There are
many great examples
of NEW neighborhoods
that are sustainable
right from the start,
but how can we make
EXISTING neighborhoods
more sustainable? 


“Chiras and Wann have not only visualized ways to create a higher quality of life, they provide real life examples of people who are doing it.” ~ Judy Corbett, Executive Director, Local Government Commission

Superbia! is a great read while you’re stuck in traffic. It’s full of practical ideas for moving from commuting to community. Whether you live in the city or in the ‘burbs, it will help you connect with nature, with neighbors, and with yourself.”  ~ Jim Diers, Founding Director, Seattle Department of Neighborhoods

From New Society Publishers:
Superbia! is a book of practical ideas for creating more socially, economically, and environmentally sustainable neighborhoods. It is about remaking suburban and urban neighborhoods to serve people better and to reduce human impact on the environment.
The authors first trace the history of the suburbs, showing how they fail to meet many peoples’ needs. They then describe how existing neighborhoods can be transformed, offering cohousing and new urbanist communities as examples. The reader is then guided through the transformation of a fictitious neighborhood that adopts the authors’ 31 steps. Ideas for the blossoming of the suburb are described in order of difficulty, from easy to boldest, including:

  • the creation of a neighborhood newsletter to foster a sense of neighborhood identity and cooperation
  • regular community dinners, discussion groups, and babysitting co-ops
  • the removal of backyard fences to create park-like spaces for community play areas, or gardens
  • retrofitting homes for energy efficiency, and installing community energy systems.

Examples from all over North America and beyond provide real-life proof that citizen planners can create Superbia! And the most comprehensive resource listing imaginable puts all the tools needed at your fingertips.


From the chapter  “The Changing Face of Suburbia”

The American house-car suburb was more or less invented in Los Angeles in the  1920s, but in the post World War II period, it became an American institution.  Following the  war, 14 million military personnel with sudden family syndrome played a frantic game of musical chairs, living with extended family or friends, or whatever else they could find:  converted boxcars, chicken coops, and garages. Crowds lined up at funeral parlors to get the  addresses of newly vacant apartments. One Omaha newspaper ad read, “Big Ice Box, 7 by 17  feet. Could be fixed up to live in.”  In response to the emergency, the U.S. government shifted gears and came up with a new plan of attack. We had open land, and we knew how to access  it, strategically. In a manner of speaking, we declared war on American soil, deploying bulldozers instead of tanks to level hills, fill creeks and yank trees out like weeds to build one  subdivision after another, and the economy boomed!

Various factors shaped the suburbs, including the availability of open, affordable land,  the embrace of the automobile, urban flight, and the birth of a glitzy new American Dream, as  seen on the new technology of television. Even fear played into the equation. If nuclear attack  were to occur, military experts warned, high-density developments would be more vulnerable,  so we should spread development out. Highways would be needed to evacuate civilians, after  the bombs hit. Eisenhower met that challenge by signing the Interstate Highway Act in 1956,  which authorized and scheduled the construction of 41,000 miles of roads.  These were the  days of bomb shelters, and elementary school kids obediently covering their heads in basement  hallways during air raid drills.

Economists loved what the new Dream did for the Gross National Product, and the  media loved the storyline, too: GI FAMILIES OCCUPY SUBURBIA. Developer William Levitt, a five-star general on the tract home front, appeared on the cover of Time magazine,  and stories about Levittown, the nation’s first subdivision, also ran in Life and Reader’s Digest.  How could we question this energetic, giddy, sexy Dream? All the pieces seemed to fit  together, and money flowed into the country’s green fields like harvested grain through a  combine, making subdivisions the last and most profitable crop. In battalions of brand new  Fords and Chevies, Americans rolled into the suburbs on highways and streets that now  measure four million miles – enough to circle the planet 157 times. Just ten years earlier, only  44 percent of American homes were resident-owned, and fewer than half of the households  had cars. But that was changing, quickly.

