Did you ever notice that pop culture tends to either scorn or mock the suburb?
The dis-satisfaction of suburban life has been captured with shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” and movies such as “American Beauty.”
The song, “Little Boxes,” sums it up this way: “Little boxes on the hillside, little boxes made of ticky tacky, little boxes, little boxes, little boxes all the same. There’s a green one, and a pink one, and a blue one, and a yellow one, and they’re all made out of ticky tacky and they all look just the same. And the people in the houses all went to the university where they all were put in boxes, little boxes all the same.” (See Pete Seeger perform it here.)
And yet, a majority of Americans choose to live in a suburb — it’s the expected way of life for so many. I spent my high school years in Willingboro, N.J., which is one of the original Levittowns — post-World War II townships of nearly identical home types and curved streets that are divided into neat sections, called parks.
My particular town experienced a white flight in the 1960’s, as blacks from Philadelphia earned enough money to move to the suburbs and somehow settled on Willingboro, thus scaring the whites about falling property values, and the whites moved away. (My family didn’t get the memo, I’m proud to say.) And thus, the town’s racial makeup is now largely black. But it’s still middle class suburb, all the way.
Since becoming an adult, I have chosen to live in cities. It’s been difficult for me to pinpoint why the city is so much more satisfying to me*.
What is it about the city? Why is it that my husband and I pay a premium to fit our lives into 1,000 square feet, when we could trade that in for three times the space farther away?
I’m probably more provincial than any suburbanite: I never leave my Seattle neighborhood, save to go to the airport to travel someplace entirely different. I once joked that I get to Washington, D.C. more often than I get to Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, which is just a few miles away.
I never have to leave, and I love it. My address has a walkability score of 98. I nearly always am wearing flats and a spring dress or yoga clothes. I walk to church, to the grocery store, to the coffee shop, to the dentist, to Seattle Center, to the park, to the playground, to yoga. My whole life fits into a one-square mile radius. And it’s not boring at all — it’s wholly and completely satisfying.
Well, I just picked up a fascinating book, called Suburban Nation, that explains things I’ve often wondered about.
Humanity has for much of its history lived within walking distance of its daily needs. The book differentiates between the “traditional neighborhood,” like the one in which I live, and the suburb, a largely American creation that became popular after World War II.
So here’s my duh realization: Daily life has multiple components: Sleeping, eating, shopping, working and recreation. The suburb serves to separate each of these components via residential subdivision, strip mall, office park and entertainment center. They are each separated by geography, and then connected via feeder roads, making life wholly dependent upon a car.
The design, then, and zoning laws require large parking lots in front of the buildings. The entire landscape is built for cars, not people. You’ll notice that most suburban homes have a driveway that leads to the sidewalk. Whereas, most homes in the city have walkways that go front porch to sidewalk. My Seattle neighborhood is (frustratingly sometimes!) not built for cars — I will often walk two miles rather than give up a coveted parking spot on the street.
Meanwhile, the suburb is “isolation en masse.” This works for a lot of people, particularly those with children*. (I can’t imagine struggling to find for parking, groceries and little tykes in tow. Garage = luxury.)
So that explains it, for me. I love being near lots of people, though I don’ t necessarily always talk with them. I run into people I know as I go about my daily life, and I stop and say hello, and it brings me sheer joy every time. I’m so totally in love with my urban community on the hill.
*I’m writing this while visiting some very close friends, who live in a spacious home in a gorgeous suburb of San Francisco. The lifestyle differences among people don’t make some of us wrong and some of us right, they just make us different. My family still lives in a suburb and thinks I’m crazy for choosing a life of parking hassles and an expensive mortgage relative to the amount of space we get. Still offended? Watch this Sesame Street clip on YouTube.
What do you think? Why do some people pay a premium to live small in the city while others buy giant homes in the ‘burbs?
Andrea, I agree that neither side is necessarily “right” nor “wrong” in the city vs. Suburbs debate. But neither is it just a lifestyle choice — local and national policies have a huge impact. Low-density suburban development consumes farmland and wildlife habitat and leads ro a lot more driving, with the obvious environmental consequences. Opponents of “smart growth” policies that the Obama administration is pursuing argue that urban elites want to force everyone into their chosen lifestyle. And many suburbs are re-inventing themselves with walkable town centers and other elements of urban-style design. As a reporter who covers these issues, I can tell you that the conversation gets ugly sometimes.
Mike – I’m so glad you joined in! Can you provide some links to articles? I am fascinated by this subject, and by the policy of it. Why is it, for example, that you can’t use a VA loan to buy a condo? You must buy a free-standing home! Where did that judgment come from?
Andrea, I am SO glad that you’d rather live small in the city. I could go on forever about the harm urban sprawl does to our lifestyles, our communities, and the earth. We used Suburban Nation a lot while I was in design school (which reminds me, I should probably buy the book already!). I feel very strongly about this subject, and I commit my interior design practice to helping enhance urban environments. Life in cities may not be as convenient for some people, but it is infinitely richer in culture, intellectually fulfilling, more fun, safer, and just more interesting than a cookie cutter McMansion development. Not to mention, city living is way better for the environment. A suburban lifestyle for everyone is simply NOT sustainable. I should stop now before I get worked up, but I wanted to say that it’s awesome you feel the way you do. Keep spreading the word!
