A New Take on Suburbia

Suburban sprawl is nearly universally denigrated. Aerial photography reveals sprawl to be malignant housing divisions metastasizing across the landscape — a wasteful, ecologically devastating byproduct of a host of misguided policy decisions and cultural values. In contrast to dense urban centers, which are widely promoted as hotbeds of creative thought and innovation, suburbia is closely associated with stifling conformity. In the view of many urban planners and designers, suburban sprawl is essentially a mistake. However, given that a majority of Americans live in the suburbs, should we so quickly dismiss suburbia as a purely negative force? Has suburbia’s unique low-density environment incubated any positive cultural changes independent of the city?

In Crabgrass Crucible: Suburban Nature and the Rise of Environmentalism in Twentieth-Century America, Christopher Sellers argues that American environmentalism largely arose out of suburbia. Sellers lays out an alternative narrative for the cultural impact of the suburbs.

He argues that suburban expansion is typically viewed in terms of two distinct narratives: city building and nature destroying. In the city-building narrative, suburbanization is viewed in terms of the expansion of the built environment out from the urban core. This view ignores nature, instead concentrating on factors such as economics, infrastructure, and people. The nature-destroying narrative arose as a reaction to this viewpoint, casting suburbanization as a process of consuming natural lands. This narrative still predominates environmental thinking today.

Sellers contends that both of these narratives perpetuate an overly restrictive definition of nature, where nature only exists outside of human influence. As an alternative, he promotes an ecological narrative for suburbanization, where the environment represents a hybrid of natural and human systems. In his view, suburban expansion does not erase nature, but instead creates a new kind of hybrid suburban nature, where ecological systems unavoidably intersect with human settlement.

Using Long Island, New York, and Los Angeles as case studies, Sellers illustrates how American environmentalism first gained traction as a suburban grassroots movement. As Sellers writes, “around 1970, no cluster of issues contributed more to a new environmental politics than the multiple affronts to land, water, air, and human flesh in America’s most transformed urban edges.”

This book is significant because, whether we like them or not, the suburbs are not going anywhere. Instead of devoting all our energy toward designing new communities, shouldn’t we concentrate on improving what we already have? We can reconsider what suburbia has already given us and what it can become.

By tracing the emergence of environmentalism in suburbia and then valuing hybrid suburban nature, Crabgrass Crucible puts to rest the narrative of suburbia as a purely nature-destroying phenomenon. The challenge now is how we might exploit these low-density settlements for ecological and social benefit. Sellers writes, “Any resolve to propel an entire society toward a more sustainable future must take seriously the nature near where most people live, at least as much as the nature where fewer people reside.”

Read the book.

This guest post is by Ben Wellington, Master’s of Landscape architecture graduate, Louisiana State University and ASLA 2012 summer intern.

Image credit: University of North Carolina Press

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