It’s no secret that I often struggle with notions of urbanism and suburbia. I’ve talked even recently about the issues of suburbs that weren’t meant for foot traffic. This past week my wife shared a TED talk that she found about the lack of centralized public spaces in most suburbs. I made the comment after watching the video that it’s almost as if the things that public spaces in cities provide, people try to find in their homes and backyards. It feels as though there is an effort to build up your personal castle, and experiencing your life in that castle, instead of in a community setting.
Not that suburbs don’t have community activities, far from it. The image of a suburban soccer mom didn’t come out of nowhere. Many suburban neighborhoods have bright and vibrant connections between the people who live close to one another, but that’s not always the case. In fact I would guess that it is more the exception than the rule. I recently had a conversation with a co-worker who talked about how he and his wife have made many more friends since moving into a condo in downtown St. Paul a year ago, versus when they lived in a suburban house for 10 years. The act of community in the suburbs often seems like it needs to be structured, with a time and place for any coming together.
Monday, my wife and I toured an exhibit at the Minnesota History Center called, Suburbia, about the rise of the suburbs in the Twin Cities. It was a fascinating look at the rise of the suburban culture since the 1950s, and how the very nature of suburban living has influenced our vision of what the American Dream even is. The exhibit was filled with artifacts, showing people of the time how suburban life was, in fact, the very thing that they wanted and needed in their life. Blatant consumerism was in full display when looking over the elements of what the boomer generation was looking for in their lifestyles.
It may seem like I’m being overly harsh on suburban lifestyle, and in fact it may even seem hypocritical since I currently live in a 1950s suburban development. However, having grown up in the city, dependent on public transportation for how I got around, I’ve seen both sides. I know what it’s like to live in urban density, both lower class and middle class. I’ve also experienced the vast sprawl of 80 foot lots that reduce the number of homes per mile to the point where public transportation doesn’t even make sense.
Having seen both sides of the equation, I can say without a doubt that there are definite downsides to suburban living. However, there are aspects that are also very appealing, such as more modern infrastructure, newer houses, and quieter surroundings. As a society though, we must weigh those aspects against the dark side of what suburbia can become – a place of isolation, excess, and homogeneity. The millennial generation behind us has already started to make their choices. In the exhibit today, there were quotes from young people just entering adulthood. The majority of them stating that they feel suburbia is too sterile or too white for their tastes.
This isn’t to say that suburbia can’t change either. It’s fully possible for suburbs to embark on a journey of re-invention. This type of change requires a large amount of effort, time and money, and most suburbs won’t have the will to invest in such large disruptions. There could be some cities though, that with an influx of new and younger thinkers, decide to re-create their community landscape to be more reflective of an encapsulation of urbanism, with a twist of diversity, transit, and community public spaces.
The suburbs of America will never be what they once were in the 50’s and 60’s. The American Dream will never manifest itself in the way it did for the boomer generation. Things will change in the future, and hopefully our world will be better for it in the end.