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Transforming Suberbia... into Superbia! by Dave Wann and Dan Chiras

1. Strangers in Our Own Neighborhoods

by Dave Wann and Dan Chiras

“I was amazed when my neighbor waved to me,” a suburban friend of ours confided. “She’s lived a few houses down for three or four years now, and she’s never waved before.”

She still hasn’t—it turns out she wasn’t waving, just reaching for the garage door opener on the sun visor.

Suburban front-loaded homes.
Two cars in each driveway and how many more in the garage? There are now more cars in the U.S. than licensed drivers.
Photo by Dave Wann.

Like many of us, what these two neighbors know about each other is limited to superficial things like the appearances of their front lawns, or the habits of their dogs. Despite the fact they live only four large shade trees apart, they don’t even know each other’s names.

Up and down the street, there are hundreds of potential links between people—links that could reduce time, human energy and money spent by individuals on tight schedules and tight budgets. But few of these connections are being made, partly because the collective lifestyle—the neighborhood culture—doesn’t encourage it or empower it. “It’s just not the way we do it; we value our privacy,” we say.

Yet it turns out that our quest for privacy and exclusivity in the suburbs has significant costs, among them the loss of personal health.

To have a high quality of life, we need to exchange support and admiration with other people. According to anthropologist Margaret Mead, for 99 percent of human history, we’ve lived in clans of 12 to 36 people. Yet suburban design often turns a cold shoulder on the neighborhood “clan,” with garage doors that resemble drawbridges, privacy fences that become castle walls, and private “mini-manors” that encourage exclusive lifestyles.

Physical features such as these affect the social and even physical health of suburban residents. For example, the number of friends a person has directly relates to the speed and volume of street traffic in the neighborhood. Sociologist David Appleyard discovered that on a street with light traffic (2,000 vehicles a day), residents had 3 friends and 6.3 acquaintances in the neighborhood, as compared to a street with heavy traffic (16,000 vehicles a day), where residents had .9 friends (what kind of a friend is that?) and 3.1 acquaintances.

From the Centers for Disease Control comes other valuable research on how the physical structure of a neighborhood affects residents’ health. Says CDC Director Richard Jackson, MD, “The diseases of the 21st century will be chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, asthma, and depression, that steal vitality and productivity, and consume time and money. These diseases can be moderated by how we design, build, and maintain our human environment.”

Dr. Jackson points to the connection between the design of suburbs that make fewer sidewalks and bike paths available and the recent surge in adult-onset diabetes. “Obesity increases the risk of this type of diabetes as much as 34 fold,” he says, “which in turn increases the incidence of amputations, blindness, kidney failure, and heart disease.” Other health impacts related to the design of suburban neighborhoods include high blood pressure, colon cancer, high levels of teenage suicide, bicycle and pedestrian accidents, and less mobility for the elderly and disabled.

The good news is that weight loss and physical activity are more effective and cheaper in controlling diabetes than medication. The same is true for other sprawl-related diseases. For example, physical activity is as effective as prescription drugs for treatment of relatively mild cases of anxiety and depression, according to Jackson.

Harmony Village Co-housing.
Harmony Village in Golden, Colo., has 27 private residences as well as community assets like a Common House, workshop, and community garden.
Photo by Dave Wann.

However, if our neighborhoods aren’t interesting or even safe to walk in, and if there are no stores, parks and other destinations that give walking a sense of purpose, we tend to stay inside, snacking in front of the TV or computer, adding on the 10 or 12 pounds beyond fitness that has become the national average. Many resolute Americans do climb in their cars and drive to the gym, but they have to pay for the exercise, and the driving creates other health risks, as Jackson points out. “Respiratory disease, especially asthma, is increasing yearly in the U.S., and poor quality air makes it worse. In 1997, smog pollution was responsible for more than 6 million asthma attacks and 160,000 emergency room visits.”

The Public Costs of Privacy

To attain the private luxury so many cherish in their suburban lives, we often sacrifice public stability. For example, a private landscape might be picture-perfect but it creates significant health effects downstream—cancer, endocrine system disruption, or fish mortality—from lawn chemicals that wash into waterways after a heavy rain.

Few people fully perceive the costs of their flawless suburban landscapes. The care and feeding of a one-third-acre lawn, for example, typically costs $500 or more a year, requiring lawn equipment, 10 pounds of pesticides, 20 pounds of fertilizer, 170,000 gallons of water, and 40 hours of mowing labor. According to the Audubon Society, the pollution generated by an inefficient gas-powered lawn mower for that mowing is equivalent to driving a car 14,000 miles—more than halfway around the world.

The consumption of products also results in public environmental impacts, as resources are stripped to meet the demands of the Suburban Dream. But we don’t see the slash piles or mine tailings, and truthfully, they rarely occur to us. Private mobility cascades into public congestion and public expenditures for new highway lanes. The demand to live on large lots, closer to nature, often destroys the nature we hoped to be near. But we don’t notice when a chorus of cricket chirps is reduced to a sparse, desperate quartet.

Gathered neighbors.
When neighbors get together to discuss the creation of a more sustainable world, changes start happening right in the neighborhood.
Photo by Dave Wann.

A handful of species now dominates our backyards and parks—bluegrass, robins, English sparrows, nursery-grown trees and shrubs, squirrels, mice, sometimes a deer or fox—because insensitive development and uninspired landscaping smother diversity and wipe out natural vistas.

Jane Kirschner moved into a large suburban development southwest of Denver with an understanding that her house would front on open space facing the mountains. When the developer’s plans changed, her family had front row seats on the big, blank screens of the new neighbors’ garage doors—all three of them.

We believe Americans need a new “everyday ethic” to guide our behavior, because in addition to being unhealthy and often very stressful, high levels of transportation and consumption are simply not sustainable. There aren’t enough resources on the environmental “shelves” to keep suburbia on life support systems. But there’s hope.

