Book Review: Superbia: 31 Ways to Create Sustainable Neighborhoods, by Dan Chiras, Dave Wann

 

Reviewed by Bruce Rhodes

 Hopeful prescription for Improving Uninspired Neighborhoods

To inject life, fun and spontaneity into North American suburbs will not be easy. Many neighbourhoods were built after WW II, when land and resources such as electricity and gasoline were plentiful and cheap; developers, government and the public were not very conscious of there being limits to, or issues with, creating vast car-centric suburbs. Now, many of us live in an energy-inefficient home on a long, straight street that forms one line in a grid that is populated by far more motor vehicles than pedestrians. Here, we easily grow fat and sedentary, often not knowing who lives one or two doors away.

 

In Superbia!, the authors prescribe 31 steps to transform neighborhoods into places where there is a true sense of community, and where hard resources (e.g. cars, washing machines) can ultimately be shared by groups of families, and consumable resources (electricity, gasoline) are used in more environmentally responsible ways.

 

The encouraging news is that neighborhoods in the USA, Europe and elsewhere have implemented these 31 steps. It often took a lot of persuasion of local politicians and bureaucrats to, for example, tear up existing streets to make them narrower, for the purpose of calming traffic. While the authors, to their credit, indicate that some of the 31 steps are plainly challenging to implement, and entail people changing their mental models, the authors at times neglect to address the role and response of some key stakeholders as neighborhoods transform themselves. For example, as I read the steps about removing fences between people's yards, and subsequent encouragement of kids in the neighborhood to congregate in certain areas of this newly-created 'open' space, I visualized the trepidation that the insurance companies covering these homes might have;
what happens when you encourage everyone onto your property, and then someone gets hurt? In general terms, I felt that the book could at times have been more rigorous in tipping off the reader as to what to expect from other stakeholders relevant to the transformation process.

 

I support what the authors propose. The main message I got from the book is: don't wait for politicians or developers to be the ones to build or retrofit neighborhoods that are environmentally sustainable, and offer building structures and juxtapositions to foster social cohesiveness; rather, strike out on your own, with the modest first step being to organize a potluck supper for your immediate neighbors. From there, transformation events can evolve; the authors have demonstrated, through numerous anecdotes, that this process can indeed work.

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