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"New Suburbanism" is a term being used today for ways of making suburban and ex-urban living less impactful and better designed. But I believe it must also be expanded to include a new way to look at planning, growth and land use, based on localism and incorporates a bottom up, locally-driven process that enables communities to solve their immediate growth, affordable housing and planning challenges in a more environmentally, economically and socially sustainable way.
This concept of New Suburbanism 2.0 reaches back into history and looks forward to new technology, to suggest methods we can employ that address our real housing and social equity needs.
The premise is that the fastest, most cost-effective and most immediate means available to dramatically decrease our impacts on the planet, while promoting more economically, environmentally and socially sustainable growth, is to focus on preservation, renovation, rehabilitation, additions, retrofit and adaptive reuse of existing structures, and new, infill development, using low impact design principles.
New Suburbanism 2.0 is based on the belief that the greatest climate change mitigations and greenhouse gas reductions in the coming decades will occur faster in suburbia rather than in the urban core. As the automobile transforms itself into the greenest of technologies and the world becomes increasingly networked in all ways, the dynamic that favored urbanism will lose competitiveness, while suburban towns will offer significant advantages.
To view a SLIDE SHOW and learn more about New Suburbanism please CLICK HERE and enter the password “newsub”
The Obsolescence of Urbanism
Although urbanism as we've known it for thousands of years has been the best method to organize a myriad of civilization's challenges, today increasing urbanism is creating more problems than it is solving. Centralized cities have always served as fortresses of protection (security), seats of government (political control), and centers of commerce (the economy). As such, throughout most of history, centralization better enabled trade, religious sanctuary, public services, extended family support, distribution of goods and services, and most of all communications, social interaction and economic efficiency.
But that is all changing. Is "urbanism" is now reaching diminishing returns? We are rapidly moving from vertical, centralized, organizational methods to horizontal, decentralized methods because they are now more efficient and offer more personal freedom and flexibility. Due to advancements in technology, the justifications for urbanism are being rapidly deconstructed.
Just as modern armies and weaponry have caused the protective value of “defensive” cities to become obsolete and the seats of global governance have become increasingly disbursed since the advent of democracy, commerce has exploded into a multi-directional, global matrix, to the point that now the very definition of work is being redefined. And since the middle of the 20th century, a new form of organizing communities has become a competitive alternative: The Suburbs.
In the 21st century, the deconstruction of urbanism's justifications and the decentralization of human endeavors will continue. Manufacturing is increasingly decentralized, and availability of goods and services is now a "just in time creator to user system, serving anyone anywhere on the planet at any time. Families are increasingly disbursed, communications are instantaneous worldwide and available to anyone, and social interactions increasingly organize around shared interests rather than physical proximity. These phenomena greatly enhance the viability and desirability of suburban and ex-urban living and more human-scaled living environments.
Much maligned by planners and experts since its inception, suburbs, with their more favorable balance of nature and development, remain the location of choice for families around the world. And 21st century suburban living and the technology that now increasingly enables it offer a significant step away from an urban paradigm to a suburban and ex-urban one without having to sacrifice any of the social and economic benefits urbanism offers.
It is now also arguable that suburban communities enjoy a significant advantage in the race to reduce our overall environmental impacts.
This fact has been obscured by dated science and presumptions about the inevitability of automobiles with internal combustion engines burning fossil fuels. And this whole nexus of thought has influenced every aspect of city and growth planning. However, once addressed by alternative fuels, the entire planning premise that has been based on this singular issue, completely falls apart and it becomes more apparent that urbanism fails to address other socioeconomic-environmental issues that must be addressed to deal with climate change.
Negative global environmental impacts of urbanism are real and accelerating.
That the world's environment is being negatively impacted by human civilization is undeniable. For anyone who remains a skeptic, I would ask them to read the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
On the positive side, there have been many innovations in recent years that attempt to decrease this impact. Ironically, the automobile may now be one of the fastest "greening" technologies we have. Zero emissions vehicles (which are approximately, 90 percent recyclable) are much greener than your IPhone or your computer. At the same time the way we build buildings and provide them with water, power, and waste management has not evolved rapidly enough to meet the challenges we now face. In fact, it has hardly evolved at all. And we are running out of time to change that.
Construction methods we presently employ are the most resource and energy intensive thing we do on this planet. Their demands and the social, economic and environment degradation that result from bringing together the materials and products that go into our buildings, impact the entire planet. These are called environmental "externalities."
According to the most recent IPCC Report, our buildings consume almost 70 percent of our total energy demand, day and night, for heating, cooling, lighting, and mechanical demands. And in urban environments those percentages are much higher than in suburban communities. And the adaptive reuse and retrofit required to implement that energy efficient technology simply does not exist to transform urban cores into low impact environments. This imbalance heavily favors the suburbs over urban centers, when it comes to rapidly lowering GHG impacts.
Designing with nature instead or against it
One of the outcomes of our new multi-dimensional, technologically-enabled world is that it allows us to abandon antiquated, centralized distribution systems and replace them with "at the source" solutions.
For example, it is far more efficient and cost effective and environmentally beneficial to produce the power you consume at your home or office, using solar panels, solar shingles, solar glass, wind energy, geothermal energy, and a long list of other methods, than it is to produce it in a faraway plant (coal or even solar) and deliver it a thousand miles to you. It is far better for the same reasons to capture, purify and recycle and reuse water at the source or locally, than it is to transport it through antiquated, leaking, underground pipes to your location, only to be transported yet again, to centralized sewage treatment plants, where it ends up creating highly toxic, concentrated waste products that can end up being dumped into lakes and streams.
In response to these facts, classical planning, which is based on the belief that man's creations and nature are competing and separated, is now being used to reinforce the idea that more and more density and urbanism is the solution to reducing environmental impacts. The proposals are to super concentrate man's space on the planet in order to "save" everything else. But there is no scientific evidence whatsoever to support that assumption. As it is, urbanism produces more negative, environmental impacts than suburbs do.
This is true even for transportation and GHG impacts if you factor in the externalities of transporting all the goods and services that cities require (food, clothing, building materials, labor, etc.). That is why cities such as New York City have some of the highest "per capita" GHG emissions in the world (see the link to the slide show, below)
We are tragically trapped in a "bigger is always better" paradigm that is actually increasing our problems faster than we are solving them. This fundamental belief that growth is good in any form at all costs, is fatally flawed, because it fails to acknowledge our current our technological capabilities.
Thinking small and incrementally, locally and "at the source" may seem like a counter-intuitive way to address massive growth, but at this time it is scientifically the better choice.
Building conversion, adaptive reuse, rehabilitation and retrofit are not considered in classical growth and planning scenarios, but are arguably a direction we need to look toward. Here suburbs have a significant advantage. Zero and very low greenhouse gas footprint growth and development is now more feasible than ever in suburbia than in urban centers. It is far easier to take a typical suburban home or a duplex or small apartment building "off the grid" than a downtown high-rise.
In existing urban settings, the negative legacy of centuries of traditional high-rise development and antiquated energy, water and waste management infrastructure makes lowering GHG impacts extremely difficult. it is unlikely we can make the energy and resource demands of our dense urban cities sustainable in any sense of the word, any time soon. The costs are simply too high and we don't have the luxury of time to wait until we learn how.
Our best hope to do that right now lies elsewhere, in suburban towns.
To view a SLIDE SHOW and learn more about New Suburbanism 2.0 please CLICK HERE and enter the password “newsub”
Bob Silvestri is a Mill Valley resident and the founder and president of Community Venture Partners, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit community organization funded only by individuals in Marin and the San Francisco Bay Area.
Links to other articles on growth and affordability: