Why suburbia sucks

I’ve written some in the past about how the predominant suburban design of the US of the worst features of life here, viewed from the perspective of a European immigrant like me, at any rate.

Far from posing a mere logistical or aesthetic problem, it shapes–or perhaps more accurately, it circumscribes–our experience of life and our social relationships in insidious ways. The destruction of the pedestrian public realm is not merely an economic or ecological absurdity; it has real deleterious effects. For just one small example of many: life in a subdivision cul-de-sac stops children exploring and becoming conversant with the wider world around them because it tethers their social lives and activities to their busy parents’ willingness to drive them somewhere. There’s literally nowhere for them to go. The spontaneity of childhood in the courtyard, on the street or in the square gives way to the managed, curated, prearranged “play-date”. Small wonder that kids retreat within the four walls of their house and lead increasingly electronic lives. (The virtues of a private backyard are easily exaggerated; it’s vacuous and isolated, and kids quickly outgrow it.)

However, it’s been difficult to elucidate in specific physical terms what it is about suburbia that makes it so hostile to humanity. To someone with no training in architecture, it’s often experienced as a great, nonarticulated existential malaise, like depression. You know it sucks, but it’s hard to say exactly why. The same holds true in reverse; North Americans who have not travelled abroad extensively and don’t have a clear basis for comparison can be tongue-tied when asked to explain what exactly makes a non-sprawl city street “charming” or “cozy”. It’s telling that we have no widespread cultural vernacular for why classical urban settlements, which draw on millenia of intellectual background and corpuses of architectural knowledge, are pleasant. It’s because Americans took that inheritance and unceremoniously discarded it, consonantly with the rise of the mass-produced automobile. It irks me that many of us know, on some level, that we live in a dystopian nightmare but can’t say what makes it a dystopian nightmare.

That’s how I came to spend a fair amount of time recently thinking about and researching what exactly makes suburbia suburbia. I don’t mean the abstract reasons why it sucks; I’ve pontificated on that plenty. I mean the physicality. For example, I live in Atlanta, a suburban mega-agglomeration that sucks in the same general way as cities like Los Angeles, Dallas-Ft. Worth, Houston and Phoenix. When someone asks me where I’m from, and I roll my eyes and diffidently groan, “Atlanta…” Why? It’s worth asking what specifically makes Atlanta “[groan] Atlanta”.

If one hopes to avoid broad vagueries like, “designed for cars, not humans” and instead to get specific, then there’s no single linchpin attribute that makes suburbia what it is. It’s an interdependent constellation of misanthropic zoning rules, building codes, and planning guidelines. My aim is to list as many of these as I’ve discovered and been able to formulate.

1. Single-use zoning

American zoning law (in all but its oldest cities) forecloses on the possibility of mixed-use development. This means traditional design patterns like shops and offices on the first floor with apartments above are impossible. Residences are constructed in special areas zoned for residential construction, while shopping and work take place in altogether different areas zoned for commercial development.

The idea, of course, is that the peaceful slumber of the suburbanite should not be interrupted by the noise generated by the transaction of commerce or any other public-sphere human activities. The result is that running any errand or attending to any need, no matter how small, requires getting in one’s car and driving somewhere else, in many cases several miles or more.

Since separation of commercial and residential zones by vast tracts built at automobile scale (rather than human scale) removes the possibility of accessing useful destinations on foot, it removes any practical motive for walking. Without consequential destinations that are part of normal human activity, by and large, the only people who walk on suburban streets do so for exercise. And the only reason they would do that is because their automobile-powered daily existence does not otherwise compel much movement.

2. Hierarchical traffic distribution

The chief complaint of most residents of suburban sprawl is traffic. The most obvious cause is, of course, that everything requires driving, but there are more subtle reasons, too.

The endless cul-de-sacs, winding loops and seas of parking lot in suburbia empty into larger “collector roads”, often constraining traffic in a given neighbourhood to a single preordained path.

Traditional neighbourhoods and cities are designed in a dense grid and/or interconnected web of streets, so there are many alternative paths between two points.

3. Set-backs from the street & parking ratios

Local building ordinances in suburban sprawl don’t allow buildings to directly abut the kerb. That means one cannot simply enter a building from the street. Instead, the building is set back from the kerb, requiring one to traverse a parking lot to reach it.

In the case of larger shopping centres, this means the building is set back several hundred feet, separated from the street by a large sea of parking. This is because suburban building ordinances require a generous proportion of parking spaces in relation to the surface area of the building. So, the larger the building, the more parking it must have, and, seemingly, it must be in front, not behind the building (more on that later).

