How the suburbs shaped American environmentalism

Photos and article by Charlotte Wall

When we think of vacation, we think of places where lush gardens meet golf courses and kiss swimming pools under the upper hand of palm trees. We picture cocktails shaded by paper umbrellas and glassy pool tiles wetted by overflowing, chlorinated swells. Islands where waterfalls feed sparkling ponds and exotic plants lead the way to white beaches.

For Americans, these visions of vacation originated in the suburbs of Southern California. The modern American’s ideal way of life can be traced back to post-Word War II Sunbelt suburban communities, which unified leisure, nature and home living in their resort-style accommodations. To understand why and how the United States became the world’s first suburban nation, first examine Southern California.

During the early 20th century, Southern California transformed Americans’ perceptions of nature. But in this very same period, nature in Southern California was undergoing a massive transformation itself due to human development. California oaks and an open grassy landscapewere replaced by orchards, agricultural fields, towns and metropolises. This development created a “Golden State of Mind,” which merged the ideas of an early pastoral environment with a new idyllic society. This novel mindset shaped how Southern Californians interacted with nature and oriented their homes. 

We tend to imagine that thinkers like Muir, Thoreau and Leopold sparked the evolution of American environmental thought and that their canons continue to shape it. However, in assuming this, we overlook how ordinary people perceive nature.  Although these thinkers impacted how we view the environment, they were not the only framers of environmental thought. Rather, American environmental perceptions are just as much the products of average citizens living their lives (often in suburbs) and designing their yards and homes. Our most common environmental perceptions have subconsciously been shaped by the actions of the many, manifested in the ornamental trees, shrubs and open spaces lining the suburbs. 

However, despite the burgeoning suburbanite’s desire for closeness with nature, suburban developments instead indicated neither ecological awareness nor sustainable development. In fact, large populations were only able to settle in the arid West because it had been hydraulically reengineered.

The West developed in an environmentally “backwards” fashion—water was moved to the people instead of the other way around. It was, and still is, an unpredictable and synthetic realm where water supply has been created and controlled by big money politics and aggressive rivalries. The West’s suburbs themselves are synthetic environments that create the illusion that these residents live near or within nature.

Suburban communities created an appealing paraise with permanent elements of leisure, but did so in a place full of dire ecological hazards.

The new “mass suburbia” that developed in Southern California emulated agricultural and wilderness areas. Neighborhoods sat on the edges of golf courses, residences sported private swimming pools and patios suited for whimsical lawn parties. With such idyllic elements, suburban communities created a regionally distinct but nationally significant culture of leisure in America. This culture permeated existing suburbs in America becauseAmerican citizens craved the vacation lifestyles of Southern California’s suburbanites. Moreover, the aesthetic of these suburbs influenced what Americans believed “nature” was, which had a profound effect on a nation which had rediscovered nature. Across the country, suburban sprawl encroached city limits and brought “nature” to the masses. However, in the process, it destroyed the nature originally there.

Southern California’s mass suburbia was a particularly radical departure from the classic patterns of urbanism and housing in America. Previous suburban communities embodied the landscape of the American Dream: single-family houses on their own lots sat in large-scale, self-contained subdivisions with curvilinear street patterns. Levittown in Long Island, New York was at first populated by these cramped homes, but soon replaced them with larger California Ranch houses. This replacement transplanted the ideal vision of a Southern Californian residence onto old school East Coast suburbia. 

One glamorous example of the Southern California style, Palm Springs, featured artificial, resort-focused residential areas that popularized sunbathing, casual (and minimal) clothing, relaxed social mores and made the resort lifestyle something permanent. In these suburbs that promoted resort-living, people lived lifestyles of vacations rather than vocations.

Palm Springs reflected the “Fortress California” that was created after World War II. It had originally been known as an oasis, a place of health, relaxation and exotic scenery isolated from the broader world. However, World War II brought Palm Springs ever closer to the outside world and promised a successful integration of technology, consumerism and nature as a harmonious whole. Coined “the Desert Modern,” Palm Springs offered a permanent escape from the city without the need to sojourn into nature. It introduced new forms of urban leisure, particularly in the form of golf course developments, which influenced not only other resorts across the country, but also much of American suburbia. To live in Palm Springs was to live in a vacation paradise. Americans wanted this sort of lifestyle in their homes, wherever those might be.

Tourists and homebuyers alike flocked to Palm Springs during its post-war heyday. In Feb. 1947, the Palm Springs Villager, the local paper, romanticized the growing vacation city with its depictions of celebrity visits, chic fashion trends and vacation homes that made onlookers drool. The issue portrayed fanciful illustrations of vacationers decorating cacti for Christmas and the glamorous lifestyles of “active leisure.” In one section, the magazine featured the daily routine of a Palm Springs housewife to give readers a taste of the glamorous life of the average American who lived in suburban Palm Springs. She proclaimed herself an “outdoor girl” ironic given how synthetic her environment was. Her morning routine: a climb through the desert mountains, probably on a paved walkway leading off from her neighborhood, followed by a dip in the concrete swimming pool of the Palm Springs Tennis Club, fed by a water supply pumped from a natural spring hundreds of miles away.

The magazine gave a taste of local life in Palms Springs hoping to attract certain types of visitors—emergent middle-class citizens ready to shop, stargaze and relax. The first issue covered the perfect “Desert Honeymoon,” which accommodated newlyweds Betty and Jack with deluxe accommodations, dinner at the Tennis Club, horseback rides in the desert, and the attention of generous local luminaries and visiting celebrities from Hollywood who showered them with gifts. Newlywed Jack, featured in the issue, is quoted, “I still can’t believe this is all true. The town is ‘out of this world,’ but if I am dreaming, please don’t wake me up.” 

Yet, not all were charmed by the whimsical depictions of Palm Springs, including journalist Neil Morgan, who claimed Palm Springs was “the most conspicuous flowering of all that is vulgar and futile in the Southern California philosophy.” Still, those with the average middle-class mindset who craved leisurely lifestyles were lured by Palm Springs far and wide. One reader of the Villager in 1947 aspired to live within this vacation realm, claiming it to be “romantic and novel, quite differently composed to our way of doing things; everything colorful and rich looking.”

However attractive communities such as Palm Springs appear, their luxury is not sustainable. The Bureau of Reclamation has moved massive amounts of water incredible distances to serve human desires. In so doing, the West has been left vulnerable to the droughts of the past five years. Suburban communities created an appealing paradise with permanent elements of leisure, but did so in a place full of dire ecological hazards, from wildfires to earthquakes. As the West grew for man, it shrunk for nature. Despite massive cutbacks in water-use and fears for the region’s future by environmentalists and stakeholders, the suburbs in Southern California are, oddly enough, the ones that other American suburbs have copied.