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The Greening of Suburbia

Don't let all that grass fool you: big houses, lawns, and longer commutes make suburbs a lot less energy-efficient than cities.
Now, some suburbanites are trying to reduce their oversize carbon footprints.

By Patricia Smith


Click for graphics
Gabe Schwartzman, 17, grew up outside Washington, D.C., in Garrett Park, Maryland. It's the kind of place that embodies the classic image of American suburbia: big houses, big cars, and manicured lawns.

The problem is that all three are big consumers of energy, which makes suburbia a particular challenge for environmentalists.

But recently, amid a growing awareness of global climate change and after a summer of record-high gas prices, Schwartzman is noticing some changes in Garrett Park. He sees fewer SUVs, more hybrid cars, and more kids biking to school. The local supermarket now devotes an entire aisle to local, organic products, and more shoppers are choosing reusable bags instead of plastic on the checkout line.

"This is an issue that's motivating people on every side and bringing people together," says Schwartzman, a senior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda.

If the United States is ever to reduce its carbon emissions, suburbanites—that is, roughly half of all Americans—are going to have to play a big role. And lately, they're trying.

Since 2005, the mayors of hundreds of suburban communities across America have pledged to meet or beat the emissions goals set by the Kyoto Protocol, a controversial international treaty to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions that the U.S. has not ratified. At the same time, more individual homeowners are trying to help—and save money—by choosing solar heating for their pools, old-fashioned clotheslines for their backyards, or hybrid cars for their commutes.

Green Cities

But the problem is that the very things that make suburban life attractive—lush lawns, spacious houses, and three-car garages—also disproportionately contribute to global warming. In short, suburbs are fundamentally less energy-efficient than cities, where most people walk or use mass transit instead of relying on cars, and where housing is much smaller and more densely packed and therefore less expensive to heat and cool.

As some environmentalists argue that suburban life is simply not sustainable, cities are trumpeting their green credentials. The average New Yorker is responsible for the emission of 7.1 metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, compared with 24.5 metric tons for the average American. Still not satisfied, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg has developed a plan to reduce carbon emissions from the nation's largest city by 30 percent by 2030.

"The very essence of the post-Second World War America suburb militates against 'greening,' " says Thomas J. Sugrue, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. "Given the almost complete dependency of suburbanites on the car, it's an uphill battle."

Longtime suburbanites might wonder how they suddenly became environmentally incorrect. In the 1950s and '60s, people who left cities for "planned communities" that sprung up in places like Levittown, N.Y., thought they were being green just by moving, says Robert Beauregard, a professor of urban planning at Columbia University.

Then, green "just meant open space and privacy," Beauregard says. "Those Levittowns were 'green' because they had lawns."

In the last few decades, the suburbs have expanded dramatically as rings of outer, more-distant communities have sprouted up in previously rural areas. At the same time, the average single-family home nearly doubled in size from 1970 to 2005, to 2,434 square feet. These larger homes require a lot more energy to heat and cool—a key factor because so much recent growth has occurred in the Sunbelt, the South and Southwest. And Americans commuting to work by car travel farther as suburbs sprawl (an average 12.1 miles in 2001, up from 8.9 miles in 1983), in vehicles whose fuel efficiency has improved little in recent years.

But attitudes—and habits—seem to be changing. In the last few months, the slumping economy and high energy prices have accelerated the shift: Using less energy isn't just good for the planet; it's good for everyone's wallets. And suburbanites are coming up with a wide variety of creative solutions to lower their environmental impact.

Aileen Eilert, an accountant who lives in Lisle, Ill., 30 miles west of Chicago, recently bought a 70-foot wind turbine for her backyard. The turbine, which cost $12,000, will generate all the household power her family uses, and more: They'll trade any extra with the local power company for credits, and she expects the turbine to pay for itself in about 10 years.

Alexander Lee, 33, is the founder of Project Laundry List, which is trying to revive the use of old-fashioned clotheslines to save energy. He says he's run into resistance from suburban community associations, many of which have regulations restricting clotheslines.

"There are three complaints," says Lee, who lives in Concord, N.H. "It will lower my property values. That's what poor people do. Also, I don't want anyone to see my underwear—what I call the 'prudery' objection."

But people seem to be getting over their objections: Last year, the number of participants nationally in Project Laundry List jumped from 400 to more than 2,000.

Many mayors from the 780 towns that have signed the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement—pledging to meet the Kyoto standards for carbon emissions by 2012—hail from suburbs like Aliso Viejo, Calif. (south of Los Angeles), and Fair Lawn, N.J. (outside New York).

Northbrook, Ill., near Chicago, says it now buys enough electricity from wind farms to offset all the power its water company needs, saving an estimated 4.9 million pounds of carbon-dioxide emissions a year. Like many other suburbs, it has also changed its traffic signals to energy-efficient L.E.D. models, and enforces no-idling rules for motorists—including police officers.

Levittown, N.Y.—carved out of a potato field on Long Island in 1947—now has its own Green Levittown program. After residents conduct a $150 home-energy audit, they are eligible for discounts, rebates, and low-interest loans for switching to energy-efficient light bulbs, solar power, biofuels, and upgraded home insulation.

In the 1950s and '60s, it was common for suburban kids to walk or bike to school, but the percentage of children plummeted from 50 percent in 1969 to 15 percent in 2001. The Safe Routes to School program is trying to reverse the trend, with federal funds for building bike paths, training crossing guards, and improving roadway safety in towns and suburbs around the country. In 2000, when Marin County, north of San Francisco, launched a pilot program, 21 percent of children at nine schools surveyed walked or rode their bikes to school. Two years later, that figure was 38 percent, according to the program's director.

An increasing number of suburban teens are trying to make their communities more efficient.

Gabe Schwartzman, the teen from the Washington suburbs, succeeded last year in getting his county government to commit to filling its school buses with 20 percent biodiesel fuel. This year, he's trying to persuade the schools to install solar panels. (Schwartzman drives a 1980 Volvo that runs on biofuel that he brews from used vegetable oil in his family's basement.)

Green Chic

Last year, Ethan Buckner, 17, helped found a statewide student-run coalition in Minnesota to tackle climate change. Buckner, who graduated last year from Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, has mixed feelings about his childhood in the suburbs of Minneapolis.

"I grew up in the big house with the big backyard, the classic suburban American dream," Buckner says, adding that it was a place with great schools, but totally dependent on cars. "It's a structure that's turning out to be very challenging for families because of the rising costs of fuel."

Kelsea Norris, 18, who grew up in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, was a president of her high school's environmental club, but she's a bit cynical about the rise of environmentalism in suburbia.

"It's not that the consciousness has changed, that people have realized their impact on the planet," says Norris, who graduated last year from Roswell High School and is now a freshman at the University of Georgia. "Green has become chic, and everyone wants to do it. These suburban moms want to walk around with these reusable grocery bags."

Young people see themselves as an important influence in translating environmental concerns into action.

"I definitely think people are more aware, and they're paying more attention," Buckner says. "The youth climate movement was nonexistent three years ago. But now there are tens of thousands of students working on these issues."