The Environmental Impact of the Suburbia on the United States Essay

1.0 Introduction

Since America ended World War II, there has been a surge in the movement to the suburbs.  The American lifestyle has brought so much convenience in the past, driven by abundance of cheap oil and economic prosperity. The exponential development of the American economy has undoubtedly made Americans access better living conditions hence the rise in the numbers of suburban homes which is proffered by the ever increasing affluent residents and consumers.

1.1  Suburbia and the Negative Environmental Impact

Unfortunately, this suburban lifestyle has certain negative impacts on the environment. Their causes varied ranging from increased household driving, to increased individual home fuel consumption to unsustainable land consumption; all due to population dispersion and undoubtedly contributing negatively to the environment.  Evident problems such as global warming, expensive oil prices, and rising population, all necessitate that suburbia way of living to be discontinued.

The most notable cause of environmental problems is the Suburban commute. Suburban commute comes with a hefty price.  Since 2004, oil has been doubling in price reaching ever-high record numbers.  The Hubert peak agreement indicated that oil depletion was a reality happening sooner rather than later (End of Suburbia, 2004).  Hubert claims that oil production will start to decline after reaching a flat stage of production, which is considered to be the highest production stage the world would ever witness (End of Suburbia, 2004).  In 2003, for the first time since 1920 no oilfield was discovered with more than 500 million barrels a day (Kremmer, 2005).  The effects of oil peak can be observed in Australia, a country once a net exporter, now imports 60% of its crude oil (Kremmer, 2005).

Third and last challenging force against suburban lifestyle is rising population.  In 2000, the population of the U.S was just over 282 million.  By 2020, it will be nearly 336 million.  By 2050, it will be nearly 420 million (Frec, 2008).  How is it possible for the U.S to build a future for 100 million more people if it does not change its housing policies? Factually, there are limited resources of land and energy for more people to come.

1.2  Concepts and Motivation

If the U.S doesn’t act and stop suburban property developments, major problems will occur.  First, carbon emissions from commuting back and forth will add to the increasing temperature of this world and make the case for global warming even worse since motor vehicles account for 80% of all transport-related energy use (Ponce, 2008).  The U.S is currently the number one oil importer in the world, with an estimate of 21 million barrel consumed in the U.S out of the 85 million barrels being produced around the world (pickens, 2008).  These numbers are not helping the U.S to decrease green house gas emissions.

2.0 Analysis

The rising concerns such as; traffic congestion, air pollution, oil consumption and the general impacts of global warming calls for policy makers, like the urban thinkers, to develop appropriate alternative policies that would ensure better accommodation to more individuals while ensuring sustainable development. Furthermore, development of a suburban home requires cheap and accessible land coupled with well developed infrastructure and as land becomes more and more expensive in most American Cities, seeking new alternatives to private suburb environments is the best option.

2.1 Smart Growth as an Alternative to the suburban problem

An optimal policy solution to eliminate the environmental damage caused by suburban lifestyle would be through the creation of clusters of city dense communities a concept referred to as of smart growth. It requires the massive relocation of outskirt communities to inner cities neighbourhoods so as to meet create conveniently located homes, creating metropolitan population that rely on public transportation, cycling and walking. This would greatly reduce the expenses associated with suburban life such as reducing the miles Americans drive, reducing carbon emissions; all in attempts to curb the negative environmental impacts associated with global warming.

Smart growth advocates for the development of compact neighbourhood enabling people to live together, do business together, thereby reducing urban sprawl.

2.1.1 Benefits of Smart Growth

The developmental trends coupled with man’s day to day life have a major impact on global warming. Having people leave a two-acre suburb house toward smaller places like condos and town houses in inner city neighbourhoods can help the cause of global warming. Smart growth is a strategy that will enable individuals to live in conveniently walk able or cycle able neighbourhoods.    This would reduce the number of miles driven by Americans on their daily operation as well as the amount of energy being consumed per household.  There would be less usage of electricity, heat, and other oil-derived utilities, leading to better energy conservation.

