A. Bartlett Giamatti, former president of Yale University who served for a short time as commissioner of Major League Baseball, was fond of noting that the word “paradise” comes from the Persian that means “enclosed green space”– a baseball field, in Giamatti’s context. I’ve always been taken by the juxtaposition of human architecture and the natural world, whether it’s the manicured quads of Oxford or the grounds of Fenway Park. Such examples manifest the divine mandate to subdue and cultivate the earth– human cooperation with God to put the finishing touches on His great creation. Honestly, gazing at the Midtown skyline through the lens of groomed Central Park is a stirring aesthetic experience for me that I cannot do justice with a description.
As someone who hopes to find a home among the hundred years-old arts and crafts bungalows of southwest Minneapolis, I’ve always been fascinated by the question but admit some ambivalence on whether there is something morally or aesthetically wrong with suburban life. On one hand, I’ve defended the suburbs against the arguments of many urban-minded peers– the schools are better, the water is cleaner, the streets are safer, and there is more room to spread out and cultivate the mini-paradise of a backyard (the latter of which might be my strongest point). Hey, I grew up in the suburbs, and it was a pretty good life (hopefully not, in the grand scheme of things, at the expense of others living in different places), and to complain about that is a largely ungrateful act. The Chestertonian ideal that a family ought to have its own little castle is not entirely possible in the dense places in the city. And southwest Minneapolis, although of course in the city proper, is characterized by the same single-family home development that makes up the suburbs. On the other hand, apart from a few errant strip malls, southwest Minneapolis does not exhibit marks of suburban blight: big box retailers, megachurches, and forlorn architecture; my friends can tell you how often I complain while driving by an entire subdivision lacking windows on two sides of the houses. Add to our equation the oft-skewed perspective of a typical suburban mind– think of next door neighbor Art in Tom Hanks’ terribly under-appreciated The Burbs: “I think the message to, uh, psychos, fanatics, murderers, nutcases all over the world is, uh, ‘do not mess with suburbanites.’ Because, uh, frankly we’re just not gonna take it any more.” Yeah, because we’re sooo persecuted.
Anyway, it is in the context of this dissonance that I came across another point to score for the suburbs. One of the vague tenets of new urbanism and smart growth is sustainability/green living (which I actually appreciate, to a point). You know, this mean consuming less fossil fuel by using transit, bicycles, or walking more than the moms who cart bottled water to soccer practice in their Expeditions. However, it turns out that greenhouse gas emissions created of those in the midst the inner ring townhouses and second and third ring detached homes are significantly lower per capita than those created in dense urban areas, says a study by researchers at the University of South Australia. The study takes into account “embodied emissions,” which include the greenhouse gases “from construction or manufacturing materials, and from building cars, transit vehicles and buildings.” Apparently the production of the kind of materials predominantly used and/or required for urban development generates more greenhouse gases than those used out in the suburbs (kind of like ultimately it’s more earth-friendly to produce Jeeps than Priuses), so much so that on the whole, the average person in the suburbs is responsible for less energy consumption than the person in the densely-populated area.
You can read more here: http://www.newgeography.com/content/001283-the-suburbs-are-sexy
An interesting, secondary point in the article: “…saving money is what the suburbs are about. The economic research is clear that housing costs are far less where suburban development is not limited by the compact development strategies that artificially create land scarcity. That’s why places like Dallas-Fort Worth, Atlanta and Houston, without compact development, had little, if any housing bubble, while housing bubbles of economy-wrecking proportions occurred in California and Florida, with their compact development.” Of course, I’m not sure I’d want to live in Houston or Atlanta…
Fascinating. Anyway, this post is pretty half-baked, so I’ll be interested to see what you guys contribute to this discursion.
Also, this is way hawt: