My Problems With The Suburbs

It should be no surprise that I favor urban areas and adamantly support families choosing to live in urban environments. I’ve made a lot of bold statements about the value of urban environments, the quality of life available to urban families, and (what I believe to be) the challenges inherent in suburban living. When I make these statements, my suburban friends sometimes take offense. Some offense is appropriate, of course. I am, after all, calling their most basic lifestyle decisions into question. But, too much offense would be disingenuous. We all, every time we make a life decision for ourselves and our family, are calling other people’s decisions into question. Just because I say my reasons out loud should not make me an enemy.

That said, before I quickly explain my thoughts on the suburbs, I should clarify some things for people who don’t speak the language of the “city vs suburbs” question because much of the offense comes from misunderstanding what I mean when I say certain words or phrases. I apologize, ahead of time, for the way these clarifications will lengthen this post.

So, some clarification:

1. When I speak of an “urban” environment, neighborhood, or area, I do not mean a large, metropolitan city. Of course, large cities are “urban,” but urban design extends to many other built environments. When I speak of an “urban” environment, I am speaking less of size or population and more of issues related to city planning and design. Urban areas are spatially dense, socially diverse, economically diverse, are supported by a public infrastructure, and are culturally unique, regardless of their size.

2. Urbanism extends beyond the center of large cities. To give an example: Cincinnati is a metropolitan area of almost 3 million residents, divided into 52 distinct neighborhoods and surrounding municipalities. In a city like Cincinnati, the Central Business District is not the only definitively “urban” neighborhood. There are multiple neighborhoods within the city that could qualify. The same goes for some of the surrounding municipalities. Likewise, in a city like Chicago, the central urban core is much larger than in Cincinnati and the sub-urban sprawl extends much father from the core. Many of the surrounding municipalities are designed much the same way as large cities, but on smaller scales. Many of these areas are ex-urban areas or commuter cities that depend, in some way, on the vitality of the nearby large city, but also have their own urban character.

3. Not all “urban” areas or cities or parts of cities are the best example of the best of urbanism. I am speaking in generalizations. If your situation or experience does not match my assessment, then you are welcome to share the difference between your situation and my assessment, but it does not negate the truth of a generalization.

4. As should be obvious by my numbers 1 & 2 above, areas outside (or even far from) a city are not necessary the “suburban” areas I take issue with. The purpose and design of sub-urban areas has shifted drastically in the past 150 years and, so, the areas established outside cities at the turn of the 20th Century will be very different from those developed in the past 3o years. In general, most of the areas that meet my critique are those developed post-WWII.

5. It seems ridiculous to even have to say this, but I will. As in number 3 above, not all “suburban” areas are the best example of suburbia. Again, I am speaking in generalizations. If your situation or experience does not match my assessment, then you are welcome to share the difference between your situation and my assessment, but it does not negate the truth of a generalization.

6. Now, for my suburban friends: I will say, and have always said, that there are legitimate reasons to live in the suburbs. I have many wonderful friends and family who live in neighborhoods and houses that I would never choose to live in, but have made what they believe to be the best decision for their family. I did not have a “bad” experience growing up in the suburbs; I had a pleasant and safe suburban childhood. Unless you ask me for advice, I’m not out to make personal judgements about your personal decision, but I am willing to call out the entire culture of suburbia based on what I know about the design of the suburbs and have learned about the nature of vibrant, thriving communities. Maybe your community will fit the bill; maybe it won’t. That’s not for me to decide. If our life situation changed and my husband got a great job in the suburbs or if we needed to move in with or nearer to my parents or my mother in-law, I may find myself in a different position. But, regardless of where I live now or in the future, I am not afraid to make bold statements about the design of suburban areas and what it means for the lifestyle of those who live there.

7. It should also be said that I am not a professional urban planner and a purist may argue with some of my definitions. If you want to know the real ins and outs of the “city vs suburb” debate, look to someone else.

So, here goes.

My problems with the suburbs are as follows.

Suburban areas are characteristically homogeneous. Everything from the appearance of the buildings to the income of the residents is the same after the same after the same. There is no economic or social diversity–everyone lives the same kind of life, drives the same kind of car, has the same kind of job, and lives in the same kind of house. There is no aesthetic diversity–every building was designed by the same architecture firm for the same developer to look exactly like the other building next door. This is true for suburban business districts, churches, and schools, as well as residential developments.

