An ecoburb before the word existed.

“Nor has science sufficient humanity, so long as the naturalist overlooks that wonderful congruity which subsists between man and the world; of which he is lord, not because he is the most subtile [sic] inhabitant, but because he is its head and heart, and finds something of himself in every great and small thing, in every mountain stratum, in every new law of color, fact of astronomy, or atmospheric influence which observation or analysis lay open.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature” (1836)

As a requirement for academic work I engaged in a few years ago, I had to feature some reports and case studies on two widely contrasting suburban developments, both of which intended to blend bedroom-community living with strong environmental stewardship. The two “ecoburbs” that I researched—Village Homes near Davis, CA, and the Woodlands near Houston, TX—began with relatively similar goals and clearly articulated master plans. Both communities, however, diverged quickly as they grew and matured. Unfortunately, all my knowledge of the two developments comes from books and journals; I have yet to visit either one. I have had the opportunity, though, to visit one unabashedly eco-sensitive municipality—one that was less a top-down directive and more of an incremental process forged over decades (and centuries) through the intellectual capital of people who have called the town home. I featured Concord, Massachusetts once before in one of my earliest blog posts for its paradigmatic wildlife tunnels, but now it’s time to explore exactly how the town’s philosophic heritage impacts its communalism with nature in some of the subtlest ways.

While both of the aforementioned developments in California and Texas are niche markets that rebel against perceived sterility and ecological insensitivity of conventional suburbia, the idea of building a community at harmony with the environment is not necessarily a recent phenomenon, nor is it purely a reaction to widespread post-war suburbanization. Academics, ecologists, architects, social reformers, and philosophers have frequently included some sort of integration of nature with the built environment in their ambitions of improving a city. Landscape designer Frederick Law Olmsted, Sr. effectively promoted the public health benefits of parkland and preserved green space, using metaphors such as the “Lungs of the City” to describe his work with New York City’s Central Park, or the Emerald Necklace in reference to Boston’s largely contiguous park system. Ebenezer Howard sought to blend the cultural and employment opportunities of the city with proximity to nature and fresh air of the country through his ambitious Garden City proposals, implemented successfully in the UK as well as the US, using the often-cited metaphor of the “Three Magnets”. Without the extensive knowledge of landscape ecology available today, these reformers of the past imparted different social benefits to environmental planning from the contemporary developers of ecoburbs; nonetheless, the success of many older communities at retaining the integrity of the natural environment proves that the conservationists could effectively align their ambitions with the public a century ago as well as they have in certain contemporary settings.

Seventeen miles outside of downtown Boston, the suburb of Concord boasts a remarkably strong literary heritage, serving as the home for two of the most prominent Transcendentalists, Henry David Thoreau (often referred to as the father of the environmental movement) and Ralph Waldo Emerson. The watershed essay “Nature” by Emerson, quoted at the top of this blog post, articulates the environment’s ability to inspire a better understanding of humankind’s broadest and noblest aims, removed in part from the rigors of scientific study. Emerson saw humans as an extension of nature, rather than ontologically sequestered from one another. His essays influenced lesser known contemporaries such as the writer and theologian Edward Everett Hale, who observed the appalling living conditions of industrial workers in Boston tenements in his work Sybaris and Other Homes (1869). Less abstract and far more prescriptive than most of Emerson’s works, Sybaris encourages bringing the best of nature into a proposed new town to prevent the conditions that have perpetuated the outbreak of cholera infantum. His recommended “system” includes a village site of 1,000 acres, laid out by proprietors who can care for the town as active agents until it can operate autonomously. He recommends four basic principles to which the community must adhere to ensure its long-term prosperity:

  1. Agents must keep roads in fair condition;
  2. They must see that the drainage is systematically cared for;
  3. It may be necessary to sink the wells in some localities;
  4. Negotiations with railroad companies must be made by first owners, to ensure that trains will serve the town to transport laborers to their jobs in Boston in a timely manner.