4. Proximity does not mean pedestrian accessibility

On the other hand, it is not so uncommon in suburbia to live very close to a nearby shopping centre. I’ve had lots of suburban friends tell me, “actually, the grocery store is 1000 ft from me. Very convenient.” Indeed, when we lived in an apartment complex in the Perimeter Mall area in Dunwoody, the nearby Walmart shopping strip was within spitting distance. I could almost see the store entrance from my bedroom window.

But, perversely, that doesn’t mean I could walk to the store, as a normal person from virtually anywhere else on the planet might conclude from that statement. In its fanatical quest to eviscerate the pedestrian realm and make cars exclusive first-class objects, suburbia manages to make far even that which is conceptually close. Building ordinances generally require some sort of “divider” between these adjacent land parcels, like a ditch, a chain-link fence, or a concrete wall or noise barrier. In our case, that means I had to walk out of the apartment complex, go around the divider, and then cross several hundred feet of parking lot to go to the store.

It goes without saying that most normal people would choose to drive the distance. And that’s the idea.

5. Economic segregation by building type.

It does not bear repeating here that one of the things that makes interesting places interesting is variety. However, one more subtle effect of the enforced homogeneity of suburban residential neighbourhoods is economic segregation.

In older and more traditional neighbourhoods, multiple types of buildings of varying sizes coexist closely. Yes, it is a universal premise of building regulation and planning that they must be united by some sort of overarching organising aesthetic principle and geometrically agree in some way or another, but that doesn’t mean they all had to be approximately the type or size. As a result, it’s quite possible for poor, middle class and rich people to live side by side in one neighbourhood, with the difference that the rich people’s houses or apartments are merely bigger.

Local building ordinances in suburbia aggressively disallow this, and it’s the fastest way to tank property values within the logic of the suburban system. That’s why every new subdivision varies only by a handful of approximately similar house types, and the residents are all in a similar income bracket.

Suburban building codes also commonly disallow affordable housing hacks available in older neighbourhoods, such as above-garage apartments (sometimes known as granny flats). It is no mean feat to get approval for a small secondary edifice in one’s backyard–something the size of a toolshed, but habitable. Contrary to the individualist-libertarian ideology underpinning widespread suburban attitudes, even use of the space behind one’s walls, within the private sphere, is highly constrained and regulated.

6. No street enclosure and definition

The geometry of streets and sidewalks is a critical topic. Generally speaking, the reason settled streets in older neighbourhoods and European cities feel “cozy” and “charming” is because they provide a feeling of enclosure, which humans want because it gives them with a coherent sense of place, like rooms in a house.

I’m not a sociobiologist and cannot say exactly why this is, but would speculate that it caters to people’s primal need for shelter and clear directional orientation. Whatever the case, it’s an established fact that people gravitate toward places that have clear borders and relatively comprehensive enclosures; it’s a kind of axiom for the discipline of architecture. People feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in open areas with ill-defined margins.

That’s the difference between standing on Saint-Germain:

Boulevard_Saint-Germain,_Paris_June_2010_

Photo by Aleksandr Zykov.

And standing in the middle of nowhere:

sterile_suburb

Photo courtesy of New York Times.

Creating that enclosure and definition cannot happen if buildings are sparse and set back from the street. It also requires a certain broadly rectangular building geometry, with more right angles and less campy avant garde twists (more on that later). Suburban streets are notable for the degree to which they don’t provide a sense of place. Their curved, winding trajectory also robs one of a sense of cardinal direction–that’s why it’s so easy to get lost in suburbia. I am much more likely to need GPS aid in navigating through a subdivision than through a downtown.

Pleasant, walkable streets have other important features, such as protection of the pedestrian sphere from automobile traffic. This delineation is provided by architectural buffers such as trees, high kerbs, and street-parked automobiles themselves. All of these things can arrest a car about to plough into a crowd.

Another thing that takes away from the feeling of place and enclosure is large kerb radii. You’ll notice that in dense cities and older neighbourhoods, sidewalks adhere to the street at right angles, providing a minimal crossing distance for the pedestrian. However, suburban kerbs are optimised for cars, allowing them to maintain some speed while turning right–and to easily mow down anyone who is misled by the formal presence of a crosswalk into the belief that they’re actually meant to walk there.

7. Useless, ugly and wasted space

When quizzed about the advantages of suburban life, the most common answer is “space”. But even if you like lots of space, you’d have to agree that the quality depends on what kind of space it is.

