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We must abandon the drivers of the American Dream to realize a sustainable and just city

Updated: May 15, 2023

A Dream Denied

In 1931, James Truslow Adams published The Epic of America in which he writes:

[The American Dream is] the dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement.

Three years later in 1934, the Federal Housing Authority was established with the goal of “subsidizing builders who were mass producing entire sub-divisions for Whites with the requirement that none of the homes be sold to African Americans.” This initiated the practice of discriminatory lending known as redlining. [1]

As a result of redlining, many communities were walled-off from the American Dream. Sometimes literally. Such was the case for the Eight Mile-Wyoming neighborhood in northwestern Detroit in 1941, and remains the case over 80 years later. [2] The other side of that wall represented the materialization of the American Dream: immaculately manicured lawns and shady streets lined with trees.

Mass-Producing a Fairytale

For three decades America's economy, housing market, and families all grew. This growth, however, was disproportionately distributed. White families in “greenlined” communities that received immense economic investment [3], specifically for all those soldiers returning home following WWII. In time, many middle-class White Americans left the city as a result of growing racial tensions. [4] These families fled to more attractive housing and economic opportunity in Abraham Levitt’s “fairylands”, the suburbs.

Abraham Levitt was an architect and landscaper who founded the real-estate company Levitt & Sons with his sons William and Alfred Levitt known for reimagining America's suburban communities. They began their project to mass-produce America’s new suburbs in 1941. They worked for six years designing the blueprint for Abraham’s “fairylands” that culminated into the Levittown community on Long Island. [5]

In communities like Levittown, “Where there once had stood working farms there would be rows upon rows of single-family houses, many of them indistinguishable from one another, each of them containing the hopes and aspirations of a generation of Americans who had just watched their nation triumph in the largest war in history.”

For this generation their greatness would not be limited to international conflict; some needed another outlet to exhibit their dominance. Abraham Levitt was deeply inspired by the rapid-evolution of mass-production spearheaded by Ford Motor Company, “Fordism”. Levitt sought to design mass-produced landscapes of identical inch-and-a-half lawns and deciduous trees in association with his new subdivisions. His vision blended Fordism with the horticulture movement that was finally establishing itself within mainstream middle America.

Americans’ affection for imposition of ecological order dates back to leaders of the newly-minted nation during the late-18th century, George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. [6],[7] Following their respective presidencies, both spent their retirement inspired by the growing horticultural movement in western Europe trimming their grass and pruning flowers.

Their meticulous estates and refined gardens, however, would not reach mainstream middle-class communities like those on the other side of the wall in Detroit until the late 19th century [8], shortly after the Massachusetts (1829) and the Pennsylvania (1827) Horticultural Societies began to embellish city gardens. Exhibitions produced by these societies introduced the once-niche hobby of (ornamental) horticulture to the American public, notably as the commission of Central Park in 1858. [9]

On Those That Never Got to Dream (or Those that the Dream Left Behind)

The families that remained in those greenlined communities went on to line their streets with picturesque mono-stands of trees. Over the decades those trees matured alongside the nation’s economy, and today serve as a symbol of the historic disparities institutionalized across the country. In the most extreme cases, greenlined communities have 65% more tree canopy cover than those once-redlined communities, particularly where 9-out-of-10 people live below the poverty line. [10]

Today, those trees provide ample shade, flood reduction, and peace of mind. Matured lawns that received decades of dedicated care now reduce noise pollution, air temperature, stormwater flow, and breakdown organic chemicals. In contrast, regions of cities without trees – those with an abundance of impervious asphalt surfaces – can be as much as 10oF hotter than areas with trees.

More worrisome still, however, is the prevalence of abandoned homes and lots (together considered abandoned plots), especially in once redlined communities.

These abandoned plots are of particular concern in formally industrialized cities such as those in the Northeast US (7.5 structures per 1000 residents in 2000) [11] as well as the former car manufacturing giant, Detroit (the first Ford factory, Ford Piquette Avenue Plant, is a historic site in the Detroit area). Buildings with boarded windows and doors with pink signs and red-strikes stand adjacent to family homes that, too, are in decline.

Abandoned plots are often cited as sites of recurrent criminal activity [12] and may be targeted by police parades purposed to pacify alleged activity but may result in one-sided violent conflict between officers and civilians.

Growing up in these distressed neighborhoods, children often stay inside their old homes where they are exposed to dust, mold, and pesticide residue [13]. Following decades of government-mandated divestment and distress, many children grow up detached from their surroundings, perpetually in anxiety, struggling to breath, and without an identity to call their own.

Today, the children in these formerly redlined communities are predominantly members of predominantly minority groups (>50%). [14] They are often descendants of the generations of black people or that watched as walls were erected to physically separate them from wealthier, White communities, as well as children of LatinX migrants. For these children, it is here in these abandoned plots that we must meditate on potential solutions to our current urban ecological challenges and envision a land capable of adapting to an uncertain future through a rich, climate-resilient culture.

Dreaming Up Wildlands

In these abandoned plots, socio-ecological restoration must not take after the style of mass-produced, manicured landscapes which epitomized the American Dream in the past. We may look behind the façade of fairylands to understand why: monostands of trees that line city streets are under constant threat of boring beetles and gnawing fungi. Beautified lawns are bloated by fertilizer and so contribute to fluxes of greenhouse gasses like carbon dioxide and nitrogen dioxide out of the soil rather than reducing greenhouse gas emission (these fluxes are often higher in regions without tree cover when temperatures are higher). [15]

In fact, these “abandoned plots” represent an opportunity for historically marginalized communities to improve ecosystem and human health and to destigmatize messiness within a culture of obsessive sterilization.

In destigmatizing messiness through embracing the natural process of succession we may find our way towards revitalizing popular culture during a period when the American identity is being fractured. We can build community not only within a shared experience of the natural environment but as well within the biological diversity that supports our social diversity.

From this emergent sensitivity the ever-changing nature of natural processes and the diversity borne out of that further emerges an opportunity to embrace circularity. [16] Through circularity, we may move away from the linearity of Fordism and its “take-make-dispose” approach. [17] Children growing up instead with a knowledge of themselves in this circularity become necessary leaders in the future of developing diverse solutions to close the loop, particularly when navigating the ever-changing nature of our most pressing ecological challenges.

Placed-based connection through circularity and broad political and scientific consensus. Focusing on what others consider to be abandoned serves to empower these communities to break down the walls that kept them out of the fairyland and reimagine the so-called American Dream.


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