Suburban Studies, Part I

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:

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:


Filed under Brandon

6 responses to “Suburban Studies, Part I

  1. czf

    I can’t access the article, but I read the abstract, and can’t really disagree. Granted, measuring per capita emissions is extremely complicated, and I would be interested to know how personal GHG emissions vary from Australia to the U.S.

    One note on the green housing discussion: there might be some question regarding emissions in lived in houses, but there is no question regarding the building the homes. The most environmentally friendly decision a prospective homeowner can ever make is to buy an existing home. The costs of building a new home are humongous, and, as is fairly obvious, this is much more (though not solely) a suburban issue. The amount of land lost in sprawl, material used in building, and GHGs emitted in building are incredible.

    Finally, I couldn’t agree more about your attitude towards our suburban youth. I grew up in the suburbs, and had a great childhood I wouldn’t trade in. I often find myself defending suburban life in my classes here in Montana, because there are clear social values to be found in suburbs.
    That does not change the fact, however, that in the environmental conversation there is little support to be found.

  2. GCC

    Is there something morally wrong with suburban life? I don’t think so. At least not inherently. On the environmental front, it seems to me that urban vs. suburban living in this regard probably net out – or come rather close – when all things are considered. (I have effectively no knowledge of the details though.) My general attitude on this is that we should do what we can to be stewards within our lives regardless of where we live. Additionally, I’m not convinced that there is a moral imperative to “save” the environment. I would like to maintain in it the condition we’ve know it best in, but my desire for that doesn’t necessarily translate to a moral imperative. Indeed, that desire is balanced over and against others in determining moral behavior.

  3. John

    There is a side-effect of suburban life I would call “insulation.” Comfortable in the wide streets, relative safety, and homogeneous demographics (race, creed, etc.), many suburbanites have difficulty rationalizing lifestyles and social issues in places like the inner-city, rural farming regions, mining country, etc. My own experiences teaching both Iowan farmers and Baltimore inner-city youth have convinced me that this “insulation” is a real problem in various respects.

    Of course, urbanites may not understand the suburb either, and they sure as hell know next to nothing about family farms. The difference, I think, is that whereas the urban poor often have no wherewithal to practicably move out of the denser areas, suburbanites choose their locations from a stronger financial position. I’m not necessarily saying there is a moral wrong here, just that suburban flight and its socio-economic impact merits (and has received over the years) considered deliberation.

    Can’t let this go without a verse from my favorite song, “Subdivisions,” by my favorite band Rush: “Growing up it all seemed so one-sided / opinions all provided / the future pre-decided / detached and subdivided in the mass production zone.” A classic, and just look at those outfits!:

  4. czf

    I must point out, when all things are considered, it does not come out in the wash. Suburban life has a greater impact on the environment than urban life, pretty much no matter how we shake it.
    Sprawl, building and transportation costs of suburban life are pretty much insurmountable when compared with either urban or rural living. At least in the U.S.

    Just wanted to be clear, there is not really debate on this. There might be values to suburban living, but environmental costs simply can’t be made out to be one of them.

  5. GCC

    John’s point about “insulation” was my other thought on the suburbs. I agree with him entirely. The only thing I would add – that I think he alludes to by pointing out that urbanites are “insulated” in a way too – is that to me this “insulation” seems more inherent to us as people and a society than it is to the suburbs themselves. I suppose the cult of the individual that is so prevalent here might be to blame. Of course, I guess it’s also possible that the suburbs are a result of our societal impulse toward isolation/individualization. Does that make them inherently isolating/”insulating?” Maybe at one point. But there’s still no reason they must remain that way.

    I think it is a moral responsibility is to engage with the world, rather than isolate ourselves from it. But how each person does that will vary. If living in the suburbs causes me to disengage, then it might be a moral issue for me. If it doesn’t it’s not.

  6. I only skimmed the article, but I gather that this is comparing NEW urban construction with new suburban construction? In that case, it presumably doesn’t also take into account all the duplicate construction above and beyond the house itself necessary to replicate already existing amenities within the city. The article also noted “energy intensive common functions” in apartment buildings, things like pools, parking garages, etc.; that seems a bit unfair, although it would be nice if if it could be used to leverage into zoning changes that didn’t require new developments to have parking garages, for example. Building new urban high rises and then outfitting them with plentiful parking just encourages people to bring their suburban lifestyle with them into the city, which would admittedly counteract some of the environmental benefits of living in an urban core.

    Studies like this can be interesting, but if looking at the big picture there is no way a valid argument can be made that living in a suburb is more environmentally sound than living in a more dense urban neighborhood.

    And while a bit of a tangent, I just have to comment on the anti-suburban views in southwest Minneapolis. I’ve always found it a bit amusing that some of my friends and family in southwest Minneapolis neighborhoods are SO adamant about the horrors of the suburbs, yet still live lives that are virtually indistinguishable from those living across city lines. Much of southwest Minneapolis is pretty suburban in nature. Not beige McMansions and big box store suburban, but not exactly what most of us think of as urban, either.

    And as far as the “saving money” thing goes, the costs in the blogger’s post refer to the individual, and not to the larger society. Someone picks up the tab for all those new roads, new schools, etc. It also doesn’t include the indirect and direct costs of extremely long commutes, the necessity of owning a car (usually one for each adult), etc.

    I don’t think the suburbs are all bad, but when you look at the big picture a nation filled with low-rise development, even done southwest Minneapolis-style, isn’t sustainable or environmentally sound.

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