Does it ring a bell? For those who are familiar with it, the last of these principles in particular evokes Howard’s Garden City paradigm. But it also carries a whiff of the streetcar suburb popularized at the end of the 19th century, where living at a city’s purlieus could provide a greener, healthier respite (though usually for a much more affluent population than the blue-collar laborers that Edward Hale hoped to accommodate). Though not originally intended as a suburb, the Town of Concord, Massachusetts lies well within the sphere of influence of Boston in the 21st century, but it retains the character of a lightly settled village with abundant greenery and occasional farmsteads.

In previous centuries, Concord weaved a rich intellectual tapestry that has indubitably influenced the current residents’ attitudes toward their town, overtly or unconsciously. Though not necessarily a pre-industrial ecoburb, Concord has flourished under the implied spiritual conservationist leadership of Emerson, Thoreau, and Hale, manifested by a higher regard for resource protection than a typical suburb. From an interview with the Concord Planning Department, I learned that one-third of the town is protected from all development, clearly articulated in a 2004 Open Space and Recreation Plan, with a mixture of local, state, and federal ownership, as well as private land bound by a conservation restriction. The Town has also incorporated a Planned Residential Development (PRD) section (Chapter 10) of its Zoning Bylaws, encouraging an unconventional development type that conserves at least 25% of a site as open space, permits a mixture of housing types, and allows the construction of units at a greater density than would otherwise be permitted in a single family residential subdivision, basically achieving what is widely known cluster housing as a result. While these policies suggest a public sentiment favoring conservation within new housing developments, they provide little evidence of how effectively any new construction complies with the policies. In short, how well is the town honoring the legacy of the Transcendentalists’ veneration for nature?

In order to investigate the town’s ability to embody good environmental stewardship in new housing construction—to live up to its claims—I contacted the Delia Kaye at the local Department of Natural Resources, who recommended three developments east of the town center for further observation. Wayside Road, the town’s first privately developed PRD, demonstrates preservation of Moses Pond by clustering the six housing units at one end of the street. The map below looks like a typical suburban cul-de-sac, but my vantage point for the photos—in the purple circle—reveals that the area around the water remains untouched by bulldozers.


The absence of housing in the immediate vicinity of Moses Pond shows the development’s ability to preserve the site (believed to be a childhood play area for Louisa May Alcott) as a public amenity. Notice that only one home is visible from the pond, and even that is at quite a distance. Meanwhile, the end of the cul-de-sac groups several homes in lots that, although hardly tiny, are far smaller than one might expect for high-income suburban housing, best demonstrated through Google Streetview.

Due to the clustering, the development protects 5 acres out of a total of 9.61 in the site. Wayside Road is actually an additional phase to a larger subdivision, encompassed primarily by homes on Ridge Road and Revolutionary Road. Within the larger subdivision, empirical observations suggest that the housing plots demonstrate a greater respect for nature than the average suburban development: the affluent housing rests on comparatively small lots (approximately half acre) with abundant space on or between the lots remaining as forested growth. The yards themselves seem less aggressively maintained, with bountiful weeds and wildflowers that improve the ecological diversity over an unnaturally homogeneous suburban, grassy turf. Absence of a sophisticated storm sewer system suggests an effort at a more natural management of runoff, with small driveways (often of crushed gravel) to help reduce impervious surfaces. In short, the development assumes an almost rural character, which retains the low density many suburban residents ostensibly prefer while leaving a smaller developmental footprint than the average mass-clearance subdivision.

The second site recommended by the Department of Natural Resources, called Meriam Close, is also a PRD, along Edmonds Road.

The housing here is apparently quite closely packed together, with 20 units (a mix of single family, duplexes, and triplexes) built on less than 4 acres of a 24.1 acre site, leaving 20.3 acres to the site fully protected. Most of the preserved land is in the back of the parcel, away from the main road, leaving it invisible to the observer, though a large swale, possibly used for run-off retention, flanks the entrance.

However, the ecological spirit among the individual homeowners is less impressive: the developed acreage features conventional suburban landscape patterns, with wide streets, storm sewers, and large driveways. It’s hard to miss the aggressively manicured “industrial lawns” and even a chemical fertilizer truck there during my site visit, fighting any chance of biodiversity by spraying abiotic chemicals into the soil.

The clustering effectively conserves a great deal of land, but it does not appear that the developer tried to foster a remotely sustainable approach to the remaining 3.8 acres, either in design or in the lifestyle habits of the residents.

The final site, a single parcel at 129 Old Bedford Road is owned by the Concord Housing Trust.

The parcel involves nothing more than a humble home with three subsidized units, built off a long unimproved drive, hugging farmland until one reaches the home, approximately 200 feet off of the main road. The one distinctive feature to this site is the relative inaccessibility of the parcel, in which a driveway is wedged between a farm plot and another residence along the street, taking advantage of an easement in order to reach the housing that is offset from the road.

Essentially, the development is ecologically shrewd for encouraging higher density infill in a small, difficult to use parcel (three units instead of one), and it did not sacrifice farmland or virgin forest in the process. Perhaps more critical, though, is that all three units target lower-income households, required as part of a comprehensive permit under Massachusetts’ 40B laws, which encourage but do not mandate that a town include at least 10% of its residential stock as affordable housing. While three units may seem like a drop in the bucket, this gesture (which usually requires community approval) suggests that the citizens of Concord recognize that ecological sensitivity carries with it a certain whiff of exclusivity. After all, when restricting the available land on which one can build, the inevitable result is that the remaining land becomes much more expensive, keeping housing in Concord out of reach for all but the wealthy. Thus, the provision of subsidized housing in this affluent town reveals the community’s desire to calibrate good ecological development with a concern for increasing its availability to low income citizens. The more high-profile ecoburbs, such as Houston’s grandiose and uniformly wealthy The Woodlands, make no effort to be affordable.

Reflecting upon these three modest developments in Concord, the typical reader of this essay may think, “No big deal.” I’ll confess that it takes some heavy scrutiny to notice anything distinctive about these Planned Residential Developments; the average visitor will find that they look like any other suburban development. The same could be said about the Town of Concord as a whole: it has a compact commercial center, but, aside from sidewalks on all the collector streets (even in the most rural areas), it remains a low density, auto-oriented exurb. But these three Planned Residential Developments suggest that, with varying degrees of success, Concord aims to honor its Transcendentalist legacy by respecting its natural surroundings through conservation—far better than most communities.

Although decentralizing suburbs continue to proliferate all over the country, trends in human settlement patterns shift at a glacial pace. Witness the incremental increase in popularity of New Urbanist designs over the past thirty years, which still only capture a fraction of the (mostly elite) market. The future of ecoburbs remains in question, but the evidence of these incipient developments suggests that their visibility is more likely to increase slowly than to decrease. One can also hope that older suburbs may eventually recognize the growing popularity of these developments and try to incorporate new policies for sustainable growth into their communities, much like the Town of Concord has, with reasonable success. All the while, the scientific inquiry that accompanies each new development will elicit innovative means of integrating sustainability into suburban growth, as ecologists discover new methods of conservation as well as identify current, ostensibly benign practices that yield unexpected environmental harm. Our collective understanding of ecology is superior to that of the good intentions of Hale in Sybaris, and no doubt in fifty years’ time our awareness, and hopefully implementation, of sustainable development will surpass our current standards.

Transcendental philosophy may offer the most ecumenical perspective on the nation’s progress toward sustainability, as Emerson reflected in “Self-Reliance”:

“Society never advances. It recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other. It undergoes continual changes; it is barbarous, it is civilized, it is Christianized, it is rich, it is scientific; but this change is not amelioration. For everything that is given, something is taken. Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.”

While such a perspective could easily be interpreted as brutally cynical, I believe that within the context of humanity’s relation to the environment it simply reveals a perpetual teleology. We will most likely never co-exist in perfect harmony with nature, but the continued push for improvement helps an entire society—urban, rural, and suburban—nurture a deeper understanding of the complexities of nature as well as, in true Emersonian fashion, a greater understanding of our own role on Earth.

And to conclude, I present one other bit of evidence of Concord’s quietly effective protective measures:

Yes, it’s Thoreau’s Walden Pond, perhaps the Town’s most treasured Transcendentalist relic. Previously threatened by encroaching development, the Commonwealth now manages the pond as a State Reservation, protected in perpetuity. In the summer it’s a popular swimming destination, and, in true American fashion, we have found some way to commodify it:


But at least the parking lot for the museum/gift shop uses permeable pavement!

6 thoughts on “An ecoburb before the word existed.

