Adam Rome, “The Bulldozer in the Countryside: Suburban Sprawl and the Rise of American Environmentalism”

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Rome’s book explores, among other things, the brief rise and precipitous fall of the solar home vis-a-vis tract housing.  His chronicle of the triumph of one material technology over another is rooted at the social intersection of the post-war mass migration to the suburbs and the rise of the environmental movement.

In the 1950s, most individuals concerned about the degradation of the environment were conservationists. Their primary concern was the preservation of wilderness areas, not urban and suburban pollution. At the same time, however, post-war Keynesian economic policies lead to a boom in cheap housing: the government mortgage-insurance plan made purchasing houses affordable, and the need to stimulate ever-greater consumer spending made cheap, mass housing desirable to the federal government as well as consumers.

A great deal of private and government research had by this time gone into making homes more energy efficient, and the government considered efficiency requirements for new homes. “Regional design,” or houses designed in accordance with their environment, emphasized solar houses, built using thermal-paned glass and oriented to store the sun’s energy during the day and retain heat at night. William Levitt, a real estate developer, had an inverse vision: instead of regional design, houses could be manufactured in an assembly-line style, mass produced without variation or consideration of location, made from the cheapest materials possible. As the popularity of these “Levittowns” spread, regional design was abandoned by developers in favor of uniform housing. Cheap AC power (as well as low purchase prices) made up for the extremely low efficiency of such structures, and the solar home was relegated to the status of novelty. Government agencies gave up on efficiency requirements and solar promotion.

With the rise of consumerism came the bulldozing of the countryside to make room for suburban housing projects, and the masses who occupied them were faced with a spectacle of environmental disaster. Suburbia made visible, as urban living never could, the extent to which the environment was being polluted. Septic tanks, installed to support suburban sprawl, became an obvious source of contamination of drinking water, causing numerous outbreaks of disease. 30-50% of septic tanks were eventually found to fail. This, combined with the visible destruction of forests and open spaces that suburbanites actually utilized, lead by the 1960s to a concerted environmental movement.

Because this movement was driven by the new consumerist middle class, it gained a great deal of momentum, but only dealt with the issues salient to suburbanites (contamination of drinking water, etc.). Ironically, then, the environmental movement reached critical mass as a result of the very forces that had irreversibly lead to environmental disaster: the rise of the consumer and the cheap tract housing that she/he occupied. Thus while the environmental movement would focus on campaigns to protect wetlands, hillsides, and floodplains, in order to check soil erosion and conserve spaces for recreation, it could not work against the interests of its constituents and turn back the clock on mass-produced housing. The solar home remained unbuilt.

The book at Amazon.com

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