The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding

The Suburbs Are Here to Stay

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from damonfarber.com

A mixed use suburban development in St. Louis Park, MN (from damonfarber.com)

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.

What do you like about the suburbs you’re familiar with? What could be improved upon?

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6 thoughts on “The Suburbs Are Here to Stay

  1. The Main Line suburbs of Philadelphia developed along a major railroad line. Today they have a good mix of housing types and densities and many of their village centers have remained walkable and connected to their train stations. Unfortunately, major highways littered with auto-oriented shopping centers cut across many of the towns and an always-congested-expressway separates them from the Schuylkill River.

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  2. 🙂 I’m not convinced. Maybe my argument is a semantic one, but i think there’s power in the semantics. A suburb exists, etymologically, as an exclave of a city—its intent is never to stand alone, but to support the residential overflow of a nearby urban center. As such, it will always be viewed—by those who create it, by (many of) those who live in it, by (many of) those who drive through it—as a means to an end, yet never the end itself—the city is that end.

    When we treat space as a means to an end, we end up with mean space: harsh landscapes and wide thoroughfares and sprawling developments with little integration of commercial, residential, and nature. But these aren’t bugs of the suburban system; they’re features: Wide lanes for quick commutes! Everything you need on your way home, all in one store! Just thirty minutes from the action!

    As long as people flock to the suburbs (whether they’re still flocking is, of course, an entirely different question) for the urb, anything that gets in the way of that urb will be poor design. Cobblestone streets and pedestrian walkways and narrow lanes might make a place more homey, but it also makes a place less easy to navigate. If we don’t jam a freeway straight through Suburbsville, USA, its 25-mile straightaway to the city center center becomes an inescapable and unsustainable traffic jam. If we don’t pave paradise and put up a parking lot, the light rail system designed to bring millions from Burb A to Urb B has no way to collect all those warm bodies and dump them onto the city streets.

    I guess where I’m going with this is that as long as we orient our lives around cities, we’re going to have suburbs and—I would argue—suburbs are going to suck. But I define suburbs here—and this gets back to my semantic argument—as children of intent. If, on the other hand, we design our near-city communities to be just that—towns, real live, standalone places to live and thrive—well then, the sky’s the limit. The key difference here, I think, is that the town needs its own jobs, its own culture, and its own pride; it needs to view itself not as a part of a city, but a part of itself. This is why Alexandria, VA is a cool place to be and McLean, VA is the boondocks—because the former exists for itself and the latter only for something else (despite, interestingly, the former being just a stone’s throw from DC). Or why Boulder is one of the country’s favorite towns—because it doesn’t define itself as a colony of Denverists.

    Suburbs (in all their stereotypical glory) aren’t an evil thing; they’re a perfect solution to a certain of consumer. The problem, then, is when an unwitting consumer can’t get a refund on a purchase they didn’t authorize.

    🙂 Just my two cents.

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    • Your two cents is worth far more than two cents, Jay. I think your point is well taken, particularly with your examples about Alexandria vs McLean. You phrase it well in saying that suburbs are a means to an end and unless we shift that thinking, they will stay the way they are.

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  3. I grew up in a suburb just north of Toronto. My neighbourhood was really special because my street was closer to a laneway rather then a typical suburban street. Most days it was filled with kids playing and there was a certain intimacy all the neighbours had with each other due to the shape of the street. I’ve lived in Toronto now for 7 years and theres just something so incredible about that 10 minute walk from my house. I’m close to transit, bike lanes, markets, bars, restaurants, shops. Everything. I think the approach to the argument shouldn’t be suburbs vs cities. What the suburbs could improve on however is creating more dense cores and downtowns. The street life and walkability or bikeability is sometimes totally lost therefore making everything accessible by car. You lose out on so much sociability and thats no fun at all!

    Great post! I just found your blog and I love it!
    Natasha

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    • Thanks so much for adding your perspective. As I was writing this, one of my friends pointed out that suburbs outside of America look quite different. It sounds like your suburb near Toronto is a much better example of how we could model ours here.

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