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[Source: The US Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE)]

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Sprawl. Is it a sustainability issue or a quality of life issue?

Yes.

Allison Arieff, the author of a recent NY Times commentary argues that through suburban sprawl, our country has “mistakenly pursued a vision of the American dream that doesn’t make sense in the 21st century.”

Over the past 30 years we’ve stripped away the supporting mechanisms of sprawl but have continued to create it.

We’ve built more houses than we’ve needed — and built them farther away from jobs. This has led to longer commutes, which has created more traffic. In response, we built more highways, increasing fuel consumption and, as transportation planners acknowledge, doing  little if anything to reduce traffic. It’s a vicious, seemingly endless cycle, and at its core is the notion that the American dream can exist only within the framework of the single-family home on a large lot. Indeed, we’ve become so fixated on this as the sole delivery mechanism of that American dream that we’ve spent a disproportionate amount of our collective energies (home-) improving it without considering meaningful alternative visions — or devoting at least a smidgen of attention to what’s outside the front door or down the block. Everything in our culture today reinforces this idea of home as castle (or fortress) rather than home as part of a larger whole (i.e., neighborhood). We need to find our way to the latter view, and part of that means finding a better way to talk about it.

The good news is that more and more people are.

Arieff maintains that homeowners have been sold houses based on their size or the number of amentities rather than on the livability and quality of the surrounding neighborhoods.

Houses were too big, too isolated, too generic, too hard to maintain. Or they were designed for the quintessential nuclear family that exists more in our cultural imagination than in reality. Few homes offered options for aging in place, for returning college kids or elderly parents, or even decent home office space. Would-be residents lamented the lack of amenities like a café or a playground within walking distance…

But the trend may be gradually reversing.

In short, builders are recognizing that buyers (and renters, too!) value the neighborhood as much as — if not more than —  the house. And what they want from that neighborhood might not be McMansions and four-car garages after all. Resale value may not in fact trump all else. Young and old, whether they’re in the city or the suburbs, want to walk to places like restaurants and shops. (And let’s stop talking about the integration of things like cafes, public transit and bike racks as “urbanizing” an area, which only reinforces the divide between two entities that are divided enough already.)

People have begun to wake up to the fact that the more time spent in the car means poorer health and less time with their families — and they’re seeking shorter commutes. They’re interested in smaller homes that are easier to maintain (and less expensive to heat and cool). Young millennials and older baby boomers are also showing less and less interest in car ownership and a corresponding greater interest in public transit, walking and biking. And again, it’s  likely that we’re all less interested in continuing to discuss “urban” and “suburban” as dueling polar opposites — and more interested in recognizing there’s mutual benefit to some overlap.

. . . The country could be moving toward something much better, something that’s less about consumption (of stuff, of such essential resources) and more about quality of life. Neighborhood groups have perhaps never been so strong a force, joining together to create an array of community-building offerings that make shared space the place to be (rather than the place to enter the garage from).

Read the rest of the article.

 

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