Greening the ‘burbs

Interesting story in the Sunday New York Times on efforts among suburbanites to make their low-density communities greener.

Since 2005, the mayors of hundreds of suburban communities across America have pledged to meet or even beat the emissions goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty to reduce greenhouse emissions.

In November, Levittown, N.Y., the model postwar suburb, declared its intentions to cut carbon emissions by 10 percent this year. And a few suburban pioneers are choosing solar heating for their pools, clotheslines for their backyard, or hybrid cars for their commute.

But the problem with suburbs, many environmentalists say, is not an issue of light bulbs. In the end, the very things that make suburban life attractive — the lush lawns, spacious houses and three-car garages — also disproportionally contribute to global warming. Suburban life, these environmentalists argue, is simply not sustainable.

Where the environment’s concerned, I’m of two minds (for civic budgeting, I’m not — the suburbs are a major problem for city budgets). They’re certainly unsustainable in their current form, but they’re also where an awful lot of the famous low-hanging fruit is. If current suburbanites just went with xeriscaping instead of heavily chemicalized lawns, kitted themselves out with high-efficiency heating, went with fans instead of air conditioning, and drove fuel-efficient cars, we might find that went a long way.

I do suspect that 21st-century housing-bubble McMansions aren’t going to work, but expensive oil should put paid to those. Post-war suburbs are, I suspect, quite salvageable even in a low-carbon, low-energy future, if the owners are prepared to invest in them.

I have no research to support this, but I think we should push in that direction and see what happens. At a minimum, it’s much more palatable for a mass audience than saying everybody’s got to move into apartment blocks.

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