Suburban development ordinances are replete with requirements for useless frontages, pointless greenspace between compatible land uses,  as well as chain-link fences, concrete barriers, and drainage pits. Space is still inhabited by humans, and has to be articulated to match their specific uses for it. A lot of open space in suburbia lacks that articulation; it’s neither pristine forest nor a particularly usable surface. It’s just kind of there.

The absurdly large width requirements for inner residential streets are a special case of their own. Small, low-density streets don’t need to be so wide that one almost can’t see his opposite neighbour’s house because of the intervening curvature of the Earth, especially given that street parking is generally not done in these places because, evidently, everyone needs their very own [expensively and unnecessarily] paved driveway. The formal reason for large width requirements is generally something comical, like to accommodate a full-size fire engine or other large emergency vehicle in case tragedy should strike. Well, sure, conceivably you might need to land an A380 there, too.

8. Parking-first aesthetics, garage façades, no alleys, no interior yards

It took me some time to consciously realise it, but one of the biggest differences that makes traditional neighbourhoods more appealing is that parking typically happens behind the house, reached through an alley. One is not likely to see an alley approved in suburban construction; that’s where robbery happens, right?

Instead, suburban houses are set back to make room for a driveway. Much of the façade of many houses is accounted for by a garage. This telegraphs the impression that the primary function of a house is really, above all else, to provide parking for one’s car.

Considering that suburbia is reputedly sterile and safe, there ought to be many other uses for alleys and common interior courtyards located at the rear of buildings, away from the street. In addition to being the proper place for cars, those are good places to put trash and recycling bins. Instead, the suburban street is surreally dotted with plastic trash cans at least weekly. So much for the pretense of civilisation.

What this says is: we have such a delapidated and depressing public realm, so few memorable places and things worth seeing, that we truly don’t care. This tension also accounts for the kitschy, farcical schizophrenia of the suburban home façade:

450

It’s a castle, a veritable homage to collonades! But wait, there’s more: there’s a front porch–and if you’re a toddler, you can fit on it! Seriously, what is this thing? It looks like it’s trying to be a lot of different things from the annals of written history.

It’s not a house. At best, it’s awkward and unsettleed eclecticism, and at worst, it’s a caricature, as Kunstler would say. The form of normal houses much more closely follows their function. The problem is, when there’s nothing else worth looking at, developers are maximally exposed to the charge of building “sterile” suburbs if they build a merely functional house, the sort of thing that would be thought attractive for its simplicity and cohesion elsewhere on the globe. And that’s how we get to the neurotic potpourri of superficial ornamentation above.

The same dialectic is often a driver of the infamous suburban NIMBYism. When the public realm is so depressing and demoralising, describable mainly in terms of the car traffic it generates, it’s understandable that nobody would want to see more of the same built nearby. It ultimately comes down to the fact that we don’t value our public realm in America, and, no surprise, we’ve not built a public realm worth valuing but instead retreated into escapism in the private one. All escapists, ranging from readers of fantasy literature to video game players to drug addicts, are generally irritated by any effort to somehow disrupt or meddle with the ongoing process of their withdrawal from reality.

9. No street life or visible human activity

Periodically, people will ask me: “Well, if you’re so committed to walking, why not just … do it?” They mean right here, on the highway, next to six lanes of traffic, in 90F heat.

Well, in actually-existing psychological reality, people aren’t going to walk where it’s neither comfortable nor interesting to walk. Contrary to popular Republican-type mockery of the notion, “interesting” doesn’t require a hipster paradise of airy-fairy, frou-frou creature comforts like street cafes (though they do uncannily arise in interesting places). “Interesting” just means there’s some intimation of human presence and activity expressed in the architecture and scenery.

There’s nothing about a treeless six-lane highway that conveys this. I’m going to drive, not walk, because to walk would be boring, tedious, uncomfortable, dangerous, and, in a sprawling geography designed at automobile scale, impractically slow.

10. No public transport

Aside from its superior efficiency and ecological footprint, the primary value of public transport is not in being able to commune with the armpits of your fellow man, but in being able to spend your time in some way other than chained to one’s steering wheel cursing the traffic. You can read a book, catch up on e-mail, or just close your eyes for a while.

In suburban sprawl, you’re doomed to spending vast amounts of time at the wheel–time you cannot do much else with, and which you won’t get back. The nature of low-density automobile sprawl cities is that everything is insanely far away from everything else, so no matter what you do, you’re doomed to driving vast distances to see most friends, to commute to work and so on.

