Preventing suburbs from becoming eco slums

One of the suburbs' great promises was green: smog-free, high-rises left behind in the big city, an individual patch of parkland stuck in front of and behind your single-family home. Sixty years after Levittown, American's first true suburb, was plopped down atop 800 acres of potato fields in Long Island, we've learned the truth: suburbs, with their car dependencies, spread out infrastructure, and all that water required to keep those lawns looking pretty, are in fact the least green inhabitable spaces. The sub-prime mortgage meltdown has left thousands of new developments McMansion ghost towns. Suburbs are in danger of becoming eco slums.

Now, the 17,000 residents of Levittown are hoping to change all that. Spurred on by Nassau County Executive Tom Suozzi, the public/private initiative Green Levittown aims to retrofit and reinvent the suburb as a model of energy efficiency. Part of the plan is good old-fashioned market incentive: discounts from local retailers on CFLs and free information on hot water heaters make greening easier and cheaper. But this is a community endeavor, so representatives are talking to elementary school students about going green, canvassing the neighborhood, trying to get residents to re-imagine Levittown as a 21st century suburb, instead of a symbol of what went wrong in post-WWII America.

Can Levittown teach the rest of the suburbs to go green? Hard to know. Since it’s such an early suburb, Levittown, with its tiny plots of 800-square-foot Cape Cod cottage homes, is greener than the new model, with 3,000-plus-square-foot houses on expanses of lawn. (In fairness, cluster development is much more common these days, mostly because it’s cheaper for the developer: three times as many houses crammed into the same amount of land, parading as more sensitive to both environment and community). But if conserving resources, rather than stretching them out across a subdivision, becomes fashionable, perhaps other suburbs will take notice.