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Discovering the suburban American Dream outside Barcelona

I returned to my adolescence this weekend, to a typical upscale American suburb, without even leaving greater Barcelona.

Until setting foot in- or more appropriately, driving through- the new town of some close friends, I didn’t think our type of suburb existed here. After all, the word “suburbio” in Spanish doesn’t refer to sprawling single family homes with garages and large backyards, but like the French word banlieue is used in a more pejorative way to describe anything outside the city that tends to be cheaper and uglier, or as my husband says “Soviet Bloc style housing”.

I had come under the false impression that everyone who lived outside the city lived in small towns near train station or at the most sprawling like my in-laws in an “urbanización”, a newer housing development where houses were still fairly close together and all within walking distance from the historical village.

After a 20 minute train ride up the coast and another 20 minutes in the car, we entered our friends’ new hometown. I caught site of the golf course and was filled with a mix of nostalgia for this familiar site and sadness that this environmental blight was also valued here (I’d known there were plenty of courses in the more touristed parts of Spain, but this was the first I’d seen in Catalonia).

We stopped to buy bread in town where there was a small square, but apart from the bread store, there didn’t seem to be any other signs of commerce or life. I had begun to suspect that people don’t walk here (except maybe on the golf course), and during the mile or so drive to their home, my suspicion was confirmed: I saw plenty of fences and large homes, but not one person on the street. It could have been Los Altos Hills, the town where I spent my adolescence.

A town without a town

My parents bought land in Los Altos Hills back in the 70s before it became simply for the wealthy- the median home price is now over 3 million dollars- because they liked the semi-rural feel in the middle of Silicon Valley. So at 13, I moved from the more densely-populated town of Mountain View– where we knew all our neighbors and people walked on the sidewalks to the park or to school- to this new town where while not everyone had David Packard’s 60 acres, the requirement for a minimum lot size of one acre (4,000 m²) meant no one walked anywhere.

I suppose in many ways it was the American suburban dream. We filled our acre with a 5 bedroom home (though we’re a family of 8), a swimming pool, pool house (often occupied by live-in relatives), jacuzzi, and a soccer field/driving range. Not to mention the huge oak tree with a minimalist treehouse and two tree swings and the creek running through our property that served as a breeding ground for our pets: frogs, tadpoles, turtles and snakes.

But we paid a price for our space. Unlike the lifelong friends we made in our Mountain View neighborhood (population density: 5,861.4/mi²), in Los Altos Hills (population density: 917.2/mi²), we never became friendly with any of our neighbors. It wasn’t necessarily their fault (although one was the potentially more reclusive Keating Five Senator Alan Cranston), but we only saw them from their car windows because there was just nowhere to walk: the town didn’t have a single store, nor a library, nor even a post office.

The cost of suburban life

Obviously, the environment paid a price for our space as well. While our family’s biking habit meant that we all pedaled to school or the neighboring town to use the library or for ice creams, we all used the family cars when necessary (my youngest brother started to drive at 8 year old, ending up in the creek on one of his adventures).

Much of our acre was covered in grass which was nice for family soccer games or to practice your golf swing, but the more I’ve learned about lawns, the more I now see it as a drain on resources (see my story Time to ungarden): not just the gasoline spent to power the riding lawn mower- which one of my brothers learned to drive with his feet-, but all the water used (in a drought prone state) and often fertilizers. I suppose my parents were better than most American suburbanites in their attempts to avoid chemical inputs and to let the grass grow wild, but there are limits to what you can do in suburbia and their experiment with unmown native grasses ended after less than a year when one of the neighbors threatened to call the fire department.

My parents may not have thought much about the carbon footprint of a large home, but they did try to conserve energy when they could. My father installed solar hot water panels in the early ’80s and we didn’t have air conditioning, but I’m sure it wasn’t efficient to heat, or to build- considering the embodied energy of the building materials-, our 5,000 square foot (465 m²) home.

We were far from the worst spacehogs in town. Our neighbors had a penchant for McMansions: in 2000, one built a 18,000 square foot home- the largest in Silicon Valley at the time- and in 2007, another began to build a 28,000 square foot place.

The Barcelona model

The homes surrounding our friends’ new place were far from McMansions, but they were larger and vastly more spread out than the typical Barcelona pad. The population density in their town is 79.6 people per square mile (206.17/km²), even worse even than my hometown.

Perhaps it’s startling to see this because Barcelona with it’s 6,214 people per square mile (16m,094/km²) is such a model of urban efficiency. It is one of the densest cities in Europe and in a recent study of cities around the world, it ranked above the other European cities evaluated for greenhouse gas emissions (Barcelona’s 3.4 tonnes/person easily beat London’s 6.2 tonnes/person and Glasgow’s 8.4 tonnes/person).

Density usually translates to more efficiency, or as one of the authors of the study explained: “There are density-related advantages for both travel and heating. When you have a critical mass of people… public transport becomes a feasible option for many, while people in more rural areas rely more on cars. And a flat that is surrounded by others is more efficient to heat than a free-standing house.”