Clearly, it bears mention at this point that self-driving cars could address the chained-to-steering-wheel factor. But it remains to be seen to what extent they can shift the larger paradigm. I can envisage self-driving cars doing very little to change the overall blight (and environmental costs) of suburbia, or I could see them evolving more rationally into a kind of semi-personalised public transit. It’s a phenomenon that has the theoretical potential to either greatly further our atomisation into the pathetically sybaritic techno-pods of a WALL-E type world, or to turn into a moderately pleasant band-aid.

Whatever the case, they don’t solve the more fundamental problem of our vicious contempt for the idea of a public realm.

11. Improper interface between city and highway

In most places in the world, one will find that high-speed highways run between cities, not through them. You’ll also find that intercity highways don’t have a lot of commercial development along them, allowing unadulterated views of the countryside.

In places like Atlanta, interstate highways are something like main thoroughfares. Three of them converge downtown, along with numerous other high-speed roadways.

The effect is to induce lots of derivative traffic within the city. Freeways breed on-ramps and car-centric development along the corridor. At the same time, the city, especially its most important historic parts, is partitioned by an ugly exoskeleton.

12. Lack of regional planning vision

Turning back to Atlanta: Decades of unbridled free-for-all building in Atlanta have led to a widely dissonant, fragmented patchwork that cannot deliver a coherent thesis for future development in the city.

Some individual neighbourhoods in Atlanta, like Midtown (where I live), have made great strides over time to become walkable and present viable in-city living options. The problem is, as soon as you need to leave such a neighbourhood, you still have to get in your car.

The same problem can even play out on the block level. I’ve been to some downtowns of suburban sprawl cities and found them to have a number of blocks or sectors that are actually quite pedestrian-friendly, well-designed and interesting. The problem is, these blocks are like a chessboard; they’re not contiguous! Want to go more than 500 ft? Better start the car.

The point is, Metro Atlanta covers nine counties and untold municipalities, incorporated and not. With all the resources and initiative in the world, there’s nothing the City of Atlanta can fundamentally do to alter the reality of life in 95% of Metro Atlanta. I haven’t seen anything inhabitable constructed in America through a laissez-faire approach to building across such a patchwork. Charge has to be taken at the regional level.

As far as I can tell, the same holds true almost everywhere, since everything in the US that is–gallingly–called a “city” consists of fragments scattered across unconscienable stretches of freeway. I have a special place in my heart for Dallas-Ft. Worth, much of which should be reclassified as a rural area outright if one is to judge by density. But the need for a regional approach to development priorities and transportation probably applies almost everywhere, including places like St. Louis, Indianapolis, and Omaha.


This post draws in part upon the work of James Howard Kunstler, including his widely disseminated TED talk, as well as upon the data and ideas in the well-known New Urbanist title Suburban Nation by Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck.


88 Comments on “Why suburbia sucks”

  1. Thanks for this. My wife and I spent half of the last year outside of the US, and I could never precisely define *why* suburbia is so damn frustrating. Every other article I’d read just dealt with it in abstract terms.

    This captures that frustration so well.

    Keep writing, please. I’ve added you to Feedly, so I’ll be reading along.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. foo says:

    collonade -> colonnade

    Like

  3. Nathan Smith says:

    I have a suggestion. If you don’t like the suburbs then don’t live there.

    Like

    • Gretchen says:

      Oh, that’s just silly. On another note, we live in Europe much of the year and we’ve noticed that public squares (Place de la ……, for example) are local living rooms. In the evenings, people in the neighborhoods share the space, converse, sip their coffees, etc.. Even small children are out and about in the squares in the evenings. It’s really delightful.

      Liked by 2 people

      • abalashov says:

        Indeed; public space is extensively used in Europe. In America, we tend to overbuild and overembellish our (unnecessarily large) private realm precisely because a public realm is not available, so there’s nowhere to go and little to do.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Housed guest says:

        In the U.S. we also don’t bother to house everyone, so parks do dual duty.

        Like

  4. Fred says:

    This entire post seems to be ripped off from this ted talk. This probably should have been sourced at the start of the article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abalashov says:

      Fred,

      I am familiar with Kunstler’s talk and cite it frequently, but I’m not sure what lead you to say this post is a ripoff of the same. He is certainly not the only one to make the points that my post and his talk share in common.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. […] I’m not a sociobiologist and cannot say exactly why this is, but would speculate that it caters to people’s primal need for shelter and clear directional orientation. Whatever the case, it’s an established fact that people gravitate toward places that have clear borders and relatively comprehensive enclosures; it’s a kind of axiom for the discipline of architecture. People feel vulnerable and uncomfortable in open areas with ill-defined margins. (Source) […]

    Like

  6. Tom says:

    Suburbs have two immensely damaging effects. 1) dislike strangers and 2) increase personal consumption. The first arises from the fact that driving everywhere and cuing for everything eliminates any chance of positive social encounters with strangers. The second comes from having extra physical space and a void in your mental space where spontaneous social interactions and real control over your environment should be.

