The Potential for a Sustainable Suburbia

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I’ve been home in Long Valley, New Jersey on spring break from the University of Delaware for a week now.  Long Valley can only be defined as the epitome of Suburbia.  The American Dream at its finest can be found here.  A town 97.6% white, with single family housing sitting on individual plots of land as far as the eye can see.  Each home has at least two cars in the driveway.  The signs of spring are upon Long Valley, flowers blooming, warmer weather and The Great Fertilization of well-manicured lawns…the monoculture grass obviously must continue to thrive and no weeds in sight!

There is no public transportation in Long Valley and hardly anything is within walking distance, besides a few houses of old friends.  There are about 3 gas stations within 2 miles of my own home, enough to keep the often 3 car households fueled up for the long commute down the Interstate to work.  White-tailed Deer, backyard birds, and Eastern Grey Squirrels account for most of the “biodiversity” in Long Valley.  On my daily run (more walking than running occurs) through my neighborhood, all of these tell-tale signs of Suburbia are easy to see.  But as I pass by the stream on Apgar Road, and the few lots of open space not taken from us at the hands of developers, I can’t help but notice how Suburbia has plenty of potential to be pretty sustainable.

Now dependence on the individual automobile (and therefore fossil fuels) is at the heart of Suburbia, along with poor land use planning and a complete surrender to the Interstate Highway system.  I am not denying that Suburbia is unsustainable at its core, but I am advocating for small changes that can make it better.  With a large portion of our nation living in these “Levitt-towns,” shifting the mindset of Suburbia ever so slightly could make a huge difference.

For example, the idea of “keeping up with the Jones'” is a huge part of the culture of Suburbia.  If a neighbor has an expansive lawn that is kept fertilized and pest-free, their neighbor must do the same.  This is what we have defined as the perfect aesthetic in Long Valley.  But what if, what if, a few of our neighbors ripped out their monoculture grass and planted native species.  Native trees, grasses and shrubs.  And then these native species attracted birds and butterflies into their yards.  The town might get together and at first believe this is LUDICROUS and must be stopped.  But then, as the flowers bloom and the hummingbirds and song birds sing, a new aesthetic may be born.  What if this became defined as “pretty” and, most importantly, desirable to other families in the neighborhood?  Soon, keeping up with the Jones’ has taken on a whole new meaning.  Fertilizers and pesticides could be tossed aside (the waterways and ultimately the ocean will thank us for this) and wildlife could begin to thrive again within the native plant species.  Not so bad for Suburbia.

Even as families begin to devote parts of their properties to native species, there is a lot of property still left.  Not to be too stereotypical, but Suburbia is often filled with stay at home moms who find it very important to keep their children healthy.  What if a few moms in the neighborhood decided to use part of their property for a garden?  Now you have support for wildlife with native species and local food systems coming into play.  Suburbia is usually also filled with families with disposable income and a high willingness-to-pay.  Organic farms on the outskirts of town could provide for some of the families’ needs as well.

Many families move to Suburbia for the excellent public school districts that these regions so often provide.  Environmental education can easily be fit into the budget of these schools and taught to the children in the district.  This is a great way to foster an appreciation for nature at an early age that the students will hopefully carry on with them as they become independent.  Along the same vein, value is placed on local politics, where citizens can persuade local officials to create sustainable ordinances.  Instead of ordinances against composting and hanging clothes out to dry in the summer time, why not incentives in favor of these actions?  Why not have a policy against individual household swimming pools and instead have a community pool to increase neighborhood morale and also conserve potable water?  Instead of paving over curb-sides and medians, native grasses could be planted to help manage stormwater runoff.  The citizens of Suburbia usually have access to resources that will allow them to keep up with regional and federal environmental policies, to see that their town is following suit.

If other simple actions are followed; cleaning up after pets, keeping cats inside (to help save songbird populations) and putting out feeders for backyard birds, Suburbia could become a wildlife sanctuary.  While I admit many of these ideas are lofty, you have to admit they are possible.  Perhaps the most lofty is a new way of looking at the overabundance of White-tailed Deer that contributes to motor vehicle accidents.  The problem isn’t so much an overabundance of White-tailed Deer, as it is a lack of abundance of any of their natural predators, like wolves or coyote.  A coyote was seen in Long Valley for about a week before it was “taken care of.”  I think we have to be more open-minded about wildlife-human interaction and inform the general public of how to be safe and coexist with predators, because they can help keep us safe too.

While it is near impossible to reverse the damage Suburbia has done, it is possible to make existing neighborhoods more sustainable for the residents of the town, wildlife, and the planet alike.

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6 thoughts on “The Potential for a Sustainable Suburbia

  1. Hi there, very interesting post. I don’t know if you’ve read Michael Pollan’s Second Nature: A Gardener’s Education, but one of the chapters is titled: Why Mow?, and looks the the cultural history behind the American lawn. It’s fascinating to tease out why Americans have come to embrace the monoculture lawn, and how we can perhaps change that attitude.

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  2. Exactly! I lived in a suburbia during part of my grad. school studies. The grocery store was about 2 miles away, by car through windy residential roads, while the homes in that neighborhood were built over old (but still fertile) corn fields. There is indeed room for improvement!

    Well thought-out post.

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    • Thanks! It’s hard to disconnect all of the links. If the grocery store is two miles away, you would think biking wouldn’t be so bad, but we are hardwired now to stock up for a few weeks, meaning we need trunk space to fit all of our groceries. Perhaps part of the shift should also be towards shopping every 2-3 days, instead of once a week. Although that seems a bit lofty, we sure do like our convenience here.

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  3. I’m a bit embarrassed reading this. I have done a great job in our front yard cultivating local plants (I do still pick weeds) but I also have a lawn in back that is too large and could be dedicated to another cause. Nice writing, by the way.

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