At a recent event I listened to noted environmentalist Wendell Berry, Bill McKibben, and Terry Tempest Williams and was struck by their mature sense of place. Their sense of place went beyond sentimental attachments, of which there were plenty. It was a commitment to environmental protection and restoration, economic reliance on their community members, and the heritage and health of their communities. As a child of the suburbs, this stood in stark contrast to my lack of place. But if these environmentalists have taught me anything, it is that loyalty to one’s place is a prerequisite for a healthy community.
Most of us are familiar with the markings of suburbia. Generally speaking, they lack a town center; if there is one it consists of the typical strip mall. Food comes from the grocery store, imported from South America or California. Anything else bought comes from even further away. As bedroom communities, they sponsor commutes that are commonly over an hour, disconnecting home from work. This story is played out all over the U.S., not just in the DC suburbs of Maryland and Virginia. The suburb I live in is no different than any other suburb; it is, in effect, placeless. It is our latest version of the American Dream, built on noble intentions. And while Americans love their suburbs, a new vision is needed. For sustainability is the story of limits – of scale and interdependent relationships.
If for no other reason, making the suburbs more sustainable is necessary for this simple fact: they aren’t going anywhere. As David Brooks notes about a new Pew Research Center study, Americans still want suburban living. Transforming the suburb into a healthy community will require intelligent planning and intentional individual action.
Creating a sense of place will take planning measures that reduce the use of cars and concentrate development. Most notably, it reduces greenhouse gases and gives a sense of neighborliness. Increasing public transit use in the suburbs is an essential step towards doing this. Regardless of the pros and cons of the proposed Purple Line (a suburban metro line in the northern portion of the Metro system) in the Washington DC metro area, for example, this type of thinking is what will transform our suburbs into distinct communities. Transit-oriented-development (TOD) is another planning strategy which concentrates mixed-use areas around transit, such as around a metro stop. It could be significant for creating town centers, and all their benefits, in and around suburban neighborhoods.
While citizen participation is an essential part of the planning process, there are individual actions which can create the relationships that characterize place-based living and healthy communities. One of the most important ways is to buy local food (see the blog posts ‘A Healthy DC part 1’ and ‘part 2‘). This builds relationships with producers in your foodshed, creating the space for improving the environmental, nutritional, and economic quality of the land and people involved in this food chain. Another economic approach, patronizing local, independent business, is vital for a thriving community identity which is absent in big box stores. These local, independent businesses are often run with more care, which equates into more quality for their customers. Beyond informed shopping, getting involved in a local environmental group goes a long way in learning the natural history and ecology of a place, as well as providing a way to get outdoors. It provides the opportunity to personally be involved in environmental factors that affect you, such as the water, air, and soil quality of your home.
Simply put, getting involved in your place makes you more aware of the details. Appreciating the details engenders care. We are encouraged to be mobile, zealous partakers of the globalized world – inundated with possibilities of where to shop, where to eat, and where to have fun. This is all well and good, but not at the environmental, economic, and social expense of our place.