The New Suburbanism

Many people in industrial societies live in the suburbs which are really neither city nor country living. Many people have openly criticized the suburban way of life as the apex of consumer lifestyle highly dependent on fossil fuel input. Suburban life is a sort of pseudo-rural life where affluent middle and upper-class people purchase land “in the country” in order to enjoy the tranquility of being close to nature and having less population density surrounding them.

However, this proximity to nature is superficial and superfluous since the majority of suburban people have little direct contact with the land on which they live. They are, in essence, people who make their living in the city and who have an urban mentality but who have the affluence that permits them to commute from a very human-controlled rural area to the urban areas that sustain them monetarily.

Besides the enormous amount of fossil fuels used simply in commuting back and forth, another hallmark of wastefulness that characterizes suburban neighborhoods is the lawn. Those vast expanses of pesticide-filled green monocultures that surround every house actually began in Victorian England. Lawns were a way for the rich to show the rest of their neighbors that they had enough land that they could afford to leave large parts of their holdings follow and not grow anything productive.

What began as an arrogant display of wealth has grown into an essential part of almost every suburban home. When considered from a distance, lawns are the quintessential display of the insanity of our current civilization. The typical suburban family in any industrialized nation probably has between 1-2 acres of land that they dedicate several hours to each week mowing, fertilizing and spreading chemicals in order to maintain the “weeds” at bay. The purpose of this vast expanse of green grass is simply aesthetic. Most people work too much to even enjoy spending time on their lawns. Those who don´t enjoy “yard work” themselves, pay several hundred dollars each month to have a cleaning crew cut the grass, bag the leaves that fall from the trees, and do anything else to make sure that their grass is as green and manicured as that of their neighbors.

It can be easy to criticize the contradictions and the apparent lack of any sense of sustainability that characterizes suburban life. Where some sort of catastrophe or systemic failure to occur, most suburban neighborhoods would probably be much harder hit than the city or the countryside.

But what if we looked at suburban life through another lens? What if we could see behind the monstrously large houses and sterile, poisonous lawns to the underlying conditions that make up suburbia? What we would find would be small groups of people living in proximity to urban centers but usually on decent land. Each site would usually be about 1-2 acres in size, a size large enough to encourage small scale, diversified agricultural production.

Suburban neighborhoods could very well be turned into the ideal place for long term sustainable living. Imagine a typical suburban neighborhood composed of about 100 families but replace those massive, energy inefficient houses with small wood, cob or straw bale homes designed with energy efficiency in mind. Imagine that each house had a series of solar panels or wind turbines that fed a central generator that distributed power to the 100 houses in the area.

Most suburban neighborhoods have some sort of pond or water hole, so let´s imagine that every one of those houses collects rainwater from their roofs and garages and barns and feeds the pond that is teeming with fish. A solar water pump then distributes the water to each home and every home is required to have a grey water recycling system to water the fruit and nut trees around each house.

Around every home, we find a large garden with a diverse variety of vegetables and fruit trees. Some houses are also growing grains while others have decent sized orchards. Instead of the communal tennis court, the community has a communal pasture land where sheep, goats, and cattle graze throughout the day. A large barn houses the community´s animals and a rotating, elected group of volunteers watch over the livestock each night.

The community collectively owns two trucks which they drive to town twice each week to transport the produce to sell at the local farmers market. Some families specialize in dairy products while others make their own whole grain bread to sell. Others slaughter animals to sell meat by the pound while others market fresh fruits and vegetables. The people in the suburb are close enough to town that they can go into town any time they need to if they need to buy clothes, or repair a sewing machine or buy a new garden hoe.

Brian Donahue is an agrarian writer who has dedicated a large part of his life to building sustainability into his suburban community. He helps run a communal farm in the suburbs of New England where that markets its produce through a community supported agriculture (CSA) program. Donahue believes that “supporting and emerging from the commons will be a new common agrarianism within suburbanizing places, the conviction that it is not only in wilderness—as Thoreau declared—but in the interaction between wilderness and civilization that lies the preservation of the world.” It´s an ideal vision for sure, but one worth pursuing.

Tobias Roberts

After working in the development industry for over a decade, Tobias decided it was time to stop advising Central American farmers how to do things if he didn´t have a piece of land to live coherently with what he taught. Together with his family he runs a small agro-forestry farm, tourism cooperative, and natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador.


  1. Great ideas… but is there any real place where any aspect of this has actually been put into practice successfully for any length of time? I think we have to have ‘pictures’ of appealing, feasible and affordable examples, to ever persuade a significant portion of the population to try it. Or at least ‘remember’ the picture when catastrophe ‘persuades’ us that we need alternatives. One example I can think of is the town of Davis, CA.

  2. Peri-urban agriculture is about four times more productive than rural agriculture for equal area comparisons and in many parts of the world produces a significant part of the food supply for cities.

    From my article

    Australian government figures show how significantly more productive peri-urban agriculture really is.

    “Peri-urban areas are significant agricultural producers in most countries. The Port Phillip region around Melbourne, for example, is the second highest producer of agricultural products in Victoria, and its agricultural output per hectare is four times the state average. Australia’s peri-urban regions comprise less than three per cent of the land used for agriculture, but account for at least 20-25 per cent of the gross value of agricultural production in the five mainland Australian states.”

  3. It’s very do-able right here, right now. My 800 sq m in Logan Qld has a stand alone PV/Battery storage system and an interactive grid connection. I run a 1 cu/m bio-gas plant and produce the bulk of my food requirements from my Permaculture jungle. I also produce activated bio-char. It’s become a wildlife refuge with a huge variety of birds, reptiles and insect life. My transport is either by electric bike, on foot, or public transport. Very little effort is required to be lean and green in the suburbs if you put your mind and body to it.

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