Suburbia Project

Two Futures: The Sustainable Home

Wake up from the "American Dream" and start building a community worth living in.

By Ryan McGreal
Published November 10, 2005

You wake up early, get ready, enjoy a nice breakfast, and leave for work. Instead of going through the doorway into your garage, you stride out the front door, across the porch, and onto the sidewalk, where you exchange banter with your neighbour.

It's nice outside and you're early, so you decide to walk. The streets are lined with trees, brilliant with flowering plants, sweet with the smell of growing things.

A group of sleepy children stroll past you on their way to school, bookended by parent volunteers who pick up two more down the street. The children perk up as they wind through the neighbourhood, laughing and joking.

The house at the corner is renowned for its breakfast crêpes, and people gather outside the open bay window, chatting as they wait for their orders.

On the main street, the pace picks up and the noise of people increases: voices raised in conversation, music and the busy clink of crockery at the cafe across the street, bells ringing as bicycles wind their way down the middle of the street and navigate intersections thick with pedestrians.

A large group of commuters who work too far away to walk are filing into the local train station, where they can ride to far-flung destinations without the stress of driving and the gnawing fear of collisions.

You're more fortunate still, able to find work in your own community. This is getting easier to do, as corporate globalization falters and local economies grow more complex and diverse.

Twenty minutes later, wide awake and fresh-faced, you arrive at work. In mid-afternoon you head home, swinging your arms and wondering how you ever survived the bad old days of hour-plus commutes stuck in your car, with no company but the stench of exhaust and shrill DJs announcing pile-ups down the road.

You get home just as your children arrive from school, and you all sit around the table together, enjoying an afternoon snack and learning about each other's day. You have time to help with homework, play games, and prepare dinner from scratch (using mainly locally grown ingredients).

Your tall, narrow house is smaller than your erstwhile suburban castle, but the trade-off is more than fair. Your idea of entertainment is no longer limited to your home theatre system.

Because you have time to cultivate healthy relationships with your family and your neighbours, you don't need to escape from each other behind closed doors.

Your home energy costs are a fraction of what they were in the suburbs. Between the passive solar design, radiant floor heating, rainwater collection, and composting, your house uses very little energy and actually produces living soil.

Your garden is small but abundant, from basil, cilantro, and lettuce on your windowsills to tomatoes, carrots, peppers, onions, cucumbers, kale, and eggplant in your attached solar greenhouse.

Most important, you no longer need to own a car, rolling the tremendous savings into shorter hours and more free time. You walk or cycle to most destinations, enjoying a shorter but healthier commute, and enjoy all the benefits of daily exercise without having to schedule visits to the gym into a hectic schedule.

In fact, you have as much disposable income as you ever had, but you also have your health, and several hours a day of free time that you have enough energy to enjoy.

You feel relaxed, at peace. The fatigue and mood swings that used to paralyze you are no more. The bouts of dread and ennui that once held you in their icy grip far into the night have receded.

The food you eat is robust and energizing. The fruits and vegetables are brightly coloured, packed with thousands of nutrients. The meat is organically raised and richly flavoured.

You're motivated to get up and move: romping in the park with children; dancing with friends and loved ones; after-dinner walks to admire architecture and wildlife, say hello to neighbours, and smell the warm evening air.

This is just a utopian fantasy, right? I mean, it could never really happen. Not here. Not us. It's nice and all, but let's be realistic.

In fact, parts of the fantasy I've just described are already true, right here in Hamilton.

My wife and I do walk or ride a bike to work in the morning (sadly, there's no crêpe house on my street), and we do enjoy daily opportunities to chat with neighbours.

We walk our son to and from school most days, enjoying the sights and sounds on Locke Street, not to mention free exercise. We have time to help with homework, prepare meals from scratch, and play with our children. It's a priceless luxury.

Our tall, narrow, semi-detached house isn't that ecologically friendly - yet. In fact, we baby our old gas furnace through each winter while we decide how best to replace it. In the meantime, our home is still fairly cheap to heat, and we look to examples of sustainable houses for inspiration.

We have one small car which sits at the curbside most days. It would be nice to get rid of it entirely, but public transit to distant destinations is still mediocre in this city.

In fact, the biggest hurdle left to us - to our family and to our city - is the hurdle of car dependence. As long as we keep factoring cars into our future, we remain mired in the all-consuming logic of driving.

It's the difference between scattered pieces of the sustainable future I described above and its full realization. It's the difference between smog and fresh air, deadening sprawl and vibrant street life, isolation and community, congestion and green space, stress and active living, draw-down and sustainability.

This city should bend its every fibre of will toward producing the sustainable future mapped out by its own citizens and articulated in Vision 2020.

What on Earth are we waiting for?

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal.

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By pwobschall (registered) | Posted None at

Great Article. Just a reminder that Hamiltons can get inpiration for sustainable living right here in Hamilton at EcoHouse. http://www.ecohouse.ca/ Keep up the good work at Raise the Hammer.

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By David (anonymous) | Posted None at

When you think of suburban life, it becomes apparent that the huge personal infastructure necessary to have a job just guarentees that you need to keep the job in order to pay for it. Real needs are a lot more simple than all that. It may seem the guy sleeping on a park bench really has it made.

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By Ally (anonymous) | Posted October 21, 2006 at 12:18:23

I loved this article...and it echoes the passion I feel for another great neighbourhood in Hamilton: Westdale. Westdale is incredibly walkable and I can do mostly everything I need to do on foot. I walk my kids to daycare, school, the library, parks & nature trails, our community garden near the Aviary, Cootes Paradise and even dance class. We shop at specialty food stores, neighbourhood delis, bakeries, a neighbourhood grocery store, and organic produce stand. As I walk to the dry-cleaner or cafe, I greet many neighbours, friends and aquaintances (particularly on sunny days!). My husband and I walk to the movie theatre and enjoy romantic dinners and 1010. We meet other neighbourhood couples at the Bean Bar for martinis and cheesecake. I buy almost all gifts for loved ones at the many shops including two great toy stores and a gourmet kitchen store. Yes, my house is smaller than the McMansions being built in Dundas and Ancaster, but our house is charming and cozy and we won't have to scale down when the kids leave the nest. We live in a true community, with caring neighbours and as I read more books on "good design", I am finally able to articulate what makes Westdale (and other neighbourhoods like it) great. But I guess we can't all have the same vision...

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