The ideal of the suburb was country homes for city people – nature without the mud.   In the suburbs, a family could have it all: community, fresh air, proximity to the city, and  convenience. “The most house for the money,” was the mantra for both buyers and sellers.  Naturally, people wanted the biggest and best piece of the Dream they could get, and the best  perceived value was in the suburbs. With FHA guaranteeing buyers’ loans, the new American  Dream lay on the horizon — on the outskirts of Emerald City.

But there was a glitch.

A legal precedent, Ambler v Euclid (1926), in effect made it illegal to put houses,  businesses, and stores in suburban neighborhoods. Based on the dubious assumption that  residences should be separate from commerce, civic life, and even recreation, planning  departments throughout North America adopted boilerplate code systems. What resulted were  look-alike neighborhoods that stretched from suburban Toronto to suburban San Diego.  Subdivisions typically weren’t custom designed to fit the needs of each piece of land, they  were simply mass-produced like automobiles or metal mailboxes.

From the chapter, “How to Remodel a Neighborhood:”

When you remodel a house, you have certain goals in mind – to make the kitchen bigger,  for example, while at the same time providing a place for taking off muddy shoes and boots when  coming in the back door. We propose a similar strategy for remodeling a suburban neighborhood.   The goals might be to create a sense of community, provide more public spaces, and meet more  individual needs right in the neighborhood.

After building the neighborhood’s social capital to create a functional network (Chapter 2),  and identifying common values like a sense of community and sustainability (Chapter 3), the next  step is to agree on basic design principles and building blocks that can guide a  long-range  neighborhood remodeling program. This, in turn, can make streets, sidewalks, and backyards more  valuable, and neighborhoods less dependent on costly, imported resources. By thinking outside the  box, we can gradually upgrade the performance of our neighborhoods, making them more  desirable to live in. Really, our only other option is to keep looking for those elusive neighborhoods  where “the grass is greener.” In other words, to participate in the huge game of musical chairs in  which one-sixth of the U.S. population moves every year.

Neighborhoods and communities have five basic types of features: paths, edges, districts,  nodes, and landmarks. As we begin to think about remodeling our neighborhoods, we need to look  at how these components interact.  At the end of this chapter, we’ll look at two neighborhoods that  were built with these components in mind.

Paths, or corridors of movement, give a neighborhood form.  These include streets,  sidewalks, bikepaths, alleys, wildlife corridors, canals, and railroads. As we’ll see, there are many  opportunities for upgrading paths in suburban neighborhoods, despite the fact that many were  really engineered to serve machines, not people.

In successful communities, edges are physical/visual boundaries or transitions between  distinct districts or neighborhoods. They could be creeks, open space, or higher-volume avenues.

Nodes are places within a neighborhood that are accessible by paths, and that are often  traveled to and from for specific activities.  They range from a well-used basketball hoop in a  driveway to a local park or community building, and because they are a center of activity, they  help create a neighborhood sense of place.

Landmarks are icons that create a sense of familiarity in a neighborhood. A large, stately tree, like a giant oak planted in a median strip, could be a landmark.  A sculpture situated on a  piece of donated front lawn could be a great neighborhood landmark, as could a community  garden, an old schoolhouse, or a church.

The word district is a distinctly identifiable region, a concept that is more familiar in urban  settings. However, districts may also be developed in suburban neighborhoods. For example,  imagine a given neighborhood that had a well-landscaped, common parking area for both residents  and customers, and several shops that specialized in musical instruments and small-stage concerts.  In that musical district-neighborhood, streets might be “slowed down” with county-funded landscape features such as traffic circles, and trees might line either side of the street, creating a  people-friendly atmosphere. Certainly, a neighborhood like this would have its own identity, and  could be thought of as a little district.

We’ve included some key principles of neighborhood design to help you think about how a  neighborhood can be remodeled.

