Greening Sprawl

In this excellent article of the same name, the case is made for a revisioning of sprawl.

An excerpt.

“Suburban residential landscapes are popularly understood to be socially and environmentally homogeneous places where expanses of mown lawn appear in an alternating rhythm of driveways and predictably similar houses. Much has been made of suburban social pressures for conformity, epitomized by the pressure to have a perfect lawn; even, green, and weed free. More recently, the environmentally detrimental effects of lawn irrigation, pesticides, fertilizers, leaf blowing, and mowing have been widely discussed. Beyond these immediate environmental impacts of lawn culture, the more insidious societal costs associated with car-dependent suburban transportation systems are of growing concern. Social and health effects of sedimentary lifestyles and long commuting times, social equity effects of jobs beyond the reach of public transportation, as well as climate effects of greenhouse gases emitted by cars—all contribute to arguments for adopting more dense urban settlement patterns as alternatives to suburbia.

“Yet suburban development is massive and growing. In the United States, large-lot residential development covered a total area fifteen times larger than did dense urban settlement in 2000, and suburbs have continued to grow more quickly than cities. The market for suburban residential development remains a vital driver of metropolitan landscape patterns. Even if market demand for new suburban development were to disappear today, the legacy effects of the more than 5 percent of the US land area in suburban development would remain. This reality suggests that, rather than only critiquing suburbia, we should consider how low-density suburban development patterns can provide broader societal benefits.

“Viewed through another lens, the lawn culture landscape of suburban “sprawl” looks like “greening.” In city neighborhoods, greening means bringing maintained turf, trees, and gardens back into a largely paved landscape. In contrast, suburban neighborhoods, typified by expansive lawns, canopy trees, and flowers and shrubs, are green. But suburban green landscapes could provide far more substantial ecosystem services related to human health, biodiversity, stormwater management, and carbon storage to contribute to climate change mitigation. How do we “green” sprawl to deliver these societal benefits? Could design and planning guide the resources expended on keeping suburbia green differently—to achieve a stronger balance in favor of ecosystem services compared with environmental costs?

“Understanding the vernacular aesthetics of suburban landscapes as part of the land development process can suggest some answers. Respecting what residents want their landscapes to look like could help planners and designers devise development patterns that nudge suburban residents and developers to want landscapes that provide greater ecosystem services. To make suburban sprawl a deeper shade of green, designers can use the nudge concept that has become familiar in the fields of psychology and behavioral economics: giving people what they want in a landscape pattern that also embodies what society needs.” (p. 507)

Joan Iverson Nassauer (2017). Greening Sprawl: Lawn Culture and Carbon Storage in the Suburban Landscape. (pp.507-517) Infinite Suburbia (2017) (Editors, Alan M. Berger, Joel Kotkin, with Celina Balderas Guzman). Princeton Architectural Press: New York.

About David H Lukenbill

I am a native of Sacramento, as are my wife and daughter. I am a consultant to nonprofit organizations, and have a Bachelor of Science degree in Organizational Behavior and a Master of Public Administration degree, both from the University of San Francisco. We live along the American River with two cats and all the wild critters we can feed. I am the founding president of the American River Parkway Preservation Society and currently serve as the CFO and Senior Policy Director. I also volunteer as the President of The Lampstand Foundation, a nonprofit organization I founded in 2003.
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