Suburbia Project

Self-Reliant Suburbs

The suburbs could be the raw material for a sustainable revolution.

By Dan Chiras
Published October 21, 2005

What future does suburbia hold?

I think the prospects of suburbia are quite good. Sure, there will be some rough times - very rough times - as the cost of oil and natural gas skyrocket, but the long-term prospects are good - that is, if we're smart. I say that because the suburbs have many of the raw materials needed to create sustainable enclaves of human existence.

There's land to grow fruits and vegetables. In fact, much of the land used to be good farmland. There are homes that could be retrofitted to be much more energy efficient and to accommodate more people; there are rooftops and back yards to install solar hot water systems and solar electric systems to generate energy; there are homes that can be converted to small shops, cafes, day-care centers, office spaces, and convenience stores to make the community more self sufficient and to reduce our need for cars.

And, lest we forget, there are smart, inventive people with lots of skills who can work together to close the food, energy, and monetary loops in neighborhoods. Dave Wann and I talk about all of this in our book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, which could just as well be called the Neighborhood Survival Guide. This book is a blueprint for reinventing the neighborhoods for sustainable living.

What, if anything, can cities and/or residents do to make the suburbs livable (i.e. people can get around and obtain what they need to survive)?

We offer 31 ideas that people can use to make their lives less car dependent and more self-reliant:

Neighbours can establish community dinners, to get to know one another, and create a more tightly bound neighborhood.

Neighbours can communicate with one another through bulletin boards, regular meetings over dinner, and even community newsletters.

Neighbours can establish neighborhood watch programs, which may be increasing more important in an energy-tight world.

Neighbours can form discussion groups for entertainment and edification. They can start neighborhood clubs for similar reason. Discussion groups and clubs help build community but also keep us out of our cars. And, in an energy short world, they provide local entertainment opportunities that save on gas.

Neighborhoods can form baby sitting co-ops and organic co-ops to purchase vegetables from local farmers.

Neighbours can form van pools and car pools and put together an neighborhood asset inventory - a list of skills, knowledge, and tools that can be used to help neighbors survive, even thrive, in the hard times.

Neighborhoods that band together may find it advantageous to remove backyard fences where people can plant community gardens and orchards so they can grow a lot of their own food.

Neighbours can turn the front yards into an edible landscape, reducing grocery bills and time spent in the car to travel to and from grocery stores.

Neighbours can even join community supported agriculture programs, buying fruits and vegetables they can't grow from local farmers, a step that cuts our overall demand for energy.

Neighbours can establish community recycling and composting programs, saving time and energy by working together. They can plant trees and remove asphalt (replacing it with porous pavers) to help save energy and reduce cooling costs.

Neighbors can start car sharing programs so they can share trucks and vans required only for special occasions. There's no need for everyone to own a truck. With high gas prices, most people will shift to smaller vehicles, but will still need a large vehicle from time to time. If the neighborhood owns one or two, they can rent it for special trips.

And why not band together to solarize homes in the neighborhood? That is, neighbors can band together to hire a local supplier/installer to install solar hot water panels and solar electric panels. They'll get a better price if they work together.

In time, neighbors may want to buy a home that they can convert to offices, a day care center, a community room, a common kitchen for preparing community meals, an exercise room, and a place for kids to hang out.

This common house could also feature weekly entertainment, which reduces the need to travel to the city for music or plays. In time, as things get tougher, neighbors may want to retrofit their homes -- that is, convert spare bedrooms into apartments to raise a little money and help others find affordable shelter.

Realistically, what will suburban residents do?

Frankly, that's anyone's guess. If neighbors can be encouraged to work together, the sky's the limit. If they enter into a frightening me vs. them mentality, all hell could break loose.

What will the suburbs look like and what role will they play in a world without cheap, abundant energy?

I think the suburbs could be the raw material for a sustainable revolution. They clearly could become much more self-sufficient neighborhoods that offer many of the amenities of small towns, including closeness, sharing, community, work spaces, entertainment, shopping, food, and energy.

That is, if governments and individual citizens don't remain mired in the old way of thinking and insist on perpetuating what is, in the long haul, clearly an unsustainable way of life.

Dan Chiras is a leading authority on green building and renewable energy options for home construction. He paid his last electric bill in June of 1996, and is has written 21 books, including Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Suburbs, co-authored with Dave Wann. He currently is a Melon Visiting Professor at Colorado College where he teaches courses on renewable energy, ecological design, and sustainable development. He lives in Evergreen, Colorado.

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