  1. Anonymous

    I bave been to both, Davis and Concord, and I lived in another Boston “eco” burb with more of a blue collar flair, in Natick, Mass, my short stay convinced me that New England is headed in the opposite worse direction than California in it’s accelerating sprawl(google the study) and car dependency.

    Walking on the sidewalks or riding a bike in winter was very difficult. Communities were not well connected by anything but car and suburban drivers were downright hostile to bikes/pedestrians. New lots were huge with massive lawns thata were not used for anything.

    Davis CA is still not perfect, and neither is rest of California, but in particular soCal is densifying quickly, small lots with yards of native plants and fruit, LA is building lot of new rail, and favorable weather is making bicycling increasingly popular.

    Reply
  2. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the response. I would concur that, while most of the inner-ring suburbs of Boston (Cambridge, Somerville, Revere, Quincy) seem dense enough to allow walkability, the more outlying ones (such as Concord) have a compact center surrounded by auto-oriented development patterns. Concord throws a bone to pedestrians with sidewalks on most collector streets, but density is low, streets are hierarchical, and traffic speeds are high. I took most photographs seen in this blog while on a bicycle, and I can’t say I felt too comfortable.

    Not very familiar with Natick, but I’ll have to check it out. One thing that makes New England metro areas SEEM more pedestrian friendly (even if, as you say, they are not so) is that so much of the development pre-dates the automobile, so the metros in aggregate have more pedestrian-scaled settlement patterns. Boston has been a slow-growth metro area by and large since the 1950s, so quite a few more of its “suburbs” would still seem urban by southern and western standards.

    However, since nearly all contemporary growth in metro Boston is taking place in southern New Hampshire, those suburbs are disproportionately spread-out and auto-oriented. I definitely hope to visit Davis the next time I’m in CA.

    Reply
  3. Gina

    I would like to a see a community that both preserves open space and develops in such a way that the majority of the population is not dependent on a car.

    I live in one of Los Angeles’ oldest suburbs, Pasadena. We live on a 7500 sq ft lot which is rather large by local standards. Your previous commenter is correct, we have seen a progressive movement to dense development along light rail corridors and an increasing effort to eat locally – including growing food at home. While we love the train, it is very much a victim of local politics and at present does not actually connect the city in a useful and efficient manner. Major destinations such as USC, UCLA, the museum district, and the airports are not accessible by rail. Outside of the city and inner suburbs preservation of open space is actively resisted in favor of cheap, car dependent, water dependent (from other states!), uniform developments. While I know that they consequences of the current economic crisis have been devastating for many (including us – my husband is severely underemployed) I do hope it helps to arrest the devastating sprawl that plagues Southern California.

    Reply
  4. AmericanDirt

    Thanks for the comments Gina. Unfortunately I last visited Los Angeles when I was eight years old and mostly know the city through the many great nonfiction chronicles out there. (As well as some of the good pulp.) Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t Pasadena one of the most urban and pedestrian friendly of the suburbs, perhaps even more than parts of L.A. city proper? I’m sure it still has a long way to go, but it is hard to reorient rail transit in low-density areas when it high density is the true meat and potatoes upon which it feeds.

    Your observations indicate to me that, unfortunately, you are probably a minority in your desire for a more broadly sustainable settlement pattern. If its any consolation, those space-devouring, uniform developments reflect what your antithesis, the majority, largely wants, and its often economically (and politically) shrew) for leadership to allow people to buy what they want, for the most part. And my biggest fear is that a widespread obstructionist attitude–completely stopping people from “sprawling” the way they choose–could yield economic consequences even more devastating than the ones we are witnessing from these environmentally unhealthy decentralizing trends. Perhaps you can prove me wrong? I’m certainly open to it. Thanks again.

    Reply
  5. Jennifer

    Please contact me. I found your site because I fear slump has occurred next to my house in my development. The residents’ association is trying to downplay it, calling it a swale. I doubt it.

    I need some advice. I pray you see my reply and get in touch with me.

    Thank you.

    Reply
  6. AmericanDirt Post author

    Jennifer, I am writing you back through a private message at what I have on file as your e-mail address. Let me know if you don’t receive anything within the next 24 hours.

    Reply

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