The suburbs have lost a lot of luster in the past 70 years. What was once hailed as a refreshing alternative to the grittiness of city living has been tugged and pulled and paved into a series of brownfields and vacant parking lots that stretch for miles and miles. Public planners have been predicting “the end of suburbia” for at least a decade now, saying that peak oil will starve out those towns and subdivisions that subsist on sprawl.
Saddled with traffic congestion and infrastructural erosion, can suburbia be retrofitted into a sustainable model of development and adapt to a post-oil world?
When they emerged 150 years ago, suburban developments sat on the peripheries of cities like New York and allured the wealthy, who commuted by train to enjoy fresh air and privacy. Suburban train stations brimmed with activity and fed commercial centers around them. But when the automobile rolled off factory floors in the 1910s, it quickly seduced an eager public and transformed suburban downtowns built around the trains. Car ownership exploded, the concept of the suburban downtown disappeared, and Americans designed new communities around driving.
Today, the cost of that so-called freedom is clear: Suburbanites have twice the carbon footprint as city dwellers; they spend more on housing and transportation combined; and they’re more likely to struggle with obesity or die in car crashes. These realities paint a far less rosy picture than the days of early commuters. But today an enthusiastic network of designers, city planners, lawmakers, and longtime locals are envisioning a new era for suburbia.
Transportation, specifically automobile traffic, is the most important reason to retrofit, because it directly impacts public health, affordability, and climate change, says Ellen Dunham-Jones, professor of architecture at Georgia Tech and author of Retrofitting Suburbia. Between 1990 and 2013, the number of people who drove to work alone increased by 25 million, and, in 2013, highway vehicles used 83.2 percent of total transportation energy, with personal vehicles accounting for 71.1 percent, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics.
“Transit helps people walk more, and they spend less money.”“Development is pushing us farther and farther out, sometimes 10 to 12 miles outside a city. Savings get eaten up,” Dunham-Jones says. But [in the suburbs], those people who can’t commute—who can’t afford rising gas prices and car expenses—are out of luck because there’s limited access to transit.”
Most of this hasn’t eluded city-flocking millennials—almost two-thirds would prefer to live where driving is optional—nor has it eluded more than half the country—54 percent of adults say it is too far to walk to shopping and entertainment, and 50 percent say that walkability is a top or high priority, according to a 2015 report by the Urban Land Institute.