The 'burbs don't have to be the scourge of the nation: some easy steps to make existing planned communities healthier and friendlier.
We hear and read a lot about the hidden costs of sprawl, for example that the average American now spends 443 hours behind the wheel every year, the equivalent of 55 nine-hour days. And we hear about new kinds of subdivisions and building projects such as "new urbanism" and "pedestrian pockets" that may help reduce both sprawl and unwanted driving. But we don't hear much about what can we do to enhance the health of existing suburbs. The fact is, we've already sprawled, doubling the size of metro areas like Kansas City, Atlanta and Las Vegas in just the past few years.

Starting with what's already in place, how can we tune our neighborhoods up so they're healthier and more efficient? Rather than getting in the car five or ten times a day for shopping, kid shuttling, recreation and work, with a little teamwork we can find ways to meet more of our needs right in our own neighborhoods.

For the last six years, I've experimented with this idea in my personal life. Because I work at home, walk to stores for exercise, and have friends and recreation ( in the form of a large garden) right in my neighborhood, I've had to borrow my neighbor's battery charger several times recently, because I'm not driving enough to recharge my car's battery. A few basic changes in my daily routine have saved me a lot of money on gas, parking, food, medical bills, insurance premiums, and other expenses, not to mention a lot of stress on the highways.

While many of the impacts of suburban design focus on water pollution, habitat loss and other symptoms "out there," recent findings by the Centers for Disease Control connect these impacts directly with our personal health. Says CDC Director Richard Jackson, "The diseases of the 21st century will be chronic diseases like diabetes, obesity, asthma, and depression, that steal vitality and productivity, and consume time and money. These diseases can be moderated by how we design, build, and maintain our human environment."

Dr. Jackson points to the connection between urban sprawl -- which makes fewer sidewalks and bike paths available -- and the recent surge in adult-onset diabetes. "Obesity increases the risk of this type of diabetes as much as 34-fold," he says, "which in turn increases the incidence of amputations, blindness, kidney failure, and heart disease." Since 1975, childhood obesity doubled and adult obesity shot from 47 percent to 61 percent of the population.

The good news is that weight loss and physical activity are more effective -- and cheaper -- in controlling diabetes than medication. The same is true for other sprawl-related diseases. For example, physical activity is as effective as prescription drugs for treatment of relatively mild cases of anxiety and depression, according to Jackson.

However, if our neighborhoods aren't interesting or even safe to walk in, and if there are no stores, parks and other destinations that give walking a sense of purpose, we won't walk. To become more active, many resolute Americans climb in their cars and drive to the gym, which creates other health risks. Says Jackson, "Respiratory disease, especially asthma, is increasing yearly in the U.S., and poor quality air makes it worse. In 1997, smog pollution was responsible for more than 6 million asthma attacks and 160,000 emergency room visits."

Other health impacts related to the design of suburban neighborhoods include heart disease and stroke, high blood pressure, colon cancer, bicycle and pedestrian accidents, and less mobility for the elderly and disabled.

One way to make suburban neighborhoods healthier is to make them more like villages, so we'll want to spend more time there. Wouldn't the steady addition of shops, home businesses, pocket parks, trails, community gardens, neighborhood recycling systems, and vanpools make suburbia more lively and invigorating? These elements and many more like them can be added to neighborhoods across the country if suburban residents begin to work together, pooling energy, time and skills.

How much healthier can our suburbs become if this "remodeling" approach is taken? Imagine new bike trails; better street access for the disabled; homes that each have better indoor air quality because of the efforts of an "eco-team," schoolyards with butterfly habitats and gardeners' markets on the weekend ... By solving problems together, suburban neighbors can create a strong sense of community, which doctors tell us is one of the most important variables of all.

31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods

In research for the book "Superbia!" my coauthor and I found many examples of neighbors working together to meet various needs right in the neighborhood. They combined a shared desire for a greater sense of community with projects they accomplished together, which made their neighborhoods more livable and sustainable. Here's a list of some of the actions they took, followed by a few examples of how they did it.

