Suburban Dissatisfacton Revisited

July 11, 2006 | By | 5 Replies More

Earlier, I wrote about the tendency of suburbanites to feel they have limited options, and how such a life can seem unfulfilling or failed. At the time, I inspected the personal shortcomings that have a hand in this, as well as the human predisposition to discontentment. But it appears that yet another factor contributes to the often portrayed suburban dread: the structure of the suburbs themselves.

Prior to the Second World War, most suburbs had what architects and city planners call a “traditional” or “mixed-use” structure. Towns of this type have closely arranged, small city blocks intermittent with other amenities such as shops, restaurants, churches, and public buildings such as schools and post offices. To get a better idea of a town of this type, picture the typical conception of a small New England village or city. This traditional structure made pedestrian activity both easy and inviting, claims Andres Duany, one of the authors of Suburban Nation: The Rise of Sprawl and the Decline of the American Dream.

In the 1950’s and beyond, building codes began to prevent such a seamless blend of commerce, public activity, and personal residence from organizing. Most American towns now have much more rigid building codes the divide all the realms of society into isolated sections: a housing district, a shopping center-like area, and government buildings shoved somewhere else. Duany describes the trend this way:

“It’s an architectural version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Our neighborhoods are being replaced by soulless alien substitutes. Instead of corner stores, we have Quick Marts. Instead of Main Streets, we have Mega Malls. Fast-food architecture –“McMansions” — sit forlornly along monotonous cul-de-sacs.”

This layout has made the classic “American Dream” all the more difficult. Isolated housing areas breed the sloping, Byzantine neighborhood structures where every house looks the same and the nearest shop lies nearly a mile away down a busy five-lane road. See the the following pictures, which compare a “traditional” neighborhood to a modern suburb (all from Suburban Nation):

“The traditional neighboorhood: naturally occuring, pedestrian-friendly, and diverse. Daily needs are located within walking distance.”

“Suburban sprawl: an invention, an abstract system of carefully seperated pods of single use. Daily needs are located within driving distance.”

What Duany calls the “rise of sprawl” has probably affected numerous negative trends in American society. The lack of pedestrian-friendly roads and sidewalks, and the long distance between housing and business has obviously reduced the number of Americans who walk on a daily basis. According to the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, the average US household takes 13 car trips per day. Imagine how many of these we wouldn’t take if we could walk down the street to buy milk, or take the kids to school, or stop at the bank. All these unnecessary trips both harm the environment and limit the amount of exercise Americans receive, thus increasing the rate of obesity.

Also, a city that alienates houses from civic life also probably alienates people from each other. In a city with a lot of pedestrian activity, people come into unplanned social contact more often. If you walk down the street rather than drive, you’ll have a much higher likelihood of seeing (and talking to) your neighbor. Children walking home from school make more friends (and get more exercise of course) than if you drive them straight home in your SUV. A report by the American Sociological Review asserts that Americans have fewer real friendships than they did two decades ago. It would make sense if this lack of friends has something to do with the sense of loneliness and seclusion many suburbanites apparently feel. A more closely-knit community builds a more coherent sense of community, a sense which the modern suburb desperately lacks.

Fortunately, the traditional towns of old also make as much economic sense as they do sociological. As Duany and his colleagues write in their book, the modern suburban setup looks nearly impossible to sustain. Think of it this way: if everyone must drive to get anywhere, cities necessarily require wider roads, more traffic lights, and larger parking lots to accommodate the bustling traffic. The increased infrastructure costs more and also takes up more land, making less room for new houses or other buildings.

And mixed-use neighborhoods can succeed competitively, because consumer polls have concluded that people prefer them. In a 2000 Gallup poll, respondents preferred a “traditional” neighborhood to a suburb by a 3:2 ratio. Research by the Urban Land Institute also concludes that people prefer small-town conveniences such as nearby shops and libraries to the suburban niceties, such as gated communities and private neighborhood clubs.

Usually, when I hear some right-wing ideologue champion the values and the social benefits of “tradition”, I roll my eyes so far they nearly fall out of their socket. It seems, though, that at least one relic of the early 20th century does have its benefits: the traditional town. It may not serve as a panacea for the all of the social problems of the suburbs, but I suspect mixed-use towns would benefit the environment, increase community participation, and make small-town citizens happier and healthier.

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Category: American Culture, Cultural Evolution, Culture, Environment, Friendships/relationships, Statistics, Uncategorized

About the Author ()

Erika is a PhD student in Social Psychology living in Chicago. Here on DI she most often writes about current events, psychology, skepticism, media and internet culture.

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  1. Erich Vieth says:

    Small local institutions such as shops and restaurants serve an important function. Local residents living in traditional neighborhoods can mix together at stores, shops and public recreation areas getting to know each other and each other's kids and dogs. You're right that that such social mixing discouraged by modern suburban zoning. Gathering spots are now too large to allow us to knit the social fabric. How often do you really run into someone you know at a modern suburban supermarket?

