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  July/August 2005
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Inventing Tomorrow
Can Technology Save the Planet?
Earth's Innovators
The Perfect Fix
Encore in Yosemite
The Common Good
Interview: Dan Chiras and Dave Wann
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Hearth & Home
Hey Mr. Green
Good Going
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Interview: "Tearing Down Fences"
Get to know the neighbors and build a better 'burb
by Jennifer Hattam

For Dave Wann and Dan Chiras, a "sustainable suburb" begins on your own block.
They're both happy products of the suburbs, but Dave Wann and Dan Chiras have a love-hate relationship with the neighborhoods that nurtured them. In their book Superbia! 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, the two Coloradans depict modern suburbs as isolated, dysfunctional, even obsolete. Yet they also offer a cheerily optimistic program for an extreme makeover.

Wann and Chiras's ideas for reshaping, remodeling, or altogether reinventing existing suburban — and urban — neighborhoods range from the convivial (organize a monthly group dinner) to the conservation-minded (install solar panels to meet the neighborhood's energy needs). Easy steps lead to tougher ones, since you need to build community before you can work together to plant trees, tear out asphalt, narrow streets, and create mixed-use neighborhoods where people can live, work, shop, and play.

Unlike most car-dependent suburbs, the neighborhoods Wann and Chiras have dubbed "Superbia" meet more of their residents' needs close to home. One study found that people who live on streets with light traffic have more than twice as many friends and acquaintances nearby. The environment benefits too, as residents convert water-guzzling lawns into strawberry patches, minimize driving by sharing cars, and create neighborhood composting facilities.

The authors practice what they preach. Wann, who worked on pollution prevention for years at the EPA, lives in a cohousing community. Chiras, a green-building consultant, has a rural home that's off the power grid. The pair also lead workshops in which they walk through various communities and point out elements of good and bad design. Participants discuss what they dislike about their own surroundings and generate ideas for what they might like to see instead. In doing so, they join a growing effort to create neighborhoods that bring out the best in all of us.

Sierra: More than half of our population lives in the suburbs. Can 150 million Americans be wrong?

Dave Wann: People don't know that anything else is on the market. A part of them senses that something's wrong, but they don't know what it is. Isolated neighborhoods create more pollution, destroy habitat, and breed alienation and distrust. They also don't serve people who can't use a car to get around. In many cases, where we live is not serving our social, psychological, and physiological needs.

Sierra: Why do you focus on reinventing existing neighborhoods, rather than creating new developments that are more sustainable from the outset?

Dan Chiras: The suburbs have been the butt of many jokes and a lot of criticism, but these millions of single-family homes represent a huge potential to create and promote sustainability. That's good for the economy, the environment, and people. But it's a hard sell. As a nation we focus on the new. We've got to think about what we can do with our existing infrastructure, short of ripping it down and starting over.

Sierra: Doesn't our society see it as almost "anti-American" to focus on the community rather than the individual?

Chiras: We talk about rugged individualism, but given a chance, we do the same thing everyone else does. So I'm not sure that individualism is as big a force as we make it out to be. But I do think that people need their privacy — I know I do. When we suggest, for example, that people might find a neighborhood more desirable if the backyard fences came down to create a park, they could still have a private area. If you wanted to sit and read, or contemplate, or listen to the sounds of birds, that opportunity would be there.

Wann: That suggestion about tearing down fences does always inflame people. It's almost an American right to have a fence. Our present idea of having wealth means excluding other people, rather than living a richer life working cooperatively with them.

Sierra: We tend to protect ourselves by creating exclusive spaces. How do you counter the fear factor?

Chiras: The first steps in creating a sustainable community are about putting the "neighbor" back in neighborhood. Start with potluck dinners, with a babysitting co-op. Develop the relationships and the trust. One of the reasons birds fly in flocks is for protection from predators; there are a lot of watchful eyes.

Sierra: Dangerous characters aside, what if you get to know your neighbors and just don't like them?

Chiras: That's always possible. But the fact is that neighborhoods are often socially and economically homogenous. So there are common themes in our lives: We have children, we have bosses, we have problems with taxes and making ends meet. There is much in a neighborhood that glues us together. You may not end up being the best of friends, but you can have a common commitment to get along.

Sierra: Creating Superbia seems to involve a lot of work and sacrifice. Is it worth it?

Chiras: The structure of our neighborhoods precludes the development of community. It's not just that people live side by side yet cordoned off from each other, but that in order to go anywhere, you have to hop in a car. But what if your community created a common house with a daycare center and offices? You'd get up in the morning, drop your kids off, then go upstairs to work. At the end of the day, you'd pick up your kids and stroll home. All of a sudden you've gained two hours. It may take a little energy at first. It's like a chemical reaction: You have to put energy in to make it occur, but once the reaction runs, it gives off more.

Wann: A sustainable community exacts less of its inhabitants in time, wealth, and maintenance, and demands less of its environment in land, water, soil, and fuel. What you're trying to do is shorten those supply lines. People should begin to ask, What am I trying to accomplish? What do I want out of life, and how could I spend my time and money to give me more rather than less? People ought to try to collect some basic things they can do — television repair or gardening or sewing — so we wouldn't always have to buy everything we need. Our neighborhoods could be little centers of sharing this wealth amongst each other. Then we'd begin to see that we're not so helpless after all.

Sierra: A lot of people say they move to the suburbs for safety. Does suburban living really make us more secure?

Chiras: The house in the suburbs is the embodiment of the American dream. But I don't think anyone ever attached a price tag to that dream, what it costs us as a society — in lost open space, urban air pollution, and dependence on Middle Eastern oil — to have millions of people hopping into their vehicles every day. Oil and natural-gas supplies are going to peak very soon, which is going to put a huge dent in the American dream — and encourage a lot of the sorts of changes that we're suggesting in this book. We may have to tear this cover off and retitle it The Suburban Survival Guide.

Wann: In my old neighborhood, when the power would go out, life would begin in a different way. My kids would have a sense of "What do we do now?" But we'd light candles, tell stories, read books, and we'd start to say, "See, we're doing fine." The impending shortfall of energy presents a valuable opportunity for people to rethink their lifestyles, to do things differently and say, "See, we're doing all right."

Jennifer Hattam is Sierra's associate editor.

Photo courtesy David Rosenberg.

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