Redesigning Suburbia

Little boxes on the hillside
Little boxes made of ticky-tacky
Little boxes, Little boxes
Little boxes all the same
There’s a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they’re all made out of ticky-tacky
And they all look just the same

~ Pete Seeger, Little Boxes

Suburbs get a bad rap environmentally — spreading swaths of ticky-tacky little houses with identical green lawns jammed into asphalt streets and parking lots marring idyllic natural areas rife with a diversity of vegetation, animal life and pristine waters.


Of course, the bad rap is only partly accurate. If you consider urban areas, there’s little space for vegetation, bad air can be prevalent, and the sheer density of traffic and humanity can be damaging. Urban isn’t so great, either. Suburbs offer more space, more greenery, scattered traffic and often, better homes. However, they do encroach on previously undeveloped land, or even agricultural or industrial tracts.

Elizabeth Waddington notes, “The homes in suburbs are frequently larger than those found in cities. This offers great potential for co-housing and multi-generational living. Suburban homes will often have a garage. But this is a space that does not necessarily have to be used for a car. There is potential to turn suburban garages into workshops or home business spaces, for example, to localize means of work and provide greater self-reliance for inhabitants. Homes in the suburbs typically have gardens. Road layouts in suburbia often make it easy to establish enclaves – cul-de-sacs or quiet streets where there is potential for neighbors to work together in sustainable ways.”

“In suburbia, building community can bring a huge range of benefits. By simply reaching out to others in the area, those living in suburbs can move away from single-family approaches and create thriving communities. They can not only collaborate on food production and ecosystem restoration, but can also work together on a range of other community-strengthening projects.”

Architect Lloyd Alter notes, “It is time to unlock the huge potential that the building and construction sector can have in improving human health and quality of life. The industry needs to address its responsibility regarding the quality of our indoor environment, our mental and physical health, and influence on our behavior. These considerations must also embrace the people involved along all stages of the building lifecycle, from the health of construction workers to the environmental impacts of how we source materials, construct and operate our buildings.”

He refers to the World Green Building Council Health & Wellbeing Framework:

  1. Protect and improve health (air and water quality, mental and social health, reduce infectious disease)
  2. Prioritize comfort (thermal, lighting, acoustic, ergonomic, olfactory, visual, inclusive design)
  3. Facilitate positive behavior and health (access to nature in- and outdoors, facilitate biodiversity)
  4. Harmony with nature (promote indoor and outdoor activity and beneficial lifestyle practices)
  5. Social value (protect rights, health and wellbeing of construction workers, improve local quality of life)
  6. Take climate action (net-zero whole life emissions, design for resilience, water efficiency, circular use of materials across building lifecycle)

Writer Matthew Miller observes, “A new study … finds that saving species in heavily urbanized environments is not a lost cause – but does require strategic planning, attention to governance, and large‐scale investment.”

“Throughout history, people have often settled in areas with high biodiversity. Yet much conservation action … focuses on less populated areas.” He quotes researcher Laura Kehoe, “But even in heavily urbanized areas, there’s a wealth of biodiversity right at their doorstep.”

Our yard has squirrels, bunnies and raccoons. Our neighborhood has, from time to time, had deer, moose, elk and a bear. Suburbs represent a great portion of the developed world, and if we’re going to survive and sustain, we need to design and manage them for all occupants, human and animal alike.

Additional information:

Lloyd Alter, Six Principles for a Healthy, Sustainable Built Environment, December 4, 2020, The World Green Building Council builds a Health & Wellbeing Framework, TreeHugger

Matthew L. Miller, It’s Not Too Late for Biodiversity in Urban Environments, January 26, 2021, Cool Green Science

Pete Seeger, Little Boxes, written by Malvina Reynolds, 1962

Elizabeth Waddington, Redesigning Suburbia for a Sustainable Future, January 28, 2021, Treehugger Voices

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