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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


October 2007

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Bytes of Note - Unsustainable Suburbia

One-half of the U.S. population lives in suburbia, and the proportion is growing—by comparison, 30 percent live in cities, and 20 percent live in rural areas (Census 2000 Special Reports: Demographic Trends in the 20th Century, Figure 1-15).

Meanwhile, suburban land use, development, transportation, and consumption patterns foster a host of environmental ills. For example, the presence of impervious surfaces, such as concrete or asphalt, coupled with pollutants from lawns and automobiles, can change the composition and volume of stormwater runoff. Increased drive times linked to suburban development have made some regions’ commutes unbearable and are associated with pollution, including greenhouse gases (compare automobile types at, carbon monoxide, acid rain precursors, ozone precursors, carcinogens, and particulate matter (for technical discussion, see the 1998 National Academy of Sciences book Air Pollution, the Automobile, and Public Health). Malfunctioning or improperly used septic systems in many areas outside of public sewage treatment networks have resulted in groundwater contamination. There is also considerable documentation of the ill effects of pesticides and fertilizers from lawn care (,, and Land development in some areas has left residents vulnerable to increased wildland fires and has contributed as well to ecological habitat loss, fragmentation, and degradation. 

Many of suburbia’s environmental problems have to do with the inefficiency of low housing density. A Sierra Club Web site enables users to calculate the effect of various housing densities on environmental impacts per household. A 2001 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Our Built and Natural Environments, describes the general environmental effects of suburbanization on the physical environment. These effects include habitat disruption, loss of wetlands, and degradation of water quality in terms of contaminants, acidity, streamflow, and temperature.

Suburbia has also been linked to a set of public health problems less traditionally “environmental.” Less walkability means more obesity. The more vehicle miles traveled due to car commuting and the low-density, single-use nature of suburban design, the more opportunity there is for car accidents, road rage, stress, and back problems. Pedestrian injuries and deaths can be attributed to lack of sidewalks and pedestrian-friendly crossings. Meanwhile, roads, parking lots, and rooftops retain heat more than vegetation does, and the greater the area of such surfaces, the larger the urban heat island and the greater the contribution to extreme heat events (click on “Urban Sprawl and Public Health” at More time spent driving and living in isolating subdivisions tends to depress social capital, the web of family relationships, neighborly concern, and civic engagement that is essential to good health and quality of life, a phenomenon documented in Robert D. Putnam’s book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. (Data from the study and the book’s bibliography are available at

These problems are compounded by racial and economic segregation between city and suburb and from suburb to suburb. Minding the Gap: An Assessment of Racial Disparity in Metropolitan Chicago illustrates the ill effects of residential segregation on the wealth, education, housing, transportation, and safety of African-American and Latino men and women in one metropolitan area. Given such statistics, most analysts would agree that environmental and social problems of suburbia require metropolitan or regional solutions. Yet because the average metropolitan area in the United States has 114 separate governments, each with its own interests (Governance and Opportunity in Metropolitan America, page 23), effective metropolitan governance in the United States is cripplingly difficult. Meanwhile, politicians courting wealthy suburban voters have found that it is not in their self-interest to shake up suburban life by proposing innovative solutions.

Finally, suburbia is woefully under-researched. As of press time, a Google Scholar search for suburban-related environmental articles on the United States yielded 47,800 hits. A similar search for rural environments yielded 247,000 hits, and one for urban environmental articles dwarfs the suburban and rural search results with 548,000 hits. While it is likely that many of these “urban” article citations include phenomena shared with suburbs, such as stormwater runoff and air pollution, suburbia is different from the central city and deserves particular attention to solve its numerous problems. (Next month’s column: possible solutions for suburbia).

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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