Ten Basic Design Principles for Remodeling Neighborhoods

1. Human Scale.  There are basic spatial relationships that can create resonance in a  neighborhood, including focal points, a sense of transition, and a sense of enclosure in key places.  Four hundred and fifty feet might be an ideal length for a neighborhood with its own sense of  community, because at that distance it’s still possible to recognize individuals. Cohousing research  indicates that an optimum neighborhood scale might include 30 to 40 houses, because that number  could successfully share a common building and get to know each other well.

2. Resource Responsibility.  A neighborhood that develops an everyday ethic that includes  efficient household resource use, recycling, community gardening, shared transportation, energy  generation at the neighborhood level, also stands a better chance of being economically and  socially viable. Individual efforts to be sustainable can be greatly augmented by cooperation within  the neighborhood.

3. Walkability. We’ve got legs, we just need good sidewalks, bikepaths, parks, and shops to use  them.  The five-minute walk is considered a good measurement of “walkability.”  What  destinations should lie within five minutes of the typical suburban front door?

4. Open Spaces. Whether in common backyards, on vacant lots, or in areas reclaimed from the  car, open spaces can be used for picnics, community gardens, and places for conversation, reading  and relaxation.

5. Public facilities. A neighborhood that becomes a “we” rather than a string of “me’s” will  probably want to create a place where the neighborhood can gather.  It could be in a neighborhood  church or school, or it could be in a cooperatively purchased home that becomes a common  building.

6. Streetscapes.  By working with the city or county, neighborhoods can create public areas in and  around streets that are well landscaped and people-friendly. The best time to plant a shade tree is  fifteen years ago.  The second best time is now.

7. Variety.  Landscaping and house decoration have typically been the only tools for creating  variety in subdivision neighborhoods. At Fox Run, featured in the next three chapters, variation  and neighborhood color are created by adapting garages, planting a community garden and  orchard, taking out driveways, creating gardens and pathways, and taking down fences.

8. Mixed Uses.  Home businesses are becoming a large sector of the American economy. In  Superbia, shops and neighborhood enterprises like composting, energy generation and daycare will  begin to make suburban neighborhoods more lively and productive.

9. Coordination.  This term means “architectural style,” including walls and fences, streetscapes,  colors and materials. A neighborhood should co-design features to create a sense of harmony and  resonance.

10. Maintenance.  Public features should be designed with the future in mind, by using materials, technologies and plant species that won’t require large amounts of capital or time for maintenance.

Superbia! Checklist

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 vanpools for commuting to and from work.
9. Create a neighborhood work-share program.
10. Create a mission statement.
11. Create an asset inventory.

Bolder Steps
12. Tear down fences: opening backyards to create communal play space and a space for neighbors to mingle and a community garden.
13. Plant a community garden and orchard.
14. Establish a neighborhood composting and recycling facility.
15. Plant shade trees and windbreaks to create a more favorable microclimate.
16. Replace asphalt and concrete with porous pavers and greenery.
17. Establish a more edible landscape—incrementally remove grass in front lawns and replace with vegetables and fruit trees.
18. Start a community-supported agriculture program in which neighbors “subscribe” to local organic farm’s produce.
19. Create a car-share program–purchasing a van or truck for rent to community members.
20. Begin community-wide retrofitting of homes and yards for energy and water efficiency.
21. Solarize your homes.

Boldest Steps
22. Create a community energy system.
23. Establish alternative water and wastewater systems.
24. Establish a more environmentally friendly transportation strategy.
25. Create a common house.
26. Create a community-shared office.
27. Establish weekly entertainment for the community.
28. Narrow or eliminate streets, converting more space to park and edible landscape, walkways and picnic areas.
29. Retrofit garages and rooms in your homes into apartments or add granny flats to house students or others in need of housing.
30. Establish a mixed-use neighborhood by opening a coffee shop, convenience store, and garden market.
31. Promote a more diverse neighborhood.