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Suburban Design’s Effect on Climate Change

November 23, 2016

By: Nissa Tupper

As a designer focused on climate change, with a rural upbringing, who eventually put down roots in the “big city” only to (gasp!) move out to the suburbs, I’ve felt the weight of the contention between urban and suburban spaces. The divide between the two is almost palpable and often ripe with emotion. Whether it’s political, behavioral, or physical, it’s a chasm filled with contention.

While there are several separations that create this divide and some of them don’t necessarily need to be mended, when it comes to climate change, urban cores and suburban communities will need to combine forces if we’re going to mitigate the effects of global warming.

It’s not news that urban areas throughout the U.S. are experiencing a surge of growth. At first glance, this can seem like a welcomed development in the context of climate change. Urban areas, with their denser development patterns that revolve around the day-to-day needs of people, are inherently set up for a more carbon-friendly way of life. With more people migrating to a development type that supports reduced climate impact, it seems logical to beef up climate change mitigation and adaptation activities in our urban core areas. While targeting the urban core is more than relevant in combating climate change and its effects, we might be spinning our wheels if we ignore the equally (if not more) important role that the suburbs are playing. 

Many suburban communities around the U.S. are experiencing growth just like their urban counterparts and in some areas, such as Minnesota, Indiana, and Texas, suburban growth is on-par with, if not outpacing, urban growth. The fact that suburban households currently contribute roughly half of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions gives reason to pause.

While some “suburban green” dwellers are trying to do their part by actively embodying an eco-conscious lifestyle, they still end up producing more carbon emissions than the average urban dweller who foregoes any emphasis on green-living efforts. How can this be? Despite their best efforts, the very design of their communities is stifling the suburbanite’s attempts at progress.

As designers, if we continue to let this type of design perpetuate, things can only get worse.


Destined for Failure

The growth of suburban design and development exploded during the times of economic expansion post-World War II, facilitated by the advancement of zoning laws and transportation innovations. Streetcar suburbs, originally developed along train or trolley lines, shuttled workers in and out of city centers for work. This gave rise to the “bedroom community” way of life, making it commonplace for workers to leave the city at night for the purpose of going home to sleep in the suburbs. Standalone houses on larger lots of land also became the rule, not the exception, and created a new prototype for living and droves of Americans fell in love with it.

Suburban development patterns are, by design, often sprawling and auto-centric. Homes are widely spaced out and development standards skew towards prioritizing the needs of drivers and their cars over people. Small, local governments, unable or unwilling to raise taxes, often approach dealing with sprawl by financing it, thus encouraging more sprawl. Because these developments shape the patterns of our lives on a daily basis—in this case by creating the necessity and ease of inefficient household energy consumption and significantly more driving—the possibility of living a low-carbon existence is greatly minimized in the suburbs.

It’s easy to look up from a center city with transit-oriented development and shake a finger at suburbanites for their transportation miles traveled each day, but if a four lane highway is your only path to work and a car is the only practical mode for using that path, then really, what choice is available? Contrary to conventional perceptions, breaking this unsustainable cycle and re-defining what it means to live the American dream isn’t just about casting a blanket solution toward an undifferentiated mass of resource-rich suburbanites. Ubiquitous as suburban development may seem, the political, social, and economic framework is nuanced from one suburban community to the next, which presents distinct realities in the face of climate action.

There are, however, beacons of light along this somewhat dark suburban landscape when it comes to mitigating climate change. Take for example the suburban areas around Minnesota’s Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, where urban and suburban development types, along with their approaches to climate change, are widely differentiated. The result is that some suburbs, especially those in the inner-ring, carry the double burden of below-average household tax capacity coupled with poverty concentrations, while other suburbs, especially those in the outer-ring, face the demands of rapid growth and inadequate infrastructure. These development types present distinct realities in the face of climate change. For example, mitigation opportunities for inner-ring suburbs likely demand a sensitivity to up-front costs, while some outer-ring suburbs may have the benefit of a larger tax base that supports larger-scale climate action options.

Twelve suburban communities in the Twin Cities area have joined their center cities (either Minneapolis or St. Paul, depending on proximity) to pave the way for local climate action efforts, namely by committing to reduce emissions in their cities through the U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement. Despite marked differences in fiscal capacity and political leaning, all of these suburban cities have demonstrated climate action progress. Key to their gains have been each city’s ability to approach the uniqueness inherent within their suburban typology, individually uncovering feasible levers of environmental action and corresponding behavior changes to create meaningful results.

While this replicable progress deserves recognition, it only accounts for a mere fraction of opportunity for the Twin Cities’ suburbs. The suburban context of the Twin Cities is home to 170 cities and 97 townships, which leaves 255 other suburban opportunities ripe for climate action. Considering that there are both case studies like this from which we can glean information and a pressing need, what’s holding other suburban communities back from following suit?


