Today's New York Times has a great piece on their website in the form of one of their bloggers, Allison Arieff. Ms. Arieff is the former editor of the great magazine Dwell and she writes about architecture, design and culture. Her blog entry can be found at: http://arieff.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/02/18/is-your-house-making-you-look-fat/index.html
Her topic today, sustainable development, dovetails neatly into my entry yesterday about environmentally-friendly cleaning products and household goods.
The image here of a cul-de-sac'd suburban neighborhood has become a redefinition of the American Dream in the last 50 years or so and the growth of this kind of inefficient development is at the root of not only the environmental crises we face, but I say that it can be faulted for everything from trade imbalances to childhood obesity to school shootings. It is development on an inhuman scale. The conceit it relies upon is the idea that you can cram people into a space and allow them to live in isolation. Neighborhoods such as this one are completely automobile-dependent and the only way a resident can interact with someone who lives 20 feet away is to go out of their way to do so.
So long as this kind of suburban idyll holds its place as an American Ideal, we're doomed. Life in one of these places makes walking anywhere but to the garage difficult and pointless. Since all of the homes in the neighborhood are worth the same amount of money, there can be no economic diversity among its residents. An endless parade of cars and garage doors doesn't lend itself to neighborly behavior. Backyard fences you can't see over keep over-the-back-fence conversations to a minimum.
I live in the Sunbelt, a place whose suburbs and exurbs look just like the photo above. People line up to move into these neighborhoods and in exchange get to live in solitude among strangers a half an hour from the grocery store and an hour from work. I live in an area that gets around 50 inches of rain a year. Those 50 inches fall mostly between the months of May through September with nary a drop in between. Yet, due in a huge part to the inefficient use of the soul-deadening cul de sac school of suburban planning, we face chronic water shortages. Thousands of acres of small lawns that need to be irrigated with potable water cause these water shortages. The sprawl of suburbia is as unsustainable ecologically as it is economically as it is psychologically.
But there's hope. The sale of new homes fell by 26 per cent last year country-wide. Yet, in order to keep up with projected population growth, the US will need an additional 427 billion square feet of space by the year 2030.
Maybe the upside of a down housing market is that it presents a rare and valuable opportunity to re-think the way that we, as a society, house people. Maybe development on a scale that accommodates human needs over automotive needs is something to explore now that there's a lull in the action. Imagine what would happen if somebody started to build communities that actually built communities. Imagine.