To me, it is a landscape of scary places, the geography of nowhere, that has simply ceased to be a credible human habitat.
~ James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere
Some would say that urban sprawl is the major quality of life issue of our times. We see it every day, driving from our suburban enclaves into the city – strip malls and cul-de-sac-ridden housing developments surrounded by traffic-jammed arterials. Schools located too far from home for most kids to walk cause more traffic and disruptions, and probably even contribute to obesity. Shops and commercial activities are clustered away from residential areas, causing even more traffic. So our everyday lives revolve around driving – to work, to school, running errands, filling the tank once again …
Planners despair about the growth of subdivisions on the edge of towns creating white enclaves and eating up farmland and open spaces, but developers say they are providing what the growing population wants or believes they want. We fight back with New Urbanism, urban renewal over poor neighborhoods, condos close to downtown, mass transit, footpaths and bike lanes to discourage driving, and more compact subdivisions. But it seems to be a battle we’re losing and one that sprawl is winning.
However, maybe all is not lost. There are a few glimmers of light in the suburbs. In Subirdia, John M. Marzluff demonstrates that bird diversity is surprisingly greatest in the suburbs, even greater than in pristine, undisturbed forests. This, in spite of the fact that most bird authorities consider domestic cats to be by far the leading killer of birds. Suburbs are awash in house cats, except possibly where coyotes have moved in. At any rate, suburbs appear to be good for birds in general. We supply food in feeders, water, a diversity of trees, shrubs and grasses, not to mention bird houses and our own structures for protection.
Of course, it’s not just birds that like suburbs. The aforementioned coyotes adapt readily to suburban areas, as do mice, raccoons, rabbits, squirrels, skunks, foxes and deer. We’ve had bears, elk and moose wander through my neighborhood, but those are rarities.
In one sense, the attraction the suburbs hold for wildlife relates to the diversity of conditions that create interesting places and habitat. Conversely for humans, suburbs are usually an escape from diversity. Suburbs create a single-race community of like-minded and culturally-similar people. Kids are about the same age, finances are roughly equivalent, and every house has the same number of cars. Roads are built to serve the subdivision, sized to funnel the peak, rush-hour traffic to work and to school.
For local governments, suburbs are financial loss-leaders. The developer promises more commerce, more tax revenue, and then throws in a school or park as added incentive. But the taxes don’t cover the costs of providing services in the new areas, and the local government is saddled with maintenance costs for water, sewer, roads and other utilities in perpetuity.
But there may be some added benefits to suburbs, too. A recent Colorado State University study evaluated the effects of suburban vegetation and found temperature effects, stormwater management, wildlife habitat, and real estate value to be improved in suburbs. Of the 40% of all Colorado water which stays in Colorado, our landscapes only use approximately 3% of the water consumed, including water used for residential and commercial landscapes as well as parks, sports complexes, golf courses, etc.
They found that “When there is limited vegetation in a community, buildings and paved surfaces absorb energy from the sun and cause the surface temperature of urban structures to be 18 to 38°F higher than the ambient air temperatures.Tree canopies provide surface temperature reductions on wall and roof surfaces of buildings ranging from 20 to 45°F and temperatures inside parked cars can be reduced by 45°F.” As some might say, the suburbs are “cool.”
Vegetation filters particulates out of stormwater, reduces erosion and slows down the rate of water flows to reduce peak flooding. This allows water to be more readily absorbed into the ground where it is stored for later use by plants or contributes to groundwater.
And as noted, the variety of habitat present in suburbs attracts and supports all kinds of wildlife, including large and small mammals, birds, and whole ecosystems of smaller creatures.
Studies also show that suburban vegetation has a benefit on climate change factors, noting that “One tree can absorb as much as 48 pounds of carbon dioxide each year and provides enough oxygen to support two human beings …Urban tree carbon storage is equivalent to 5% of all human-caused carbon emissions … 55 square feet of turfgrass provides enough oxygen for one person for one day.”
Suburban vegetation also adds value to properties and the community. The study showed that “Large street trees add a 3% to 15% value to a home, and continue to appreciate in value over time.” In addition, vegetation is beneficial to our perception of quality of life. “Children who spend time in green settings have improved creativity, imagination, cognitive function, and intellect … studies done on people who were feeling stressed, anxious or depressed found 95% of people felt calmer and had a positive change in mood after spending a short time in a landscape.”
Vegetation can even impact crime rates, “Residents in public housing reported 25% fewer domestic crimes when landscapes and trees were planted near their homes.” Desirable places have trees and other vegetation. People may be happier and safer in these places, and will pay more to live where these conditions are present.
While not advocating for a massive growth in the suburbs, I can’t quite agree with the Kunstler quote above that they represent scary places. If we can take a longer view of our suburbs, we could see them evolve into functional neighborhoods, with local shops and commercial activities, schools, and non-car access options. The new homes will settle into their lots, vegetation will become more robust and people will age. Neighbors will get to know each other and communities will form to address their issues and problems.
I remind myself that my home, only three blocks from our small downtown, was once the outer edge of town and at the time was probably considered a suburb. So, let’s keep up the push for rational development (New Urbanism designs, urban renewal over poor neighborhoods [not forgetting low-cost housing], condos close to downtown, mass transit, footpaths and bike lanes to discourage driving, and more compact subdivisions) where it makes sense.
And overall, we need to create communities, not subdivisions.
James Howard Kunstler, The Geography of Nowhere, 1993
James Howard Kunstler, Home from Nowhere, 1996
John M. Marzluff, Subirdia, 2014
Zachary S. Johnson, Tony Koski, Alison Stoven O’Connor, The Hidden Value of Landscapes: Implications for Drought Planning, Colorado State University, 2017