Don’t worry. I won’t let this become the New York City show 24-7 just because I moved here. There are thousands of other cities to discuss too. However, today I actually want to talk about what we might call the antithesis of the city: the suburb. Urbanists and urban developers spend a lot of time hating on the suburbs. They lament the exaggerated commute of suburban workers into the city. They trash the cookie cutter houses and manicured lawns (even while many suburbs don’t look that way now). Most of all, urbanists disparage the sprawling nature of the suburbs, the way these residential areas stretch for miles unbroken by a local store or walkable street.
I won’t pretend I haven’t partaken in this sort of criticism. A couple days ago, though, I had a realization that dramatically shifted my views on suburbs: The suburbs aren’t going anywhere. We need to fit all these people somewhere and the suburbs are the place that we’ve chosen. Yes, it’s helpful to encourage people to move into the city and to make cities a more lively, plausible place to live—but it won’t be possible for everyone to live within the city limits. There’s not enough room and furthermore, that’s not the sort of lifestyle that everyone desires.
It seems like a small thing to recognize, but for me, it means considering urban development efforts in areas that aren’t traditionally construed as urban. Architects, urban planners, municipal governments and local residents should carefully consider what they desire for their suburbs. What sort of vision might we collectively have for an ideal suburb? Would it feel like a small town or be similar to a city? Could it be something different altogether, yet still shed the negative features traditionally associated with suburban life like big box stores, massive roads and strip malls? I think so.
While I’ve never lived in a suburb, I did go to high school in one—St. Louis Park, Minnesota. St. Louis Park had its share of big chain stores and car-centric byways like an other suburb. However, it also possessed a strong sense of community, distinct neighborhoods and a number of local assets like recreation centers, houses of worship (many of them Jewish), parks and successful businesses. St. Louis Park is an old-school suburb, one built close to the city by low- and middle-class people who needed an affordable place to live. Most of the houses are modest in size. Most of the streets have sidewalks (and on the Sabbath, many of the streets without sidewalks become safe anyway due to the sheer volume of families walking to synagogue or to neighboring houses). St. Louis Park always felt like a suburb to me—mostly residential with individual yards and cars and shopping malls. But it also felt comfortable, friendly—a place where you set down roots and made a home.
Places like St. Louis Park can convince even a city girl like me that happy suburban life is attainable, and given that the suburbs are here to stay, I think that is worth striving for.