    Like

    • Craig Avery says:

      As to point 1, strangers who are walking and driving need to be policed, harassed, questioned, and if necessary (or black) hauled in for private tasing.

      Like

      • Craig Avery says:

        Correction: “Strangers who are walking in a drive-dominant US suburbia need to be… ”

        Sorry.

        Also, this is of course said with tongue in cheek

        Like

  7. Greg says:

    Interesting points well laid out but next please offer suggestions for viable change

    Like

  8. Olivier says:

    Very interesting and so true. I am originally from Belgium. My wife is American. We have been living the suburban lifestyle for 17 years and decided last year that we had enough. We scoured a good part of the country to find our next place to live. We looked at Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, DC, New York. We did not consider the West Coast to be closer to family, neither Boston or Chicago because of the climate. The only two cities that are really walkable are DC and NY. And they are so expensive. We make a good living, but it would really be a stretch to move to an urban environment with our two children. And this brings me to my point. Schools. You haven’t touched on that. In the US, you have to go to the school for which your house is zoned. And the better schools are in the suburbs. And so we are trapped. To finish my story, we ended up in Bethesda, MD. We are only a metro away from DC. Our neighborhood is a little denser than most suburbs.

    Like

  9. I love ignorance, I truly do. I have lived in a variety of environments during my life and this diatribe about suburbia is without merit. The assertions about cities are without merit. The assertions about “Europe” are without merit. You make generalizations that are not really truthful. The myth that in Europe (never mentions what country or city) everyone inhabits the squares as if they were giant living rooms is patently false. I’ve never seen it happen in Paris, Dijon, or even Langres. Funny thing is that Langres has its own little suburban areas around it, just like the US.

    I’ve lived in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, San Francisco, San Jose, and Fort Worth. Depending on where your dwelling is situated, you may have to take the bus or drive to shop or participate in community events. It’s also the same in France, where I reside for three months out of the year. I’ve also lived in a couple of far eastern cities, mostly as a guest of Uncle Sam. I spent a happy childhood in Arlington Texas before it became that ugly sprawl of city in the eighties and nineties. As kids, we walked everywhere or rode bicycles because the city was still small enough to do that. Today, it depends on where one’s house is as to whether one needs to take the car anywhere.

    When I was a truck driver pulling flatbeds with construction equipment, building supplies, oil pipe, and whatever else was loaded, I got to see all of America from the interstates, the US highways, and the state and county roads. Small midwestern towns that have little retail shopping outside of some Walmart far away from the center was a common sight. I’ve lived up in the mountains where the local town population was 5000 or so individuals. You would never know it because the town’s area happen to include those who lived several miles off road.

    I’m sorry, but your research is far from adequate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Craig Avery says:

      I’ve lived in Cincinnati and Fort Worth, so I overlap you in that regard. (We both know the plusses and minuses thereof.) The point is that this is a blog post, and may well be partly correct and may well be partly incorrect. It is an opinion, so unless the opinion is backed by Zero facts, it has some merit and is debatable. Debatable is the key. Also differences in experience need to be allowed for. Be charitable. What specific points of disagreement do you have?

      Like

      • Actually, you don’t know the plus and minus.of those two cities. I spent my primary school days in Arlington back in the fifties. It was technically a small city but one might as well have called suburbia because that it what it was. Chance Vaught, Temco, Chris Craft, Bell Helicopter and General Motors were the big employers. UTA was only Arlington Junior College. Us kids could and did wander all over the place. It was nothing to go ride bikes for five or ten miles. Now there never was much to do in that city, no museums, maybe a few bars, and a couple of churches. We had Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts and Little League. There was a public pool and golf course. If you wanted more then you had to go to Ft Worth or Dallas. I remember my father took us to a Leroy Nieman showing at a gallery in Fort Worth. But have you seen Arlington lately? It’s ugly and ill planned. Of course Fort Worth has a small city center down town. But it has a lot of universities, all private. The TCU area is over grown with expensive housing and plenty of expensive places to drink and eat. But a lot of Fort worth has become run down. These are single family homes from a variety of eras and apartment complexes that look like an invasive species of architecture.

