The Suburbs Are Anything But Family Friendly

One of the biggest albums of the year is “The Suburbs” by the Canadian group, Arcade Fire, which exposes the dark side of urban sprawl.  The band, fronted by the husband and wife duo of Win Butler and Régine Chassagne have created a concept album as emblematic of our generation as The Wall was for the post-Vietnam War boomers.  Try these lyrics from one of their best songs, Sprawl 2:

Cause on the surface the city lights shine
They’re calling at me, come and find your kind
Sometimes I wonder if the world’s so small
That we can never get away from the sprawl

So, why did an indie band from Canada resonate so profoundly with us?  Putting aside the cultural war that’s always waged when you raise the issue of the burbs, we now find lots of evidence that growing up in the suburbs may not be the most advantageous environment for children,  according to Seattle-based Carla Saulter, writing in Grist magazine.  “We Americans tend to believe that a healthy environment in which to raise children is a large, single-family home in a quiet suburban community,” according to Saulter.  “Many of us are convinced that trading the polluted, crowded city for greener pastures (also known as the large backyards that usually come along with suburban homes) is the right decision for our children.  Unfortunately, the farther we move from urban centers, the more auto-dependent, resource-intensive, and by extension, environmentally detrimental our lives become.  Auto-dependence is bad for our children; it’s also very, very bad for the planet.”

Saulter says that living in a sprawling, auto-centric community where parents have no option but to drive their children to the grocery store or to the local playground is not doing the planet any favors.  “Environmentally responsible parenting is about more than cloth diapers and BPA-free thermoses.  It means drastically reducing the amount we consume and pollute.  It means letting go of the belief that the best way to raise children is in a 2,500 SF, two-car home with a half-acre lawn, and instead embracing a different version of ‘family friendly’, dense, diverse and transit-rich,” Saulter said.

People who live in a dense community typically live in smaller spaces, which require less energy to heat and cool.  These smaller spaces occupy less land, which means there is room for additional homes – and perhaps even forests and farmland.  “As more people are living in close proximity to each other, more resources can be shared,” according to Saulter.  “Neighborhood parks replace large backyards; coffee shops and community centers replace home offices and playrooms; public libraries replace extensive personal libraries; and nearby theaters replace media rooms.  Other resources, like power and sewer lines, can also be delivered more efficiently to densely populated communities.”

According to “The City in 2050:  Creating Blueprints for Change”, a study by the Urban Land Institute, only 25 percent of car rides in the United States have the purpose of commuting to and from work.  The remainder is spent running errands or transporting children to and from school or to activities.  The United States currently boasts a car-ownership rate of approximately 80 cars for every 100 persons; by 2030; that is expected to soar to one car per person.  Additionally, long-term trends predict a 48 percent increase in driving by 2030, though high gas prices might temper that to some extent.

Saulter recommends reading David Owen’s “Green Metropolis:  Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less are the Keys to Sustainability”.