There is no value in the aesthetics of an area that is designed for economic expediency by a large, corporate land developer. Beauty is an afterthought when efficiency is valued above creativity. A “custom home” in which your choice is between beige and ivory vinyl siding is not truly custom by any stretch of the imagination. When every lot is the same size, every home is the same average sq footage, and the city legislates the color of your painted trim, there is no room for aesthetics. It is boring at best and ugly at worst.

Real estate and property values in the suburbs have a tragic economic depreciation rate. What is the lifespan of your home? What will your home be worth, in its current condition, in 30 years? Which areas are still thriving during our economic recession? Look it up. I dare you. This is especially true for big-box commercial developments and crappy strip malls which seem to be designed to for demolition in 20 years, just to make way for another economically expedient, aesthetically-void development.

You simply cannot survive in the suburbs without a car. Even in suburban areas where things are close in proximity, nothing is designed for pedestrian traffic. A walk to the grocery store–even if it’s three blocks away–is a death wish in suburbia. Try going to visit a friend, picking up Chinese food, or taking your child to school without using a vehicle. Add up the cost the average American family incurs by relying so heavily on car use–especially in a two-car family. Add up the time wasted in a year’s worth of commuting. It will amaze you.

Physical space in the suburbs is completely privatized. Have you ever been out of town, passing through a suburban area, and tried to find a place to stop and walk around? To stop and let your kids play? To stop and park and take a break from driving? Good luck finding any space that is not owned by someone else. Nothing is shared–not driveways, not yards, not parking lots, not even ponds or pools or walking paths. Sure, some homeowners’ associations or corporate office complexes do a good job of creating an appearance of “public space,” but it’s different. And only an outsider can really feel the difference. Spending leisure time in someone else’s suburban empire requires–more often than not–paying your way. Buying something in a dining establishment, paying for recreation, or shopping are often your only options.

The economy of suburbia is entirely corporate. Hey, I like eating at Chili’s as much as the next person and I still buy my jeans at the GAP. But, another Chili’s restaurant or Sam’s Club or Wendy’s does nothing to bolster my local economy or put my neighbor’s kids through college. Sure, it might be good for tax revenue, but do some quick research on the economic return of a “mom & pop” establishment, when compared to a corporate entity. What is worth the investment? If the economic return is really so substantial, isn’t it worth paying an extra dollar for your sandwich or cup of coffee?

The suburbs require no personal interaction in your own community. The average suburban resident may go days without interacting with a single neighbor. Heck, you may not even know their names. Private driveways, closed garage doors, privacy fences, and long, off-set front entryways say to neighbors, “This is MY kingdom. Call ahead, please.” Close friends live a 30+ minute drive away. Shopping is done at a corporate mall across town. You hire a contractor from the Yellow Pages instead of the local newspaper. You attend church in someone else’s neighborhood with people who live somewhere else and who you see for 2 hours a week on Sunday. (And you call this “community?”) You live here. You mow your lawn. You send your kids to the safe, clean schools. You pay your taxes. That’s all that is required of you.

In closing,

Obviously, living in an urban area does not guarantee a different life. There are dying and vibrant communities everywhere. So, why do I think urban design is superior? Easy. Building community might not be contingent upon design, but it is aided (or hindered by it) and urban areas are, by definition, designed for it. So, choosing to live in a place that is designed to be inaccessible to outsiders, economically hollow, and fiercely privatized is counter-productive to the very nature of community-building. It might not make it impossible, but it does not make it any easier.

Is it “easy” to live in the city? In some ways; not others.

Is it “easy” to find a place to live that is both “urban” and affordable for a family? Not everywhere, but you’d be surprised.

Is living in an urban environment “comfortable?” Not necessarily.

Is sacrificing the personal security blanket of suburbia worth the investment into the urban, shared environment? Absolutely.

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2 thoughts on “My Problems With The Suburbs

  1. Well said Liz, all excellent points and more balanced than I think you wanted to be!! We love our “unique” situation of a “farm” (historic farm house on old farm of 3 acres) in Mt.Washigton. We get the best of many worlds here…Mt. Washington is a transient, and very diverse neighborhood. Walkable, access to metro, close to downtown… and for us three acres to begin a lifestyle of self sufficiency on!

  2. Pingback: Liz McEwan’s Problem with the Suburbs. | urbansaving

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