Old Normal: Carefree, car-dependent consumption as a way of life. What defines “the good life” is mindless consumption – having anything and everything we want. The suburbs are ideal units of consumption, retreat from a chaotic world, and the sense of playing the game successfully.

New Normal: Conservation, care, and cooperation as a way of life. Although suburbs at their best do offer a world of wonderful benefits, there are also many social, economic, and environmental impacts. Since we have finite supplies of energy, water, land, raw materials, and social stamina, we won’t be able to finance suburbia for much longer in its current form.  Simply put, the suburbs — where houses have on average doubled in size since the 1950s, and where driving per capita has tripled in the same time period – are the best possible invention for mindless consumption. They may well be the largest single environmental impact the world has ever known.

The existing suburbs need to be remodeled, and since they are already occupied, this effort needs to be resident-driven with the blessing and support of municipalities.  Even in the land of private, green-lawn luxury, we can rediscover our cooperative nature with a grassroots effort to find and establish strategic centers among the sprawl.

The problem is that few people fully perceive the costs of their flawless suburban kingdoms, and besides, they are too busy to consider making changes. A typical reaction to the idea of “extra” activities seems intimidating. But suburban makeover activities can be fun, and can ultimately give more than they take. Some of these actions can replace unproductive, current activities in our lifestyles – they are substitutes rather than “add-on” activities, so they won’t take up additional time.

Another typical reaction from suburban residents reflects the mythology of the American  Dream. “I’ve worked hard to get where I am,” goes the myth, “and it’s okay for me to do whatever I want.”  One of the primary reasons we wrote this book was to help establish an everyday ethic that challenges that myth. In the context of a family, when a rebellious teenager has the “whatever I want” attitude, isn’t he or she requested to think again? The care and feeding of a one-third-acre lawn, for example, typically costs $600 or more a year, requiring lawn equipment, 10 pounds of pesticides, 20 pounds of fertilizer, 170,000 gallons of water, and 40 hours of mowing labor. According to the Audubon Society, the pollution generated by an inefficient gas-powered lawn mower for that mowing is equivalent to driving a car 14,000 miles—more than halfway around the world.

The consumption of products also results in public environmental impacts, as resources are stripped to meet the demands of the Suburban Dream. But we don’t see the slash piles or mine tailings, and truthfully, they rarely occur to us. Private mobility cascades into public congestion and public expenditures for new highway lanes. The demand to live on large lots, closer to nature, often destroys the nature we hoped to be near. But we don’t notice when a chorus of cricket chirps is reduced to a sparse, desperate quartet.  A handful of species now dominates our backyards and parks—bluegrass, robins, English sparrows, nursery-grown trees and shrubs, squirrels, mice, sometimes a deer or fox—because insensitive development and uninspired landscaping smother diversity and wipe out natural vistas.

What, specifically, can be done to begin the Extreme Makeover of the suburbs described in depth in the book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods? This massive grassroots effort begins with a very simple first step: saying hello to a neighbor you’ve never spoken to. Then a “what if?” dialog begins on sidewalks, decks, and living rooms across America. Said poet Carl Sandburg, “Nothing happens unless first a dream. ”  In this case the dream is a reshaping of the suburbs as well as formless, forgotten urban areas into a new American Dream.

Superbia! Checklist

Easy Steps

Sponsor community dinners.

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

Establish a neighborhood watch program.

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

Form weekly discussion groups.

Establish neighborhood baby-sitting coop.

Form an organic food co-op.

Create car or van pools for commuting to and from work.

Create a neighborhood work-share program.

Create a mission statement.

Create an asset inventory.

Bolder Steps

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

Plant a community garden and orchard.

Establish a neighborhood composting and recycling facility.

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

Replace asphalt and concrete with porous pavers and greenery.

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

Start a community-supported agriculture program in which neighbors “subscribe” to local organic farm’s produce.

Create a car-share program–purchasing a van or truck for rent to community members.

Begin community-wide retrofitting of homes and yards for energy  and water efficiency.

Solarize residents’ homes.

Boldest Steps

Create a community energy system.

Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.

Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.

Create a common house.

Create a community-shared office.

Establish weekly entertainment for the community.

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

Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.

Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.

Promote a more diverse neighborhood with multi-family dwellings.