Following the Second World War, a baby boom took place in North America that very quickly created enormous pressure on housing markets all across the continent. By the 1950s, however, developers had discovered a profitable, time-efficient way of accommodating the burgeoning demand for housing: suburban sprawl. It was by no coincidence that this development trend emerged alongside North American society’s obsession over the great American automobile.
Characterized by low density, single family homes and sweeping boulevards, suburban sprawl literally sucked the life out of many cities centres. The temptation of affordable housing and vast, shopper-friendly shopping centres compounded a growing scepticism of urban life where crime, prostitution and poverty prevailed. Essential to suburban life, cars invariably grew in number, surpassing even the remarkable growth of the baby boom. The suburbs sprawled.
Initially, few recognized the faults of the latest trend in urban planning; indeed, planners encouraged it. But before long it became quite clear that fuel emitted alarmingly poisonous carbons. To make matters worse, fifty years ago the quality of gasoline paled in comparison to the refined petrol currently available for purchase. Today, a driver travelling an average of 25,000 kilometres per year emits approximately 2.5 tons of carbon dioxide into the air. To offset this amount by planting trees, one would need to root at least five trees for every year spent driving.
The profound impact of the automobile is no secret: our reliance on oil has everything to do with our rubber tire and steering wheel obsession. Yet, in spite of hybrid cars, smart cars and car pools, the environment remains the greatest victim of automobile-dependent suburban sprawl. Highway congestion rears its ugly head in environmental ways, but also in stark social and economic manifestations, such as increasing levels of stress and low productivity. The fate of both society and the environment is thus very much tied to our reinvention of the suburbs, but first, it would be best to halt sprawl in the first place before all the trees have been chopped down.