a 1960s super-insular area that borders the McMansions. We're totally screwed hehe.

My parents have a 22 acre farm in the Yamhill Valley. I think I shall move there and make goat milk ice cream when I grow up hehe.