Redesigning Suburbia For a Sustainable Future

In many ways, our suburbs are perfect for a more sustainable way of life.

View of Levittown, New York
View of Levittown, New York. Bettmann Archive / Getty Images

Suburbia often has a bad rep. But it is important to recognize that these areas, built for cars and modern living with all of its excess and waste, do have certain benefits. In many ways, our suburbs are perfect for a more sustainable way of life. Redesigning suburbia for a sustainable future offers exciting opportunities for us to build back better, and create thriving and resilient communities that can last.

What Works About Suburbia

Suburbs, as we think of them today, began springing up through the late-19th and early-20th centuries in developed nations after rail and road transportation networks allowed (and encouraged) people to move away from the city.

While today many of us are trying to steer away from car-based lifestyles, the ways in which suburbs were created, and their characteristics, mean that they have a number of features that are beneficial for those who want to lead a more sustainable lifestyle. For example:

  • The homes in suburbs are frequently larger than those found in cities. This offers great potential for co-housing and multi-generational living. There is potential to think beyond the nuclear family, or to create more functional and sustainable single-family homes. Homes that can, for example, generate their own renewable energy, manage water more wisely, etc.
  • 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. While plot sizes can vary, there is usually useful outside space, which can be used for food production and to obtain other yields.
  • 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.

How Suburbs Have to Change

There are certain things that already equip suburban areas for a more sustainable future. But of course, redesigning suburbia also involves looking at the things that have to change. And there are a number of things about suburbs that bring challenges for those trying to live in a greener and more eco-conscious way.

More local food production: One important problem to tackle is the issue of food deserts. Many sprawling suburbs lack basic food system infrastructure. There are few places to obtain fresh, local, organic, sustainable food. Traditional grocery stores and markets are often missing. Those living in large suburbs must often rely on major supermarkets, big-box stores, and malls on the fringes of suburban zones. Often, a car is currently essential to reach these food distribution outlets.

More biodiversity: Another major issue is the lack of biodiversity in suburban areas, where most gardens are given over to manicured mono-species lawns. And ecosystems have been degraded by infrastructure and a built environment that fails to take nature into account.

Less reliance on cars: Many suburban lives currently revolve around cars and commuting. But this does not need to be the case. In addition to embracing electric vehicles and other such innovations, like working from home, those living in the suburbs can also make great strides into obtaining resources and things they need at home, and as locally as possible.

Read more: Jargon Watch: 'Hipsturbia'

vegetable and flower garden with a white picket fence

rviard / Getty Images

Redesigning Suburbia

As a permaculture designer, I frequently work on projects designed to retrofit suburban gardens and landscapes to tackle these issues.

Individual suburban homeowners can help increase food security and create abundant and biodiverse food-producing gardens. They can turn their lawns into thriving food forests and/or polyculture growing areas for annual crop production. And they can create wildlife-friendly spaces that are islands for beneficial wildlife, which can help in restoring lost biodiversity.

Individuals can also make use of their homes and garages to meet more of their own needs locally – finding numerous ways to work from home and build the skills they need for sustainable living.

It is also possible for neighbors and larger communities to come together. They can work collaboratively to grow food for their street, and join gardens together to make larger ecosystems for the benefit of wildlife and each other. And they can work to create food hubs and community garden spaces on spare lots or marginal areas.

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 – from upcycling or crafting, to time banking, skillshare, and tool share schemes.

Sustainability means looking closely at existing systems – and rejecting things that do not work for people and the planet. But we do not need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. By looking at what is good about suburbia, we can find ways to redesign rather than starting from scratch. Redesigning suburbia for a sustainable future is one important way for all of us to move closer to our goals.

Read more: ReBurbia Winner Reimagines McMansions as Suburban Living Machines