This week’s blog post is by our very own summer student, Kyle Shea…

Greetings Talkin’ Trash readers, I’m Kyle Shea, Energy & Environment’s Waste Ambassador for the summer.  When I’m not studying urban planning at the University of Waterloo, I’m conducting countless waste audits all over UHN. Yes, I’m THAT guy with the badge and clipboard looking into your waste bins, but I promise it’s totally part of the job and not some sort of strange fascination.

I hail from a small town in Durham region called Ajax and have lived most of my life in the ‘burbs. It was a great place to grow up, though the only evidence of environmentalism was the David Suzuki biography buried in the back of the town library. Don’t get me wrong, I love the suburban lifestyle—the fresh air, the open space, the strip malls with the ever-so-easy-to-navigate parking lots– but there’s also a dark side.

Looking around now, it’s hard to imagine how this all started. After WWII, (surprisingly) cities planned suburbs as an environmentally-based concept: a haven where people could escape the grind of downtown and unwind to the sound of nature’s heartbeat (how’s that for a soundbyte). But now, over sixty years later, this suburban dream has turned into an environmental nightmare. Have you ever tried getting to the grocery store, the bank, a friend’s house, and back home without driving? In urban areas this is easy peasy—everything you need is within walking distance, a bike lane or accessible by public transit. But in suburbs, if you don’t own a car (or two), good luck to you.

Suburbs are planned around the automobile and segregated land use; in other words, it’s no accident you have to drive 3 km to get to Loblaw’s, another 3 to get to the bank, another 4 or 5 km to get to the party at Sally’s house, and let’s not forget the dozens of kms worth of soul-sucking gridlock to get to work. And it’s certainly no accident every building with a sign out front seems to have a drive-thru. Even the pharmacy at Superstore has a drive-thru option? Why? Because they can.

Auto-dependency and sprawl are the rudiments of suburbia. So on the one hand, it’s a pleasant haven to raise a family. On the other hand, it’s a style of land development that paves over some of the richest farmland and green space in the world, and requires extra dependency on a heavily depleted fuel source. Lovely as it is, it’s not sustainable.

My goal is not to bash the suburbs, or to condemn anyone who lives there (or I’d need a big ol’ mirror). I’m certainly not instructing you to up and move if you’ve made your home there. Suburbia may be flawed by design, but it doesn’t have to be flawed by its inhabitants.

My intent is to make suburbia a little greener. Yes, the design of suburbia is far from eco-friendly, but that doesn’t mean our behaviours have to be too. And don’t worry, I won’t tell you to throw away your car keys or to wear clothing made exclusively of organic hemp…that’s a later blog ;-). Let’s glorify the small changes that add up to something bigger.

Picking up a piece of litter in your favourite park has deep implications. That one little act shows people someone respects and cares for their neighbourhood. The same goes for parking and walking into Tim Horton’s instead of idling the car for ten minutes at the drive-thru. And speaking of driving, how about the Go-Train or a carpool for that long commute? One amazingly fit member of the PMH Foundation actually bikes to work from Richmond Hill. We can’t all be Lance Armstrong, but we can all try to bring reusable containers when ordering take-out, put a composter in the backyard, or put a solar panel on the roof. These are all easy ways to cultivate a green attitude in the suburban lifestyle. After all, the best way to instill environmental stewardship is by example.