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Are Suburbs Worth Saving?

The suburbs are often attacked from various camps, for their lack of originality and often dismal community. But Russell E. Saltzman defends his suburban existence at First Things:

Fact is I like living here. I have met more neighbors here than anywhere else. The day we moved in, we met a dozen people who made a point of greeting us and one guy brought over some cookies. If the alternative to that is living in something resembling socialist-style worker’s housing with ten floors of basement, I’ll stay here.

Saltzman brings up some good arguments for the suburbs—many have an aesthetic beauty, revealed in their curated lawns and reflective designs. For many American kids who grew up there, the suburbs are reminiscent of backyard barbecues, pool parties, and the smell of freshly cut grass.

Additionally, our alternatives to suburban life are often bleak. As Saltzman puts it, the apartments and other urban buildings of our time often reflect a bland, foreboding design. Tall apartment buildings often display either an entire lack of privacy, or aesthetic ugliness—or both. Some offer porches or roof seating, but most lack private space to make them more habitable. Meanwhile, long rows of modern townhouses often display significant isolation, as they’re pocketed off from city centers in a suburb-like fashion, and they often lack shared common space of the sort that helps foster community.

Such housing options discourage both community, and the ownership of private space. Apartment-owners often are forced to share common goods, without any sense of ownership or privacy. This can often counteract community, as people pull into careful, cautious corners, afraid of offending or dominating. Meanwhile, suburb owners have their private space—but often, they lack any public arena or common space to share with others. When the fabric of cities was more integrated, with shops and parks threaded through residential areas, there was greater opportunity to happen upon people, without feeling like an intruder. Jane Jacobs notes this in her book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities:

“… It is possible in a city street neighborhood to know all kinds of people without unwelcome entanglements, without boredom, necessity for excuses, explanations, fears of giving offense, embarrassments respecting impositions of commitments, and all such paraphernalia of obligations which can accompany less limited relationships.”

In contrast, she describes a city deprived of this sidewalk community:

“When an area of a city lacks a sidewalk life, the people of the place must enlarge their private lives if they are to have anything approaching equivalent contact with their neighbors. They must settle for some form of ‘togetherness,’ in which more is shared with one another than in the life of the sidewalks, or else they must settle for lack of contact. Inevitably the outcome is one or the other; it has to be; and either has distressing results.”

Meanwhile, the traditional homes of an older, more traditional and integrated urbanism rise to higher and higher prices—or they’re demolished to make way for more “modern” designs.

Is the suburb the best answer we have to isolation and modern urbanism? Saltzman shows that community isn’t impossible within the suburb. And he’s right: with careful intentionality, we can curate community, even there. We should weigh the benefits of suburb life that he espouses, and consider how to build on those strengths—even while we pinpoint and address the weaknesses inherent in its urban structure. No housing option will be entirely perfect; ultimately, it’s the people that make a place habitable.

This post is supported by a grant from the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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