A New Blueprint for Levittown

It was America's original suburb. Now it is aiming to become a model of environmental innovation

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Joseph Schersche / TIME LIFE Picture Collection / Getty

All parts of the community are writing to reduce Levittown's carbon footprint

The blueprint for the postwar American way of life was written in the culs-de-sac of new developments like Levittown, N.Y., the Long Island community that calls itself the country's first suburb. Beginning in 1947, developer Bill Levitt's armies of builders churned out house after house, transforming a bare potato field into a centrally planned town that today is home to 53,000 people. Low-cost and low-interest loans enabled the working class to flee dense cities for the new suburbs, while cheap cars and cheaper gasoline supported their long commutes to urban workplaces. Three-bedroom houses, two cars in the driveway? The suburbs were about having more, and more became the American Dream.

But that manifestation of the American Dream came at a cost: soaring energy use, which is higher per capita in the U.S. than in almost any other country. "What is causing global warming is the lifestyle of the American middle class," says Miami-based architect Andres Duany, a longtime proponent of sustainable design.

That makes what is happening in Levittown today so important. County officials, along with environmentalists and local businesses, recently launched the Green Levittown program, which aims to persuade residents to upgrade their homes, improving energy efficiency and cutting fuel bills. Volunteers signed up to canvass Levittown's 17,000 homes starting Jan. 15. Their mission is to introduce the program and offer to schedule an energy audit (approximately $300) that can identify cost-effective renovations. Those who choose to participate--replacing an inefficient hot-water boiler, adding solar thermal power--can finance the upgrades with reduced-interest loans offered by a local credit union. "For all the attention paid to global warming in the media or internationally, this will be something to show to actual people that they can make a difference in their own lives," says county executive Tom Suozzi.

Given that many houses date back to Levittown's creation more than 60 years ago, there is great potential for efficiency improvements, and an energy overhaul may not be a tough sell in the era of triple-digit oil. Suozzi hopes the program--which runs through Earth Day, April 15--will enlist about 5,000 households and shrink Levittown's carbon footprint 20%. But the real benefit may be even greater. "There is nothing more Middle America than Levittown," says Stan Bratskeir, a public relations executive who co-organized the program with Suozzi. "If we can demonstrate this here, we can do it anywhere."

Greening house by house is already catching on--the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) extended its Leadership in Energy and Design (LEED) rating system to residences to meet the interest in more environmentally friendly homes. But the next steps will be tougher. The sprawl of the suburbs has ensured that much of the energy we consume--and carbon we emit--comes from our dependence on cars. Until we change the layout of our neighborhoods--reversing the suburban ideal of semi-isolated homes--living green won't be easy. "Having a green neighborhood and a green home are two different things," says Michelle Moore, a vice president at USGBC.

As it happens, USGBC recently launched LEED-Neighborhood Development, a new rating system that evaluates how the layout of a development has an impact on the environment. Green features on individual homes will count, but so will designing a neighborhood dense enough to make walking to the office or store a simple task, not an epic journey. "The building is a piece," says Douglas Farr, a Chicago-based architect who helped design the rating system. But "it's part of a bigger system." Making the suburbs truly green will take a construction revolution every bit as sweeping as the one that created Levittown out of thin air six decades ago.