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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 [1] 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.

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

1 Comment (Open | Close)

1 Comment To "Are Suburbs Worth Saving?"

#1 Comment By Eric Veith On September 10, 2014 @ 12:27 pm

For me, the question is not whether we should seek to foster community in the suburb, but rather HOW we can do so. Even though we as urbanists often hate the things that the suburbs represent, the cold hard fact is that suburbs (albeit hopefully not in their current form) are here to stay. Nobody will ever be able to raze Mission Viejo, Highlands Ranch, or any of the other famous car-inspired, McMansion-filled communities around the country.

Again, for me, the question becomes how do we improve the suburbs and make them hospitable to the sorts of things that many urban neighborhoods are more hospitable to. Instead of simply bemoaning strip malls and wide streets, we should be focussing on how we can modify/redevelop/revitalize those things to make the lives of the people living there more vibrant.

For me, the question of how this can be done is arguably more more difficult than the question of how to revitalize existing urban neighborhoods. In urban areas, it is a mater of revitalization – in the suburbs, it will be a question of vitalization, as it is being done for the first time.