Just a reading recommendation on the subject of the green impact of an urban lifestyle: New Yorker writer David Owen’s book, _Green Metropolis: Why Living Smaller, Living Closer, and Driving Less Are the Keys to Sustainability_. I quite enjoyed it as a read, and it helps reframe the topic for those used to thinking of cities as big, dirty, and bad for the planet. Humanity’s impact on the planet is enormous, and cities are high density polluters, it is true. But the impact of spreading those city dwellers out to suburban density and lifestyle would be still more alarming…
I’d suggest Chrisopher Leinberger’s “The Option of Urbanism” (excerpts available online) for the urbanist viewpoint. For the other side, check out essays and articles by Joel Kotkin.
Another great Christopher Leinberger article in the Washington Monthly about urbanism and how it can be an engine for growth in the economy.
You guys are awesome to chime in with all of these reading suggestions — thank you! 🙂
Ya, I could live in the Marin Highlands, or Sonoma County, or Walnut Creek. In fact, I was looking at places down there this summer–to rent, mind you. But here I am, after growing up in Kirkland–back when Kirkland had a Ben Franklin downtown and that was about it–living on Queen Anne again for the first time since I left high school over twenty years ago. Queen Anne has changed dramatically. I was going to suggest that if Andrea wants more space on Queen Anne she should just buy a house up here, but then of course I would be joking, as somewhere in the last twenty years or so a starter house on Queen Anne became as expensive as some mansions in the burbs.
Philosophically and sociologically, I have a lot of suburbs in me, but as Andrea pointed out, living on Queen Anne has its pluses. You can do most anything here like just walking down the street and seeing Greg Laurie at the Key, as I did tonight. What an amazing and inspirational presence. Not going to find that up in Lynnwood.
Hi AJ,interesting thoughts and History the price that goes for a fifth ave flat is too high to justify and I cant seem too see the difference between condo’s and apartments or subleases how ever suburbia has many things to offer with less effort in obtaining them such as ATM;s and coveinience store and chain stores . I don’t like the traffic or the noise in City’s how ever I do live in a coastal city with 4 boro’s. The 2 farms I lived and worked at or rented had allot more freedoms but I missed being near the water. So we chose a place integrated and multicultural to Mexican, Portugese and the standard B&W. I think anywhere else we feel like snobs.
One of the things that I forgot to mention about why I felt compelled to move into the suburbs: We used to live on what I thought was a fairly safe neighbourhood in Oakland – infinitely walkable. but a few months before we moved, our neighbour was mugged at gun-point just outside our building, and she had her three year old daughter with her. It made me uneasy about going out alone with Ty. And then I would look out onto the street with the cars roaring by, and wondered where the boys would ride their bikes? I guess I got nostalgic for the burbs in some ways, because I used to ride my bike in a cul-de-sac, and I used to be able to walk to school too.
Don’t get me wrong, I do love cities – the excitement and speed of life in Hong Kong was amazing, and I can’t wait to take the boys and show them the old haunts. But with kids, priorities change for some people.
And though we lived in Lynnwood, we would love exploring places with exotic names like Issaquah, Sammamish, Tukwila, Mukilteo. I think it’s dangerous to judge a person on where they live. I mean, my cousin lives in Ballard, and he’s never explored any of those places I mentioned. He lives in a very small world.
I’m rambling. I have too many thoughts on this subject!
I grew up in the suburbs of San Francisco (Menlo Park, to be precise). Where did you visit? I, too, have chosen to live in cities. Three cities in China (one smallish and two huge megalopolises) and San Francisco. I agree with your point about how multiple aspects of daily life can be either geographically integrated (in the city) or separated (in suburbia.) I think China’s up-and-coming wealthy are aspiring to a more suburban lifestyle, with the opportunity to drive from place to place. I also attended a meeting yesterday in “China’s Silicon Valley,” a suburban neighborhood of Beijing that reminded me uncannily of home: tree-lined streets, blue skies, windy weather, and tech headquarters…
@Michael — The cheapest 3 bedroom in QA, that I can see, is about $800,000.
@pop — New Jersey is so expensive, and the cities there tend to be run down (unless it’s New York or Philly), so I can totally see that.
@Tina — Guns are no joke — that’s ridiculous. It bugs me that homes in safe neighborhoods in cities are $1 million+. I grew up playing in the street too, kicking balls, squirting water guns and catching turtles in the creek. But, I could also ride a bike to the corner store and get groceries for my folks. There was a candy store that I could walk to, too! Neighborhoods like that seem to be decaying now.
@Leslie — When I lived in London, I’d finally found a city that was too big. I wouldn’t want to handle the megalopolises of China! Suburban-mom Tina, above, was big-mega-city-Tina until she had kids!