"Dead malls," "traffic sewers," "parking deserts." These terms are now common among civic planners. They also have a common origin: suburbia.
These are not the usual terms used in public health discussion. Yet the physical design of U.S. suburbs – based on the assumption that virtually all transport would be done by automobile – probably kills more Americans than smoking or drug and alcohol abuse.
Wait a minute! Diabetes, heart disease, cancer, depression. Those are the proper terms of public health. Valiant doctors and nurses and hospitals fight chronic disease.
What does the fight against chronic illness have to do with the suburbs? Or civic planners?
In my opinion, pretty much everything. I believe the key reasons for poor health outcomes in the U.S. are lack of physical activity, low-quality food, and stress. The design of our physical places, and in particular our suburban streets, is a key underlying cause of our sedentary, crap-for-food, stressed out lives. Bad suburban-style street designs are killing us. Perhaps more than any other thing.
The suburban development pattern in the U.S., which blossomed mostly after World War II, is now entering its second and third generation in many places. And it is starting to fail. It is failing fiscally, as the upkeep cost of sprawled-out infrastructure exceeds the tax base that all that infrastructure supports. And I believe it is a deep root cause of the explosion of chronic disease.
Really? After all, the suburbs were supposed to be a healthful improvement over squalid conditions in crowded cities, with plenty of fresh air, green grass, open space. New schools, low crime rates, playgrounds, ballfields. What’s unhealthy about that?
What went wrong?
Humans are at our core are bipedal and tribal. Suburbs, where the only feasible means of transportation for most people is the automobile, essential defeat both core human traits.
We don’t walk (or otherwise use our legs and feet for mobility), and we don’t touch each other in community. The main fault lies with the physicial development pattern – sprawl – which forces humans out of our evolutionary comfort zone.
This has a profound impact on the way we live. As a group, suburban Americans are fat, stressed, angry, resentful and unhealthy. Maybe not you or me personally. But that is a fair characterization of us as a people. And we wonder why. It must somehow be Obama’s fault. Or the terrorists. Or the immigrants. Or the gays. Or the poors.
We try to compensate. We drive to megachurches to get a substitute for local community. That helps, for some. We drive to the park to jog around the lake. We drive to the gym to ride the exercise bike. We join a softball league that plays at ballparks we drive to all over the county. Those things help too. We bring in a farmers market on the empty parking lot, and there’s an organic market to compete with the supermarket. First generation fast food drive-ins fail and are replaced by ethnic joints with fresher, higher quality food. It all helps.
Solar panels and (hopefully soon) full-house batteries replace fossil-generated electric and gas. That’s a big thing the suburbs can do to clean up their air and their carbon footprint.
But these things are compensating for an underlying habitation pattern – home, work, market, school – that is essentially sedentary and non-social.
We drive to work alone. We work in offices and cubes with people who live elsewhere. We drive to big boxes and shop among strangers. We drop off our kids at school or at the bus stop. We drive to the fern bar for a drink after fighting the traffic all the way from downtown. Then we drive home, hopefully without killing anyone. We drive to a restaurant, sometimes. Or grab a bag of comfort grease at a drive-thru. Assuming deskwork and a now-standard 9 (or 10) hour work day, and 2+ hours a day in our cars, many suburbanites spend more time sitting than sleeping.
And of course, suburban design puts tremendous stress on people with low incomes. It's difficult, if not impossible, to support a decent lifestyle and a car on a service economy wage. And people who can't afford cars and their upkeep have few options, and waste countless hours trying to navigate piss-poor or too-expensive public transit. Too often, suburban street design literally kills those of us who don't drive.
As the suburbs mature, their upkeep usually slips. This is inevitable in all but the richest places. Much of the original infrastructure was funded by developers or by the state or federal government. But in the second and third generation, schools aren’t new anymore, and the developers and feds and state programs aren’t paying much. Schools decay. Roads show their age. In the oldest suburbs, water mains are starting to break, and electric lines are starting to depreciate rapidly. Stuff is too far apart and too expensive to maintain versus the tax base that it supports.