Design as the Problem (and the Solution)

Unintentionally or not, the design professional helped created this scarcity of responsible carbon behavior choice by facilitating the infrastructure of suburbia as we know it. We know better now, and it’s time for design advocates to flip this paradigm and help shape cities that enable good climate behavior. Combating the issue with high-tech solutions (i.e., innovations in energy efficient products) can be part of the solution, but we can find a greater reduction in our climate impacts if we attack the messy, community-level low-tech solutions, like land-use and infrastructure design, in tandem.

This call for rethinking our design approach stretches beyond tactical interventions that provide short-term relief. Designers need to amplify their strengths as creative problem solvers and visionaries of alternative futures by collaborating in new ways—early and often—to instill meaningful change in this space. Climate change begs for designers to pick apart the multitude of messy strings attached to this challenge and then re-arrange, re-define what those strings are and how they create a context of influence. Yes, the roles of engineering, architecture, landscape architecture, and planning each have their distinct areas of contribution, but without radical collaboration across disciplines, we’re likely missing great opportunities for impact. Yes, stakeholder engagement is time consuming and difficult, but without intentional listening and translational work, we pose the risk of designing in a meaningless vacuum.

This re-design opportunity includes the traditional design scope of work just as much as it extends to encompass more unorthodox levers to influence the challenge. Restructuring municipal policies and shaping social change to better enable climate action are burgeoning areas of potential for system-thinking designers. More and more, designers are finding professional opportunities outside of the traditional firm setting, in positions of influence at foundations and companies that focus on design in the social sector, so why not in sectors that design behavior patterns? It’s well within the power of designers to help create a more amenable environment for climate-friendly community design interventions, one that influences the heart of sustainable change by shifting perceptions and, hopefully, behavior change.

Designing for Behavior Change

Two key principles behind influencing behavior patterns are particularly relevant for designers to understand when initiating environment-related change in the suburban way of life: motivation and access. Motivation deals with the “why” of choosing to travel or consume a certain way (the sociocultural and individual reasons that inspire an action), while access entails the “how” of making a choice (the opportunities and resources presented by physical, economic, and political structures that permit feasible activity).

For many suburbanites, attempts at shifting behavior are often met with barriers at multiple levels. At a motivational level, taking visible steps toward climate action often corresponds with breaking from the sociocultural norm of their community. Take, for example, the decision to stray from the suburban convention of keeping a lush, weed-free lawn. It takes a lot of motivation to adopt a new behavior—carving out time (a precious commodity) to research the options, vetting them until you feel confident enough to make a decision—and then when it comes time to follow-through, what will the neighbors say when your native landscape starts to creep into their tidy, contained lawn?  Even if a motivation to shift toward climate action exists, it can quickly become thwarted by the overwhelming task of feeling competent about making the “right” choices, as defined by peers, in the face of climate realities.

Fear of rejection and failure are strong enough deterrents to any change, but they become even more insurmountable when coupled with restrictions to accessing options that facilitate change to begin with. Access options encompass a layered system of influence, from physical (i.e., safe, accessible bike lanes) to economic (i.e., cost of purchasing/managing energy efficient improvements) to political (i.e., regulatory barriers to implementing change). Back to the lawn example, are there stores readily available that provide the materials for a different lawn type? What about the upfront cost of changing the structure of your landscape or home—are there financial incentives to encourage and reward carbon-friendly behaviors?

This mess of de-motivators is enough to make most throw their hands up in retreat, but to most designers, complex challenges like this are akin to being a kid in a candy store. Designers are trained problem solvers, skilled at pulling apart complex issues to better understand the connectedness of influences at play and adept at building capacity to creatively put it back together again, which is why they should be turning their focus towards re-imagining these behavioral systems.

The Suburbs: Our Next Design Frontier?

Bottom line is that the infrastructure and residents of the suburbs aren’t going anywhere anytime soon and neither will the easy and peer-affirmed indulgences in bad environmental behavior that accompanies them, unless designers stand up and do something about it. Perhaps designers could consider this challenge not as far outside their scope of work as it might seem, but as part of a larger system that demands new levels of cooperation and partnership, one that requires the employment of holistic modes of decision making and collaboration to help envision a new American Dream.

It turns out that climate change, the greatest challenge of the 21st century, presents a ripe opportunity for designers that we’d be remiss to ignore.

Nissa Tupper focuses on the intersection of design, climate change, and public health, and is finding her way as a “suburban green” dweller. She holds a Masters of Landscape Architecture and a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies, which help inform her efforts to connect the issues across disciplines and organizations.

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