Re-examining the Suburbs

It’s a hot day in the middle of August and I’m speeding through suburban Philadelphia in a borrowed Honda. The windows are down, the sunroof is open, and the Rolling Stones are blasting on satellite radio. As I wind through Dresher, Abington, and Willow Grove, PA I hit tree-lined residential streets before turning onto a four-lane artery lined with aging strip malls. I pull into a parking spot in front of the bank and take some money out, get back in the car, drive down to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner, and then hit the road again, easing a few minutes later into my parents’ Clinton-era town house development. It’s freeing to speed around in their car, and it feels like a return to my roots in suburban Mclean, VA. No crowds, no problems.

The suburbs are the default mode of American life, the place middle and upper middle class people live when they’re not consciously choosing to live somewhere else. As they have since the 1950’s, the suburbs appeal to Americans’ desire for space (for themselves and for their cars), local governmental control over their neighborhood public spaces and institutions (as opposed to the city-wide dispersion of tax dollars and land use decisions that characterize local governance in large cities), and the desire to have ownership not only of one’s living space but of a piece of land as well. Two generations of children have now grown up in the suburbs, and for most Americans life without driveways or drive-in windows is nearly inconceivable.

And yet something changed with the second generation of suburban natives, those of us who were born in the 70’s and 80’s and spent half our childhood watching the world go by from the back of a station wagon. For many of us who grew up during the Reagan or Clinton eras, the idea of driving less and walking more started to seem like a good idea. Seeking out a different way of life, recent college grads following in the footsteps of artists and other urban pioneers, bypassed the suburbs for a place in town. Eventually every city wanted its SoHo or Greenwich Village. A recent apartment posting on Craigslist captured the new urban ideal: “Imagine waking up in a cozy apartment home within walking distance to your favorite latte shop to grab a coffee and muffin.” The posting was for an apartment in Missoula, Montana.

This new embrace of urban life corresponded to an increasing dismissal of the suburbs as soulless and deadening, home to “cookie-cutter” housing developments and chain stores lacking in character. In the eyes of many, suburbs like Abington, Dresher, Willow Grove, and McLean were not places at all, just a few squares in the endless quilt of sprawl.

Of course, hating on the suburbs is nothing new. In 1961, after the first wave of post-war suburban flight, Jane Jacobs, patron saint of urban pioneers, wrote “each day, several thousand more acres of countryside are eaten by the bulldozers, covered by pavement, dotted with suburbanites who have killed the thing they thought they came to find.” In 1979, David Byrne sang of the suburbs, “I wouldn’t live there if they paid me to.”

But over the last couple of years, anti-suburbanism, perhaps bolstered by the ranks of young people re-inhabiting cities, has reached a fever pitch in popular culture. In a March 2009 article in the Atlantic, Richard Florida suggested that “suburbanization-and the sprawling growth it propelled-made sense of a time. But that was then; the economy is different now. A new geography is required.” Florida’s idea of a new geography is a return to the density of old cities, in short, “packing in more people.”

In Jonathan Franzen’s much-hyped new novel Freedom, an anti-sprawl advocate rails against suburban development and exalts in the density of New York City: “This is the way human beings are supposed to live! High density! High efficiency!” The Curator’s own Thomas Turner, referencing Danielle Dutton’s novel SPRAWL, suggested, “the end of the world is when all the world has become suburbia.”

The problem with such criticisms is that they are too often true. Of course, there are old, walkable suburbs like Wayne, PA outside Philadelphia, and Brookline, MA outside Boston; uniquely beautiful towns that are no less unique for being suburbs. But the suburban towns that were developed in the post-war years were built quickly and cheaply, in an era when walkability and access to mass transit were no longer necessary.

My own experience growing up in a post-war suburb was not altogether positive (I was prone to car sickness, for one thing). After graduating from high school I happily left the suburbs behind, eventually settling in Brooklyn, where I’ve lived since 2004. If I glory now in my drives through suburbia, it’s largely because the experience has become something of a novelty.

