Oh, Suburbia, how you have failed me.
This past weekend my wife and I had the pleasure of visiting several houses on the Parade of Homes tour here in Waco. In typical Texas fashion, the homes were large, with grand entrances, high ceilings, loads of stone and cedar, and garages resembling a small parking lot. In spite of their super-sized McMansionism, though, I was impressed with the unique character that a few of the homes had. Some builders included thoughtful touches that we could see incorporating into our future dream house. What won’t be incorporated, surely, are the footprints (and carbon footprints) they leave.
Most notably, the majority of the homes on the route were located in a typical suburban subdivision, as if that were a prerequisite for entry in the Parade. Though the houses were architecturally interesting, none were located in a neighborhood where I’d actually want to live. The neighborhoods either lacked services and amenities that would be practical for residents, or they were simply too far away from anyplace useful. Roads were wide and trees sparse, yet, throughout the literature readers will find proud descriptions of all the features that make their homes greener than the competition. I’m sorry, but spray foam insulation and Energy Star-rated appliances alone do not make a house green.
As I have begun reflecting on the current situation in the Gulf region, I am reminded of our mortality as a culture. I mean, the way we are going about our daily lives simply cannot remain as it is. Environmentally, economically, and relationally, the status quo must change. As a future planner and developer, I feel a personal responsibility to treat our planet the way God intended; that is, to be good stewards of our land. While we continue to push the envelope, engineering new ways to deplete our resources more quickly, I can’t help but sense that there is another way.
I posed a question about the oil spill on my new favorite planning site, and was both encouraged and saddened by some of the responses (which you can read in full here). When I asked how those in the profession believe the oil spill would affect the planning of our cities and regions in the long-term, some felt the same burden I do, believing we should join the post-crude crusade. Others plainly suggested that only the fanatical environmentalists would change.
Though a hopeless optimist, I understand the reality of our existence in the sense that we must take from the land. It is most practical to build homes of wood in our economy. Owning a car is a practical need for most of us. And, sometimes the chemicals we’ve developed as a society are just plain necessary to keeping us healthy. But, as a people, we should feel compelled to question what’s in the products on our shelves, what exactly we’re putting in our bodies, and why we need to live where we do. Why do we subject ourselves to living in a 4,000 square foot house that we use one-third of, sited on an acre of land we rarely play on? Why do we pave 50-foot wide roadways for a neighborhood of only 50 homes, then wonder why flooding is a problem? And, more, do we enjoy these places any more than our ancestors did, in homes one-fourth the size? Do we really think that driving everywhere is better than what could be?
Sure, the field of planning may primarily focus on the built environment; after all, we interact with it 24 hours a day. But, planning means considering every area of life itself, accounting not for how we live today, but how we might live tomorrow if only we were given the chance.