The Suburbs Are Bad, Here’s How to Make Them Good

the suburbs

We need to change the way we build and live if we’re going to avert catastrophic climate change, and it’s time we think about the biggest carbon offender: the suburbs. Suburban living is car-centric, energy intensive due to the design of the houses, more expensive to maintain due to low density, and embodies other problematic issues. It may sound like a daunting task to switch the suburbs from an unsustainable system to a sustainable one, but that’s exactly what people are trying to do.

According to new research published last week by Teicher and two colleagues, if the trend away from downtown cores continues, it is essential to urgently refocus some of the effort to fight climate change from cities to suburbia.

While the authors still believe urban densification is better for the environment, their paper — titled Climate Solutions to Meet the Suburban Surge: Leveraging COVID-19 recovery to enhance suburban climate governance — addresses the reality that in both Canada and the United States, the trend toward sprawl will be hard to stop.

The only pragmatic solution, Teicher said in an interview on Friday, is to develop policy to mitigate the worst impacts of suburban and exurban sprawl.

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The Complex Mental Model of the Suburbs

the suburbs

It’s well established that the suburbs are bad for people’s health, the environment, mobility, and are associated with many other societal ills. However, amongst people who don’t live in the suburbs there is a profound distaste in sub-urban living that suburbanites don’t seem to understand. The revulsion people have to the suburbs predates our collective knowledge of the harm suburbs cause, so what is causing this disgust of the suburbs? That’s what Suzannah Lessard investigates in an essay in which she connects how we talk about (and conceive of) physical space influences our thoughts about it.

The problem with transcendence for progressives is that it is conservative in a profound way. I would venture that Howards End expresses a conservativism in Forster, in the sense of valuing what has accumulated over time, and the ways in which it can amount to something more than the sum of its parts, its uses, its price; a conservativism that was at odds with his progressive values yet could be expressed through a relationship to place depicted in Howards End; but only because that world was depicted as sufficiently obsolete that issues of power and status, of exclusion and exploitation, were not at play. The actual form of suburbia, in contrast, breaks up landscape into tiny pieces, spreading out indefinitely, undoing the pastoral terrain as context—as something larger than ourselves. It balkanizes an age-old archetype of providential order—much as most progressives would resist that quasi-theistic idea. The pastoral landscape is the last resort of secular humanists in search of a quiet expression of their sense of transcendence—and the suburban formation destroys that. Long-shot speculation? Well, yes. But maybe it opens a tiny chink in the mystery of suburbophobia.

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To Change Politics for the Better we Need to Change Suburbia

the suburbs

The Canadian province of Ontario just elected a new government that’s focussed on making Ontario worse. In a few short months they’ve done a lot of damage including messing with municipal elections (making them harder to participate in), removing a carbon plan at a cost of $3 billion, and defunded governmental roles that monitor effectiveness. In short, they are behaving like anarchists. Clearly, none of these things are good.

This led to University of Waterloo urban planner Pierre Filion wondering what happened. His conclusion is that the suburbs did it. The actual physical environment of the suburbs is a source of support for this destructive party to gain power. So if we want to build a better world step one might be to dismantle the current infrastructure supporting suburban lifestyles.

“When the planning solutions are put forward, they need to be put foward in a way that is adapted to the suburban lifestyle, to the people who are living in suburbs, and that really takes into consideration what is going to help them,” said Filion.

“I don’t mean to say that suburbs are totally negative to work with — this is certainly not the case — but it needs to be shown that what is going to be put in place is going to help them,” he said.

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Preparing Suburbia for Disasters

The suburbs are not resilient places when it comes to disasters or having to quickly change to accommodate new realities. At Nautilus they have dedicated their recent issue to the concept of “home” and they looked at the monotony of the suburbs. The article explores how the suburbs serve to be a place for dwelling but lack the diversity of dwelling that nature once had. Nautilus asks the question: why don’t suburbs reflect the nature they are built in?

Nearly all of the houses in the Challenge feature solar panel roofs. But a dwelling from frosty Canada takes maximum advantage of Alberta’s sunny skies by also harnessing sunshine with a board comprised of forty glass tubes beside the house. Within each glass tube is a copper pipe filled with liquid heated from the sun. Water stored in a tank within the house circulates though the glass tubes, picking up heat from the pipes and returning to the tank where people can use it to shower—no furnace required.


Houses built in the Southeastern United States might be made of concrete with steel framing, says Rashkin. But rather than making them twister-proof, the steel would thwart wood-eating termites that lead typical homeowners to spend hundreds of dollars on toxic treatments every year. Shelters in humid locales would be made of materials that resist flood and moisture damage. Those near cities might include indoor “living walls” lined with plants that naturally filter the air inside.

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Why We (Still) Need To Change The Suburbs

The suburbs are massive urban design problem because they have a large footprint. The footprint is evident in the energy inefficiencies present in suburban design from sprawl to increased costs. To reduce the footprint and build more environmentally friendly neighbourhoods will cost a lot and some people are debating whether or not we should just give up on the suburbs.

The anti-retrofit movement is missing the bigger picture, in order to lessen the damage of sprawl on the planet we need to modify these sprawling neighbourhoods.

New Urbanism was launched a quarter century ago by a committed group of multidisciplinary professionals seeking to reverse the worst social, economic, and environmental impacts of sprawl. New urbanists, as a group, will never “let sprawl be sprawl.”

“Drivable suburban,” areas, otherwise known as sprawl, make up about 95 percent of the land in US metro areas (built, amazingly, in less than a century), according to research by Christopher Leinberger. The rest, about five percent, is “walkable urban” — historic neighborhoods and street grids.

Improving walkable urban areas and revitalizing run-down neighborhoods are critical projects for new urbanists, but we can’t leave the other 95 percent alone. It has too much impact on people’s health, social lives, and the economies of communities. The Charter of the New Urbanism speaks to the entire built environment—not just historic street grids.

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