But just as anti-suburbanism is hitting its stride, I’m starting to wonder whether I can avoid ending up there again in a few years. As any perusal of apartment listings can attest, the newfound popularity of older, denser cities and inner-ring suburbs have made safe and desirable neighborhoods in the urban core unattainable for the average citizen. A tanking economy had a minimal effect on housing prices in gentrified urban neighborhoods, while freshly built developments on the exurban fringes were often the first to drop in value. This represented a clear reversal from the long post-war pattern of emptying cities and booming suburbs.

This isn’t necessarily bad for city-lovers like myself, and few people in New York or Washington or other rejuvenated cities are pining for the bad old days of the 1970’s, when apartments were cheap but muggings were the norm and regular street cleaning a pipe dream. But the new popularity of city living (and the corresponding rise in urban housing costs) demands new compromises from those of us with moderate incomes and children. The prospect of watching your children grow up in a cramped, rent-stabilized apartment you can never afford to move out of will change your perspective on urban living. And schooling is another problem; large cities from Washington to Chicago have been unable to rejuvenate troubled school systems, even as their middle and upper income tax base has grown.

Lacking a realistic alternative, it may be time for some of us to re-examine suburbia – with the hope of improving it. Retrofitting the newest batch of exurban subdivisions to resemble Wayne or Brookline is not possible. But as Thomas Turner noted in his Curator article, “there are people taking back the suburbs from the infestation of Hummers and fast food joints.” People working collectively in neighborhoods they feel invested in may yet have the power to overcome the bad urban design and the single-use zoning of low- density suburbs.

On a governmental level, the smaller size of municipal suburban governments creates more opportunities for community involvement and incremental change than would be possible in a large city. In my parents’ town of Dresher, PA, there is now a bike lane connecting their development to the nearest commuter rail station, suggesting the possibility (for the first time since the development was built) of a car-free commute to Philadelphia. This was the product of a small municipal government making a seemingly minor decision to paint some white lines on the street, but it represented a significant first step towards gradually reducing car dependence in their suburb. And reducing car dependence is arguably the first (and most difficult) step towards making a community more livable.

Cities are flawed in their own ways, of course, but there are solid lessons to be learned from urban revitalization. Access to alternate modes of transportation, a flowering of local businesses, and an acceptance of higher population density are elements of urban life that can translate to the suburbs. But to get there a new breed of suburban residents will have to become active in their community and support a new suburban aesthetic. It will take residents who have already experienced the benefits of biking for transportation and shopping at local businesses.

The good news for those of us who end up being grudgingly pushed out of urban neighborhoods is that more space really can be a good thing, backyards actually can be helpful when raising children, and speeding a Honda down a leafy street with the radio on is still a good time. The better news is that there’s strength in numbers, and as those of us who learned to hate the suburbs start to inhabit them, we can and should take the initiative to push them in a new direction.

Suburban slums?

From Miller-McCune: The Slumming of Suburbia.

To be sure, the low-income drift to suburbia has less to do with bucolic appeal and more to do with economics. Over the past two decades, the gospel of urbanism has spread though the American mainstream, Nelson and others argue. The young, the affluent, the professional class and empty-nesters are reclaiming the urban living experience – dense, walkable, diverse, mixed-use neighborhoods in and around city centers – while the poor disperse outward in search of cheap rent. Low-income residents often subdivide suburban homes, sharing them with multiple families. Studies reveal that population densities in suburban neighborhoods increase two to four times when low-income families replace the middle-class, Nelson said.

Meanwhile, layoffs and other effects of the economic crisis are contributing to higher poverty levels in once-solidly middle-class communities.

Most experts believe the market-driven migration of the poor to suburbs and the affluent to urban zones – sometimes called “demographic inversion” – will continue for decades.

“Americans are disillusioned with sprawl, they’re tired of driving, they recognize the soullessness of suburban life, and yet we keep on adding more suburban communities,” said Christopher B. Leinberger, a land-use expert at the University of Michigan.