As sprawled-out infrastructure wears out, costs of maintenance go up. Maybe your jurisdiction raises taxes. Maybe you increase municipal fines (see Missouri, Ferguson). Maybe the worn out pavement and bridges and sewer systems and water lines and electric poles are replaced only by triage, with lots of needed maintenance deferred and only the worst problems addressed. You learn to live with the potholes and rough patch and faded street lines. And structurally deficient bridges.
When the suburbs were built on farmland and pastures, the roads often had a pleasant, country feel. No longer. Country roads have been widened and converted into semi-highways, ostensibly to relieve traffic congestion, but really to facilitate new suburban developments even farther out. Bucolic vistas have become strip malls.
The resulting "STROADS" – part high-use street, part high-speed road – are incredibly dangerous, to drive, walk, or bike. Not to mention ugly, demoralizing, and dehumanizing.
Guard rails fill the medians, to prevent speeding drivers from running head on. Of course, they also prevent pedestrians just trying to get across. Trees are cut back in the “clear zone” so that fewer motorists crash into them. But removing the trees also removes the life of the road. No shade, no sidewalks, no bus shelters, no sidepaths. We can’t have nice things.
As the roads widen and parking lots expand, runoff increases and the water quality in streams, ponds, and lakes worsens. As traffic congestion increases, air quality falls. Even in the leafy suburbs.
Elderly residents are increasingly stranded and isolated, especially if they can’t (or at least shouldn’t) drive.
Stressed out commuters buzz through suburban subdivisions so fast that kids can’t play in the streets. It’s “safer” to play video games after school, right?
Actually, no. Children are increasingly obese, and obesity is hard to rid of. It takes years of physical activity and good food to convert fat to fit – dieting and fads rarely work. Trust me on that.
Many U.S. suburbs are a financial Ponzi scheme, using “greenfield development” revenues from new subdivisions and strips built ever further into farm and woods country to pay off the infrastructure replacement and maintain the schools closer in.
But all Ponzi schemes eventually collapse, and that is starting to happen now. There are no more nearby greenfields to pave, and the far away ones are too far for even an insane car commute. States can’t afford to build more or wider sprawl facilitation highways. Housing values in distant, car-dependent areas have seen most of the foreclosures and bankruptcies in the Great Recession. Housing prices are stagnant at best in car-locked areas.
When the suburban movement blossomed in the 1950s and 1960s, cities were paved over with highways. Barren carscapes and fumes from leaded gas ruined the liveability of whole neighborhoods in cities. ("Slum" clearance and urban "renewal" didn't help either, but that's another story.)
Now, that is switching around, mostly organically. Many cities are growing more pleasant, and it shows in skyrocketing housing prices. Cities have many non-car transit options. Streets have been reclaimed for people, with narrower, easier to cross travel lanes, street trees, bike lanes, and sidewalks. Old buildings on walkable streets are in high demand, for small shops and businesses.
The downside of the rebirth of our walkable cities is their very desirability, which has made their housing costs too expensive for many, even if you don't need a car. That's why we need to retrofit the suburbs for livability too. We need to redesign our neighborhoods to give suburban people who don't want to strap on a 2-ton machine and burn gas to get their errands done alternative ways of getting around. And that will make more room on the streets for people who do need to use heavy cars and trucks for their work or transport.
Battles of the burbs are being fought throughout the Washington DC area, where I live, whether it's trading rarely used car parking for bike lanes in Alexandra, replacing used car lots with residential and commercial communities in Hyattsville, or (maybe someday) regreening empty parking lots in Greenbelt.
How do we win the battles of the suburbs, improve our communities, improve our lives and our public health? Can we make our suburbs more city-like in value and accessibility while maintaining their green and leafy nice parts?
