America has an overconsumption problem. We use too much oil purchased from countries which hate us to haul ourselves from point A to point B. We use too much coal to light homes which are too big and filled with too much stuff which we took out too much credit to buy. Though Americans make up just 5% of the world's population, the US alone accounts for 25% of the world's annual resource use. According to the Global Footprint Network, the consumptive lifestyle to which most Americans are accustomed would require at least four planet Earths to sustain indefinitely.
Nowhere is this culture of "too much" more apparent than in the great crusts of civilization surrounding our cities which we call "suburbia" and which suburban sprawl critic James H. Kunstler calls, "the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known." In the year 2000, 50% of the US population lived in suburban areas and that number has only grown since. Suburbia, both in its residents and use of resources, is quickly becoming, if it has not become already, synonymous with the "American Dream" and what it means to live in this country.
The real problem with suburbia is not aesthetic or cultural, though we aren't talking about the tree-lined streets of Greenwich Connecticut and Newton Massachusetts here, but spatial. In a nod to American's preference for feelings of privacy and land ownership, suburban areas have been designed to create space between people, between home, work and shopping, and between home and the perceived evils of city life. Resources in the form of oil, electricity and money to buy goods are then used to fill the space. In short, American suburban dwellers have sought space for themselves and their families, only to turn around and fill that space with consumption.
The issue of overconsumption is not new. For decades, environmentalists and sustainability activists have proposed a very simple solution, "Use less!" America, they say, will be able to make itself cleaner, greener, cooler, prettier, more equitable and more globally competitive if it can only find the common inspiration to turn off the lights, drive a little less, buy local food and develop energy sources which do not require million year old decayed plant and animal matter. All this is possible they say, if only we could all just tap into a sense of environmental enlightenment, join hands and in one clear gesture turn off the water while brushing our teeth.
Calls to be greener and use less energy are all well and good, but ultimately mean nothing unless we can fundamentally restructure the suburban environment in which a large swath of the American public lives. In suburbia, overconsumption may seem like a choice (and perhaps at a certain extreme level it is), but the physical reality remains that large-scale resource consumption is the only way to survive in the environment which we've built for ourselves. 50% of Americans live in suburban spaces only inhabitable with a large dollop of natural resources.
And just how do we go about redesigning the world of strip malls, big box stores and housing developments with cheesy, British sounding names? Again, the answer is simple. Move things closer together! Closeness is the driving principal behind the school of land-use planning and design known as New Urbanism. New Urbanist designers seek to move home, work, shopping and play closer together, preferably within walking distance or accessible by efficient public transportation. All of a sudden homes are smaller, but much better located and cars have to be used less if at all. Suburban sprawl is soon replaced by compact, desirable living areas. Not only do New Urban spaces require less energy to run and travel around and reduce the amount of land lost to large, flat, ugly development (think car dealerships), but the people living in these areas are able to form a sense of place and community. Unlike many of the ideas proposed by environmentalists which require people to make a conscious effort, go out of their way, or, in many consumers' eyes, make their lives less comfortable, New Urban design creates spaces people actually want to be a part of.
In a world in which impassioned pleas and the "if they only knew" excuse only go so far, the rise of New Urban design presents an attractive offer: Get people to make their lives more sustainable at the same time they make their lives tangibly better. While the path to a more sustainable future will require a vast set of new ideas, new technologies and yes, even some sacrifice, the first step begins with intelligent, simple design.