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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


November 2007

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Bytes of Note - Seeking Solutions for Suburbia

As suburban population grows, so does a complex constellation of environmental ills—and as last month’s column showed, many of these ills revolve around car travel. As a result, the most familiar efforts to solve them strive to make commutes and other drives less harmful to the environment.

Public transportation is an obvious choice, but coverage and convenience leave much to be desired in many metro areas. A look at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s homepage—with instructions on importing a car from abroad but no information on domestic public transit—reveals transit’s lack of national priority. (It shares a third-level “Commuters” page with environmentally unsustainable “air commuting.”) Carpool lanes give drivers an incentive to share rides, and riders can link up with fellow drivers via the Internet (see, for example, Traveling by bike can help, but keeping cyclists safe from cars is an issue. Building and maintaining bicycle commuting infrastructure (see and and wearing bike helmets  are both crucial. For those who can’t carpool, bicycle, or take mass transit, cars with better gas mileage (and thus lower pollution per mile) will help.

Making suburbs more pedestrian friendly encourages walking for short trips, but building sidewalks receives little national attention. However, traffic calming—redesigning roadways to manage car speed and pedestrian safety—is gaining acceptance. Better road network design can also have positive impacts on open space, social interactions, traffic congestion, and walkability.

Other solutions encourage suburbanites to make necessary trips less often or during less congested times (which means lower fuel consumption and less pollution due to fewer starts and stops). Many employers support telecommuting, which can involve working at home on a full- or part-time basis. (See, for example, the U.S. government employees’ guide.) Compressing work into fewer days can mean fewer commuting days as well, and flexible work schedules allow commuters to pick the easiest time of travel. Other practices, including increased gas, commuter, and congestion taxes, remain highly contentious but can also decrease the number of car trips. A congestion tax (a fee for travel during the working and commuting day) is now standard for travel in central London.

Still other solutions work at decreasing the length of necessary car travel. Higher-density housing combined with mixed use (intermingled housing, shopping, businesses, and services) means easier walking (or shorter car trips) to obtain necessary services and make public transportation practical (see

Cluster development has a similar effect yet preserves surrounding open space. Transit-centered development puts high density or cluster development close to subway, rail, or bus stops, obviating the need for a car within a metro area. Infill and grayfield development help prevent greenfield development (building on new land in the suburbs). Infill places new housing or other buildings in vacant areas of cities or older suburbs to take advantage of existing density and transit; grayfield development uses defunct shopping centers and parking lots for new purposes.

Some solutions for suburbia result from interactions at the governmental, organizational, professional, or institutional level. The “New Urbanism” design movement incorporates lessons learned (in terms of density and mixed use) from successful older urban centers into new plans. The Smart Growth Network, organized by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is a group of advocates and practitioners trying to minimize the negative impacts of land development in the United States. They maintain a list of reports, case studies, films, and other materials (click “Resources”) as well as a list of member organizations active in the field. Metropolitan planning organizations (see are representative U.S. organizations that help urbanized areas (which usually have multiple local governments) plan for, obtain, and divide federal transportation funding. Regional councils of governments or planning commissions typically cover a planning mandate beyond transportation for multiple jurisdictions across a metropolitan area.

However, development and transportation planning efforts are not the only means to improve suburban environments. Others include porous pavement, which reduces stormwater runoff; alternative septic systems, such as composting toilets; and better yard management practices, such as using integrated pest management for lawn care, planting native species in landscaping, and establishing wildlife habitat around the home.

It is also important to consider the driving forces of suburban development; they tend to be broadly social and need to be addressed not only to prevent environmental degradation but because they touch on the well-being of all communities. Many cities are grappling with the problem of the flight of young, middle-class families from the cities to the suburbs and are working on ways to improve schools, parks, libraries, and personal safety. Race has had a pervasive role in flight to the suburbs as well, and elimination of racial discrimination, violence, and fear needs to be a key goal. The U.S. Department of State maintains a good bibliography on race relations in the nation. Within urban and suburban areas, loss of social relationships has been a factor fragmenting communities. Cohousing communities—in which private households share management responsibilities and common facilities, such as central dining and meeting areas—has emerged as one solution.

Many suburban issues require new research and the application of existing research to new solutions. Among organizations carrying out such research is the Urban Land Institute (ULI), a think tank supported in large part by real estate development interests but also by academic and government members. ULI has produced a series of publications on urban and suburban development, many of which are free online. The National Academies and its Transportation Research Board maintain bibliographies on transportation research, with many citations containing potential suburban applications.

GEORGE E. CLARK is the environmental resources librarian at the Harvard College Library. Material for Bytes of Note may be directed to him at

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