    Based on my experience, you have painted an accurate but bleak picture of the suburbs. Thirteen auto trips a day! Since you're in your vehicle all day, there is no possibility of interacting with your neighbors. People don't form any sense of community when the pass each other driving SUV's.

    Modern suburban life is a rather lonely life in many ways.  Residents are socially isolated from their own neighbors in the burbs.   Many people have moved to far away cities based on job opportunities, foregoing the opportunity to live near their own established friends and blood relatives. And many people often pick up move to pursue new job opportunities or to pursue more expensive housing, ripping apart the meagre sense of community the were able to develop to that point.  Nor are modern front porches designed to actually be used. Now, people tend to sit inside their homes in isolated air-conditioned comfort. Instead of using community parks shared by all, modern suburbs encourage residents to each develop private secluded backyards recreation centers.

    I live in the middle of the old part of a big city (St. Louis). It's incredible to see how those who get out (with children or dogs or just walking) are able to form community bonds with each other. 

    Withsome recent exceptions you've noted, most suburbs have been designed to hinder any sense of community among residents. They are designed such that most people can live next door to people whose names they often don't even know. The ultimate irony is that many suburban dream homes are so expensive that, to be able to afford them, the occupants of specific houses must work such incredibly long hours that they don't even have the opportunity to get to know their own children or each other.

  2. Heather says:

    What is really sad is that most people who live in cities (traditional neighborhoods) are childless. It's like when people have children, they have to move to the burbs. What are they so afraid of? I have lived in the city for a long time and I walk everywhere. I am a young, small woman and have never been harmed. Just as many crimes happen in the suburbs, it is just not broadcasted.

    I see an agenda. As mentioned above, suburbs promote more personal transportation, use of corporate stores (as opposed to small businesses), and less social contact, which in return increases the social contact of watching television, which in return sells the products of the corporate stores and automobiles.

    I agree with you 100% Erika.

  3. John says:

    Thank you Erika for posting this. I used to work for a developer (as a drafter / designer) that played a sufficient role in the creation of suburbs in the area I used to live. Now I am entering graduate school this fall in the UI's Urban and Regional Planning program. My intentions are to try to bring urban areas back to a liveable state and preserve the natural areas that are just as important to our psychological well-being as a sense of community is.

  4. Erika Price says:

    Awesome, John! As you must know, traditional cities have found a small movement around the country, called New Urbanism. I have a pretty optimistic outlook on the longterm development of more old-school towns, because they have both aesthetic and practical appeal.

  5. grumpypilgrim says:

    This post reminds me of when I lived in Washington, DC, in a small pocket of residential row houses north of downtown. Many of the residents had lived there many years and, what I found most astonishing, would hold a regular pot luck dinner in an abandoned lot at the end of the block. To call the empty lot a 'park' would greatly overstate its beauty, but it had grass and someone had built a large barbecue grill from an old 55-gallon oil drum. So, every month or so, the residents would get together for a cookout.

    Another example that comes quickly to mind is a bike path that was installed a few years ago here in Madison, WI. It was an old railroad line that the city converted into a paved path, mainly for commuters who wanted to bike downtown for work (state capitol) or school (university). However, residents quickly adopted the path, and now it carries strollers, dog walkers, rollerbladers, and many others. I think it has transformed life on this side of town, because it has made biking downtown enormously easier than driving. The path is even plowed in the winter, and is often clear of snow before the downtown streets are!

    Which brings me to another important point in Erika's post: 13 car trips per day. Most errands, even in the suburbs, involve a travel distance of less than five miles. Five miles. Over that short a distance, a car isn't much quicker than a bicycle, especially after considering traffic delays and parking hassles. People who complain that they "don't have time to exercise" simply need to get a bicycle and use it, instead of their car, for short trips. It's amazing how much gas you can save, how much better you can feel, and how much money you can save (because you buy less when you must carry it home yourself) when you shop by bicycle. Even ignoring the price of gasoline, the typical late-model car loses half its value in the first five years and consumes many hundreds of dollars in insurance. For a $20,000 car, that's $2000 per year, plus perhaps $500-1500 in insurance. Plus, the price of registration can also be very high: in some states (California), the registration fee alone would pay for a very nice bicycle.

    So, what stops more people from bicycling? Mostly, it's bad city planning. Cities that are designed for cars, without any thought given to cyclists or pedestrians, can be nightmares to ride in. Indeed, in many cities, something like a third of the available land is paved over for motor vehicles (i.e., either roads or parking lots), yet virtually nothing is done to encourage bicycling. That's where change needs to start: cities need to adjust infrastructure to accommodate vehicles other than cars. As with the new bike path here in Madison: if you build it, they will come.

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