On saving the suburbs

Nov 11, 2014 · 4 mins read
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When I’m writing about homesteading, I think it’s important to talk about the fact that this is not the only way to lead an environmentally friendly lifestyle. In fact, it may not even be the best way to do it, at least, not for everyone. I mean, sure, it reduces my carbon foot print to try and produce as much of my food and personal goods here as possible, but ultimately, it’s not reasonable to expect everyone to do this, nor would it even be the best thing for the planet even if it were reasonable. There simply isn’t enough room, let alone resources, for everyone to do this.

The environmentalist movement has over time almost universally come to the consensus that dense, urban living is the best possible choice for the environment. It reduces energy consumption, reduces over all consumption, and is better at providing equitable access to resources (or, it would be, in a truly just society). There are many aspects of dense urban living I really wish I had more access to, such as the ability to bike or walk pretty much everywhere (God, I hate driving), and having so many amenities so close by. But when it comes down to it, gardening is my hobby, and I really wouldn’t want to do without it. In fact, I even gardened when I was deployed, just a few flowers in a pot outside my room (until the iguanas ate them). So here in the suburbs I stay, because it’s more dense and efficient than rural areas.

The truth is that the suburbs are abysmal for the environment because they tend to be hot spots for consumption and waste. I’ve written before about how our high vaulted ceilings are just a bunch of wasted space I’m paying to heat and cool, for example, and all this space for large inefficient houses and yards is mostly just wasted. But the suburbs are here, and until we are ready and willing to bulldoze them and move everyone to the city, we should be figuring out how to use them more efficiently, and that’s where I think homesteading and self sufficiency fits in.

If you really aren’t into keeping a garden and producing your own stuff, that’s cool, you don’t have to do those things to be green or live a socially just life. But the thing is, you don’t need a McMansion and a yard either. And I mean that in every way. You probably don’t need the suburban space to be happy. You’d probably be just as happy in a really nice and space efficient condo, apartment, or townhome, with a really nice park near by, as you would be in a giant single family house with a private yard. I mean, if what you want is a nice, comfortable interior, and a beautiful outdoor space to lounge and entertain (but not necessarily work) in, you would get that from urban living. You would also get lower energy costs, less home and yard maintenance, more and closer amenities, and more commuting options (which means way less money spent on cars and their maintenance).

Many people, most notably those in the age group known as millenials, are starting to realize this, as urban living is becoming more and more trendy. This is in many ways a good thing, the historically most gluttonous chunk of society (middle and upper class, suburban, white people) are giving up their gluttonous ways for more efficient, environmentally friendly lifestyles. The problem is that this leads to gentrification of formerly working class, lost cost neighborhoods, making the cost of living too high for the original inhabitants.

This is where the suburbs come into play again, because where else do all the poor people forced out of the gentrified urban neighborhoods end up? As rich people leave vast vacuums in the suburbs, there will be plenty of formerly urban poor to fill them up. The impoverished seem to always be stuck living in the places that more privileged people have deemed undesirable.

This has its pros and it’s cons. Poor people tend to already lead much more efficient lives than your typical white bread, middle class, suburbanite, meaning they would likely make better use of the space than wasteful and consumeristic middle class people tended to. But unfortunately the suburbs are designed to actively discourage that kind of efficiency. Our home could not support a multigenerational family very well despite its vast size because the space is used so poorly. It’s nearly impossible to get by without a car in the suburbs. Vast spances of nothing but cookie cutter homes makes finding near by work and amenities even harder.

And this is where some of the stuff I’m experimenting with comes back into play. What can we do to make this space more efficient and just? How can we turn these communities into places where people can still thrive and lower their impact, until we are able to make more urban living a reality for more people?

Right now, this is what interests me and this is where I want to be, in the suburbs, trying to figure out how to make this place not suck so much.