2. Rx for Ailing Suburbs

by Dan Chiras and Dave Wann

We don’t consider the suburbs to be an endpoint in human cultural and social evolution. In fact, we like to think that the suburbs are best viewed as “a work in progress.” In other words, the suburbs aren’t finished yet. We believe that there are enormous opportunities to reinvent existing suburban neighborhoods, making life friendlier, less stressful, less expensive, and easier on the environment.

Starting with what’s already in place, how can we tune up our neighborhoods to better serve our needs? How can we increase opportunities for doing what we humans rely on—cooperation? How can we create neighborhoods that promote better health?

The New Suburbanism

One way to make existing suburbs healthier is to restructure them—to make them more like villages. We call this idea the new suburbanism. New suburbanism involves many steps. In fact, we’ve identified over 30. One is to tear down fences in our backyards to create a community green from the isolated back lawns that now exist in most suburbs. In the community green, neighbors can plant a community garden, grow fruit trees, and create a playground for neighborhood children, as well as places for socializing.

Garden, fence, and path.
Why shouldn't a suburban neighborhood make space for a community garden in under-used backyards, rights-of-way, and converted driveways?
Photo by Jim Diers.

Fruits and vegetables from the garden and orchard increase community self-reliance and deliver a host of environmental benefits from eating locally produced food. Giving children and adults considerably more elbow room, community greens help promote a sense of extended family, drawing the neighborhood more tightly together.

Because so much of our lives is spent behind the steering wheel of our automobiles, we also propose creating more diverse neighborhoods; for example, by converting a house purchased by the neighborhood into a convenience store. Offering fresh fruits and vegetables, neighborhood crafts, and a place to gather, a neighborhood store provides employment and eliminates the need to burn a quart of gasoline to pick up a quart of milk. Milk, bread, and other necessities are just a short stroll away.

Upstairs, living space of the converted home could be converted office space for the self-employed members of the neighborhood. Instead of commuting halfway across town to go to work, neighborhood offices could be a two-minute walk from residents’ front doors. The new pedestrian commute saves on automobile expenses, reduces congestion on local highways, provides a little exercise, cuts down on pollution, and—best of all—frees up an hour or two of time every day for those who no longer have to travel to and from work by car!

But there’s more to creating Superbia! You and your neighbors could form a community work-share program. In work-share programs, neighbors help each other plant gardens, remodel basements, and cut firewood. They help us check off those long lists of chores we’ve been dreading, save time and money, and draw a community closer together.

Making Superbia! a Reality

The opportunities for creating a village atmosphere in an existing neighborhood are many, as are the benefits. Although the task may seem daunting at first, we recommend that neighbors start with the simple steps, then progress to the more challenging steps in the accompanying checklist.

Transition to Superbia!
The transition to Superbia! might include clustered parking to save space
and get cars out of peoples' way; greater use of solar energy; community
gardens; and a Common House, cooperatively owned by neighbors.

Illustration by Dan Bohlen.

Know this: you won’t be alone in your efforts. We’ve found dozens of communities throughout the world that are making many of the changes on the list—all designed to reinvent their neighborhoods to create more closely knit communities, affordable ways of living, and environmentally friendly lifestyles. For example, a whole city block in Berkeley, California, known as The Meadows, has had a common backyard for about 30 years, ever since a college professor bought all of the houses, took the fences down, and resold the properties. All but one neighbor has left the fences down!

In Tucson, Arizona, Brad and Rodd Lancaster have incorporated a dozen or more of the ideas we’re proposing to reinvent their neighborhood. They’ve organized a community garden, tree planting, community entertainment, and much more. When asked about the motivation for his efforts, Brad is eloquent. “I want to live in a vibrant community,” he says. “I want to live where people know each other, wave to one another, talk to and help each other, work to make things better, and play together. I want to live in a community where we grow much of our food and share it through potluck dinners. As I want such a community, I work to create it and support it.” You can read about their work and dozens of other examples in our upcoming book, Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods.

Superbia! Checklist

Easy Steps

  1. Sponsor community dinners.
  2. Establish a community newsletter, bulletin board, and community roster.
  3. Establish a neighborhood watch program.
  4. Start neighborhood investment clubs, community sports activities and restoration projects.
  5. Form weekly discussion groups.
  6. Establish neighborhood baby-sitting coop.
  7. Form an organic food co-op.
  8. Create car or van pools for commuting to and from work.
  9. Create a neighborhood work-share program.
  10. Create a mission statement.
  11. Create an asset inventory.

Bolder Steps

  1. Tear down fences: opening back yards to create communal play space and a space for neighbors to mingle and a community garden.
  2. Plant a community garden and orchard.
  3. Establish a neighborhood composting and recycling facility.
  4. Plant shade trees and windbreaks to create a more favorable microclimate.
  5. Replace asphalt and concrete with porous pavers and greenery.
  6. Establish a more edible landscape—incrementally remove grass in front lawns and replace with vegetables and fruit trees.
  7. Start a community-supported agriculture program in which neighbors “subscribe” to local organic farm’s produce.
  8. Create a car-share program–purchasing a van or truck for rent to community members.
  9. Begin community-wide retrofitting of homes and yards for energy and water efficiency.
  10. Solarize your homes.

Boldest Steps

  1. Create a community energy system.
  2. Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.
  3. Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.
  4. Create a common house.
  5. Create a community-shared office.
  6. Establish weekly entertainment for the community.
  7. Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.
  8. Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.
  9. Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.
  10. Promote a more diverse neighborhood.


Dan Chiras and Dave Wann are co-directors of the Sustainable Futures Society’s Sustainable Suburbs project. Their new book, Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, will be published this fall by New Society Publishers.
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