Before anything can be done, we need to retire a generation of traffic and civil engineers. These guys (and they're mostly guys) should have their cars confiscated, and be required to live in tents for a year beside their beloved traffic sewers, breathing car exhaust fumes. Their designs have forced everyone in the suburbs to drive big, heavy cars to get every place. They have forced everyone in the suburbs to buy cars, even if they work and shop and go to school close to home. Their semi-highway, strip streets are killing my town economically. Their "standards" amount to malpractice. They are among the most deadly people in society.
Conversation with an Engineer (video), via http://www.strongtowns.org
(I'll have more to say about traffic and street engineers in a follow-up diary, if you want to what how I really feel about them. But until the current generation is safely packed off to retirement and their car-only, high-speed and sprawl-facilitating design standards are sent straight to hell, we can't make much progress. And yes, I realize some engineers "get it" and are fighting to improve the standards that currently dictate death by car, and are trying to use their knowledge and expertise to adjust street design to local context, instead of using the idiotic standards in the first place. Sadly, they remain a small and uninfluential minority in my county.)
First, convert suburban traffic sewers into tree-lined, walkable boulevards. These boulevards should be lined with shops and apartments, easily accessible by transit (bus or streetcar ideally), with wide sidewalks and protected bike lanes. Parking should be around back, and only as much as is necessary on an average day. The street can have the capacity to handle lots of cars, but only at low, steady speeds, like 25 miles per hour.
These should be living and working and shopping streets, not damned highways, and they need to be designed that way. If you want to drive fast to get somewhere else, take the highway instead, not the suburban boulevard.
surface parking to only as much as needed. This is largely a zoning issue, which must be fought county by county or city by city. Zoning officials who know all the complexities tend not to want change. But change is essential. The suburban development pattern based on current zoning is inefficient and deadly, and it needs to be urbanized along the key transit corridors to survive. Zoning codes need to reflect this. Many large surface parking lots are empty year-round in my town
, creating runoff and not contributing to the economic base. It's ridiculous.
Third, connect the cul-de-sacs and common areas with bike and jogging trails. Ultimately, the suburbs should be ribboned with shady bike trails, along the rivers and between the subdivisions. Give the people a choice other than just their cars, give students a safe way to walk or bike to school, make bike commuting a trip through nature and peace, not exhaust fumes and noise and danger.
greenfield development and sprawl facilitation highways. In a warming world, with the likelihood of future agricultural shocks, we need arable land near cities, so that we can improve local food supplies. We have to stop paving our nearby farm land, now. Likewise, building highways to relieve “congestion” only creates more sprawl and rarely actually relieves congestion. We need to focus on improving the streets for the people who live near them, not for the benefit of new sprawl developments further and further away.
Does this mean the suburbs are dead, and we all have to move to apartments? Of course not. Suburban spaces can still be viable if maintaining their infrastructure is affordable for the local tax base. But we can’t count on federal or state funds.
We need to figure out how to replace our roads and rebuild and retrofit our schools and community buildings and amenities with funds we can generate within the community.
That will mean more tax revenues somehow, either by raising rates or expanding the tax base. A lot of communities can’t realistically afford ever-higher tax rates (my community can’t). Instead, the revenues need to come from getting more economic value and tax revenue from the current pavement and pipes and power lines that are already in place.
Some suburbanites fight all new developments. It's a logical thing to do if "development" only facilitates more sprawl that devalues current neighborhoods. But we’re going to need to pick our battles.
Sure, oppose sprawl development that leapfrogs the current suburbs, paves current green space, and continues the suburban financial Ponzi scheme. However, we’re going to need to embrace new development around transit corridors and suburban boulevards, which, if built thoughtfully, won’t necessarily put more cars on the road.
Thanks for making it this far though a long diary. I’m trying to work out these thoughts with an idea of trying publish them in the public health literature at some point.
Appreciate your comments, pro or con, engineer, driver, bus rider, walker or bike rider. I have mother's day festivities to attend today, but will try to check in periodically to deal with the tender feelings of the engineering profession if they find this diary.
https://www.cnu.org/ (Congress for the New Urbanism)
Retrofitting Suburbia (Ellen Dunham-Jones)
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