Realizing the depletion of energy due to excessive oil consumption and the dramatic prices that resulted as an outcome, the U.S cannot keep up with the staggering rate of personal car use of 750 cars for every 1000 individuals (Pickens, 2008).  The U.S needs to plan clusters of dense cities.  Doing so, minimize driving to a large extent since people will be living in places that are closer to their work. Roads will be less congested easing the way for mass transit buses to work faster and more efficiently.  So living in dense cities will help the American consumer to avoid the financial burden of buying gasoline and opting to use mass transit as the primary source of transportation.

Smart growth can help accommodate is rising population.  If we look along the coastlines’ cities of the U.S it is already congested.  What about 50 years from now?  A study has been conducted by the University of Maryland targeting the public and their vision about future growth and how it is supposed to be implemented.  All participants agreed on a set of principals they believed to be the most essential when considering growth plans.  These principals are as following: environment, density, infrastructure, affordable housing, housing/job balance, transit.  According to the result of the study, “[participants] agree that most of the new development should be targeted to areas that are already developed.” (Frece, 2008, p.20)  The public is recognizing the mass effects horizontal expansion has done to the environment and they want to reverse it.

2.1.2 Costs of smart Growth

Smart growth has witnessed hesitant reaction from many critics just like its acceptance from proponents. Most individuals view the program as too costly and a creation of higher density municipalities which tend to be the highest to maintain as opposed to the low density settlements witnessed in the suburbs. The implementation of the policy is further complex and multidimensional hence the role of government is critical. The program requires the involvement of local government bodies in planning and channelling the development of alternative housing necessary for the creation of settlement zones, Stanley, & Balaker, (2007).

2.2.3 Net effects

Consequently, using cost-benefit analysis, smart growth creates an optimal policy solution that would add benefits to the issues of global warming, oil depletion, and rising urban population. It would reduce traffic congestion, urban sprawl and the rise of suburbs as it seek to reduce the number of detached houses and the consequent automobile use.

3.0 Conclusion

3.1 Main Findings

The major elements encouraged by smart growth include; the creation of compact neighbourhoods thereby limiting land use, encouraging the use of either bicycles or pedestrianism as opposed to automobiles, use of transit oriented development which creates direct access to public transport for the masses, preservation of open space, protection of water supplies and the preservation of historic lands and government places. Undoubtedly, the program would encourage the environmental protection through the reduction of green house gasses emission.

3.2 Future Research

Varied Policy tools are still being developed and implemented in the smart growth program. There are different propositions from the advocates of the policy.  A key issue is the adoption of the zoning law which restricts certain developments to specific areas. The law has been implemented in specific states in the US. Smart growth advocates also seek to expand the incorporation of policies that would ensure services are decentralized from the city centres, to settlement zones. Conclusively, smart growth is a policy worth adopting as an alternative to surbabanization.


Bullard, Robert D. (ed.) (2007). Growing Smarter: Achieving Livable Communities, Environmental Justice, and Regional Equity. The MIT Press. ISBN 978-0-262-52470-4.

Frece, J.W. (2008). Big forces and big challenges for smart growth. Real Estate Review, 9-25

Greene, G. (Director/writer).  (2004). THE END OF SUBURBIA: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of The American Dream [motion picture].  (Available from The Electric Wallpaper Co.)

Kremmer, C. (2005, April 2). Running on Empty. Sydney Morning Herald.

Pickens, T. B. (2008).  Pickens plan. Retrieved September 20, 2008 from

Ponce, V.M. (2008). The 33 Facts About Global Warming.  Retrieved September 16, 2008 from

Tidwell, M. (2008) NYT: Climate Concerns in Suburbia. Retrieved September 16, 2008 from:

Stanley, S. & Balaker, T. (2007) Five myths about cars and suburbia: Driving isn’t the sin it’s cracked up to be Retrieved October 4, 2008 from