Rethinking Suburbia

In my work as an activist and walkable cities advocate, I have been eternally frustrated with the state of the American suburb. My parents (out of circumstance, not preference) live in one of the worst examples of such a development. They live in a subdivision on the edge of town surrounded by acre house plots, and blocked on all sides by some of the most dangerous roads in the Parish. When one finds themselves living in a place this car dependent, how does one work towards fixing it?

There are a few things that suburbs can quickly do to become better places to live and begin to prosper as places. One is to allow for ADUs, or Accessory Dwelling Units to be constructed on plots. This allows more people to live on the same plots of land, increasing value per acre and allowing for more people to get affordable housing. When we build a place to evolve into a slightly denser one, it increases the capacity of that place to become an economic and cultural hub, no matter how small a way.

Another excellent move is to allow these places to begin growing crops in backyards, and for that matter front yards. In the US, it is estimated that the US contains 163,812 square km (± 35,850 square km) of turf grass lawns. It is three times larger than the area of any other irrigated crop grown in the country. That is a tremendous potential for growth. Using this land, we can produce food in our communities with accessible locally grown produce or we can convert these lawns into native prairies.

In the spirit of changing land use, what if the houses in these suburbs no longer need to be just residences? One family could open a local coffee shop, a house down the street is completely converted into a clothing store, and yet another has an addition built on to act as a fledgling tech startup. If we break the mold of designating that buildings forever be used for one particular thing, a world of possibilities open up to the community that chooses to engage in such a change.

If we want to build better cities, we need to rethink how we continue to grow the largest component of our cities by land area. The suburban experiment has failed, yet we still have a tremendously large area full of single family homes. There are many urbanists who believe that these neighborhoods are beyond repair and destined to fall apart, but this may not be the fate of every or even most car dependent suburbs in the US and Canada.

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