Easy Steps

1. Sponsor community dinners

2. Establish a community newsletter, bulletin board, and community roster

3. Establish a neighborhood watch program

4. Start neighborhood investment clubs, community sports activities and restoration projects

5. Form weekly discussion groups

6. Establish neighborhood baby-sitting coop

7. Form an organic food co-op

8. Create car or van pools for commuting to and from work, bike racks

9. Create a neighborhood work-share program to perform clean-up

10. Create a mission statement

11. Create an asset inventory

Bolder Steps

12. Establish a Joint Checking Account

13. Tear down fences: opening back yards to create communal play space and a space for neighbors to mingle and a community garden

14. Plant a community garden and orchard

15. Establishing a neighborhood composting and recycling facility

16. Plant shade trees and windbreaks to create a more favorable microclimate

17. Replace asphalt and concrete (driveways, patios) with porous pavers and greenery

18. Establish a more edible landscape -- incrementally remove grass in front lawns and replace with vegetables and fruit trees

19. Start a community-supported agriculture program in which neighbors "subscribe" to local organic farm's produce

20. Create a car-share program; purchase a van or truck for rent to community members

21. Begin community-wide retrofitting of homes for energy and water efficiency -- neighbors band together to hire professionals to retrofit all homes in the community to be more resource efficient

Boldest Steps

22. Create a community energy system (e.g., solar, wind turbine, etc.)

23. Establish alternative water and wastewater systems -- e.g., living machine, constructed wetlands, etc.

24. Create a common house -- purchase a vacant home and convert it to a common house with a teen room, child care facility, kitchen, guest rooms, weight room, and so on.

25. Create a community-shared office with fax machine, copier, printer, etc.

26. Establish a day-care center

27. Establish weekly entertainment for the community to be held in the common house

28. Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.

29. Over time, as our population ages and kids leave home, retrofitting garages and rooms in our homes into apartments to house students or others needing housing

30. Establish a neighborhood coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market

31. Create multi-family green dwellings.

Below are further steps from just two of the above suggestions. Communities around the country are already implementing these simple and practical ideas.

Suggestion 4. Start neighborhood investment clubs, community sports activities, and restoration projects

Where it has been implemented: Boundary Street Neighborhood, Portland Oregon; Olde Hillcrest Neighborhood, Milwaukee, Wisconsin; GossGrove Neighborhood, Colorado

The Way It Works: In the Boundary Street neighborhood, 100 neighbors routinely work in a nearby ravine to restore native plant species. "It's the best riparian area in the city," says Dick Roy, "So we've tapped into neighborhood expertise -- one guy has a Ph.D. in biology -- and we've taken advantage of all the good energy to make our neighborhood more environmentally stable."

Another kind of activity that can bring neighbors together is investment clubs. In the Olde Hillcrest neighborhood, 18 members gather every second Monday evening at different members' homes. "They contribute between $10 and $100 per month to a portfolio of high-growth stocks," explains Dale Tuttle, the coordinator of the group. "The last few years of the bear market have been a learning experience," he admits. "The best growth we've seen hasn't been in our investments, but in our sense of community."

How to Get Started: More often than not, a great idea is first hatched in an informal conversation between two or three people, then gains momentum. After living with three pocket parks created by the city in Boulder's GossGrove neighborhood, neighbors gradually decided to create "theme parks." One of the small parks will become a bocci ball court, a sport almost anyone can play almost year-round.

Suggestion 13. Tear down fences

Where it has been implemented: Highlands Neighborhood, Lakewood, Colorado; Community Greens Organization; Washington Street Neighborhood, Boulder, Colorado

The Way it Works: "When we moved into our house," explains Highlands resident Julie Bettridge, "there was already a neighborhood tradition to have parties together in the backyards. Each house was fenced, but also had a gate. We decided to go a a step further by taking down our six foot fence and opening the space up to the neighbors, especially the kids." The Bettridges have the neighborhood swing set and playground equipment, so their yard becomes the center of activity in the summer. "Very often, the adults get together, too, while the kids play. Whenever we see each other out in the yard, we feel open about bringing a beer over. We miss our sense of community in the winter, when we're inside more."

For Boulder architect Dominique Getliffe and his wife, a backyard community began when Vivian invited a neighbor to share a garden space. "Gardening is my obsession, she says. "But it takes time, and it's more fun with other people." Soon they had a community garden going, and pooled resources with a dozen families to buy an $800 garden shredder (for making mulch from yard waste) cooperatively. The neighbors began to have dinners together a few times a month, and created a picnic-courtyard area in the unfenced backyard, and a bike rack in the side yard. "Private yards with fences allow us to push the world away," says one of the Getliffe's neighbors, Dan Diehl. "But the more you push it away, the lonelier you are."

David Wann is co-author of the upcoming book "Superbia!" and is also co-author of "Affluenza: The All-Consuming Epidemic." For more information about neighborhood remodeling, email him at [email protected].

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