While our friends helped design their home to rely on passive solar heating and cooling instead of air conditioning or heating- as well as assuring it would benefit from amazing natural light and hot water solar-, their location away from basic services or their workplaces, means an automatic bump to their carbon footprints. They now rely on their cars to get anywhere, whether the store, the train station or to work.

While touring the house, I asked my friend- whose daily commute is now an hour (rare for a country where the average commute is 33 minutes and often not by car)- what drew her to the place (she had just admitted to being nervous that once she had children and stopped working she’d become isolated from city friends and from any local community). Her response: space, both indoors for family visits and outdoors as a buffer zone to avoid any noise from neighbors. I understood wanting extra rooms for parental visits- both of us are expats- and I’ll admit the nocturnal life of our new upstairs neighbors has me worried we’ll be kept up at night this summer when we leave our windows open to let the cool air in.

European sprawl

I can’t fault our friends for wanting the kind of lifestyle I grew up with, and it turns out they’re far from the only ones on this side of the Atlantic who don’t value the dense, urban lifestyle that I have come to love (despite the neighbor’s noise).

While historically Europe’s compact nature has benefited from the density inherent in its old cities and towns, in the past few decades there’s been a boom for American style low-density suburban development. As Bruce Stutz explained in the Guardian, as the European Union has put more money into improving transportation links between cities, communities have grown up around the car so while population is dropping, people are beginning to sprawl:

  • Over the last 20 years, many European cities have expanded their built areas by 20% while their populations have increased an average of only 6%.
  • Over the past 2 decades, there have been four times the number of new cars on the road as the number of babies born.
  • Over the next 20 years, the number of kilometers traveled in urban areas will increase 40%.

As we finished our tour of our friends’ new home, my husband commented that the open, spacious kitchen was very “American style”. He was right. His words took me back to our family’s main gathering place where, huddled around the kitchen counter and barstools (not so unlike those in this kitchen), I’d spent many hours with family and friends prepping dinner, eating ice cream or simply gossiping late into the night.

A different kind of backyard

I reeled in my thoughts, not wanting to be seduced by anything about my old- less sustainable- life, but then I realized I was fooling myself to dismiss everything related to American suburbs as banal or an eco-crime. I liked our friends’ new place and I liked (loved?) my childhood home, but I no longer believe you can only find their charms in the suburbs. In fact, much of what I find attractive about these two homes is what made me fall in love with our city apartment: good natural light, a feeling of openness (the apartment has no straight lines and appears bigger than it is) and outdoor space (in the form not of a yard, but a large terrace).

Of course, without a large yard to isolate us, we now have to listen to our neighbors a bit more than we’d like, but in compensation, we have the vibrant life of the city in our backyard. Since living in New York I’ve grown to love the energy of the street: the faces, fashion, music and overheard conversations and here in Barcelona, the street performers provide continual opportunities for free culture.

On our way home from the train station after Sunday’s meal we stopped to watch professional caliber gymnasts tumble through the air on the Ramblas. As my daughter clapped and moved her body to the rhythm of their accompanying music, I thought about how she is growing up with such a diverse exposure to all types of arts. Last week she nearly joined a gospel choir singing in front of the Cathedral (see my husband’s twitpic capturing the moment). She has her favorite reggae fusion group we now follow online to locate their daily street concerts. We always stop to listen to the baritone opera singer on the walk home from her friend Maia’s house. And on our last trip to the park, she refused to enter the playground and instead stood mesmerized by a saxophone player practicing his scales.

A city planet

I’m not alone in my love of cities. While Europe may be de-urbanizing a bit, worldwide, the majority of us are now urban (we’ve gone from 3% living in cities in 1880 to over half the world’s population residing there in 2007).

Some come for jobs, but many come for the lifestyle. When author, and Brooklyn resident, Stephen Johnson explored our evolution toward a “city planet” (Stewart Brand’s term) in his New York Times article “We’ll all take Manhattan“, he used his neighborhood as an example of what is inspiring so many of us to forgo the conveniences of the suburbs for an at times trying, but perhaps more conscious/deliberate, lifestyle.

“Park Slope is notorious for its stroller traffic jams, as well as its slightly manic parents, but whenever I see all those young children on the sidewalk, I think of how many parents have opted to buck the trends of the past 50 years and raise their families in urban neighborhoods. They know they could buy a McMansion in the suburbs for what they’re paying for a floor-through here, and they know they could have a real backyard. And yet they’ve decided to stay all the same, for the camaraderie and energy and diversity of city neighborhoods. These are virtues we were close to giving up on 30 years ago. That they are ascendant again is good news for all of us.”

The urban option

I don’t believe everyone should feel compelled to live in a city. There are some people who live very sustainably in suburbs or the country, especially those who can telecommute or commute by public transit (my friend plans to stop commuting/working and have children soon), but I feel it’s essential we’re all offered an urban option.

Thirty years ago, I didn’t know life outside the suburbs existed. And it’s this ignorance that worries me. While some suburbanites would never choose life in a city, what about all those who have never been shown an alternative and instead continue to waste over 100 hours per year commuting (the American average), seeing much of the world through a car window and never walking past their neighbors.

Since leaving home, I’ve lived nearly two decades of urban life and for now, I can comfortably say, I too will take Manhattan… or Barcelona… or San Francisco… or Detroit?