        Do I know Cincy? Back in 1966 I lived at the YMCA downtown. It’s gone now and quite forgotten. And just up the street with the end to end bars and the crappy one and two room apartments above them I could listen to that country favorite, “Last night all alone in a bar room, sat a girl with a drink her hand, and i was almost persuaded…..” until three am in the morning. Cincinnati was a small hick city. GM was in Norwood, part of that metropolitan area. I remember walking around the universities back then. A few hole it the wall type places to dance and drink 3.2 beer with the coeds. But there wasn’t that much to downtown Cincinnati.

        I’ve lived in San Jose California. A suburban city of lite repute. The city council in the sixties gutter the downtown area by allowing the big malls to be built away from city center. I saw the changes over a decade or two. Oakland has an active downtown area but it also has the avenues south of city center, mile and lies of old fifties, sixties, and seventies single family housing. Well what about San Francisco, the Paris of the west? I saw a lot of changes from 1968 through the present. I’ve lived or played up there over the years. It use to be a great place, now no one but millionaires can afford to live there. And don’t forget about the Western Addition where its mostly single family homes.

        And yes, I know about Atlanta as we used to live in Marietta. I’ve also lived downtown Philadelphia, near the university. What a dump and ghetto that city has become. I’ve also lived off road in the Santa Cruz mountains, did that for several years and liked the rustic way of living. So when you take your broad brush and pretend to color the world of suburbia with false judgments, then I am inclined to call you ignorant. And by the way, I also live three months out of each year in France, have a house there. Fact is, I have seen far more of this country and the world than you. I’ve lived in the far east and know something about its various cultures. I’ve been to India more than enough timed for multiple weeks at a time, business mostly, so I am acquainted with that country’s history. All these generalizations you and your friends make are useless. They don’t hold in any and all cases. If you’ve never lived in a slum than what do you know of city living? How is it so wonderful for those occupants?

        Yes, I know, this is just a blog, but it is a pretentious blog. You are a progressive and believe that everything should be a certain way and when reality does not conform you criticize it as stupid. You know, there is a reason why the suburbs are automobile centric, it’s called space. Did you ever try to drive in Paris or even a suburb close by? Forget London, it’s almost impossible to drive in downtown London these days. Up until 2000 one could still crawl one’s way through the streets. But Paris, too many people playing bumper car. when you build up, that is, build high rise apartments, you can add parking for the vehicles of the owners but there is not enough street to accommodate their passage at the same time. In suburbia there is plenty of room for the automobile to the point that one must rely on it. Unlike the city where public transits may accommodate you. I remember in Philadelphia that I had to walk ten block to the nearest subway (the local bus didn’t go near the place) and then transfer twice to get to work. Traffic patters of public transport can work against you in a city. And then the city is always raising the price of fares. Of course if each rider actually paid the real price of his fare he would find a cab cheaper. I’m sixty nine and have had years to deal with almost all these problems. I’ve read my share of urban planning and guess what? Most of it is vague and worthless. Most of it is written by those who have never had to deal with its realities on a day to day basis. You say i should be charitable. I say go drive an eighteen wheeler through cities and tell me what that’s like. How do you think all those goods get to the stores in your wonderful walking path places? I did not see one comment that addressed that problem, the distribution of goods in a city. How do you think construction material and heavy equipment get to construction sights in a city that has few streets for automobile traffic. Ever been to Amsterdam? there are so many things to reconcile and yet so many professional urban planners can’t see these common problems. Why did industry move out of New York city? Transportation costs for one. High taxes on business. Environmental costs, and a whole host of other problems. Maybe you should do a bit more research into your subject.

        Like

    • Anonyme says:

      Spoken by a true American. I live in France, near paris, and I’m fifteen, which means I can’t drive, but I can still go anywhere alone, with the public transportation. I used to live in the suburbs. And I totally agree. There’s nothing to do, and no social life except barbecues at some neighbors house once in a while. I was content when I was small but honestly now that I’ve seen the difference I’d never switch back to the suburbs. The places are ugly, the houses all the same and with no style or history, there are no places like in France (even in cities around Paris like mine) where theres a bunch of bars on a “place” where people sit together and talk and have fun. Our car is almost always unused, except when we have to go farther out of Paris or drive to Italy or something. Even in Frances “suburbs” people get together and socialise.

      Like

      • I know the feeling. I was a teenager in the suburbs and when i had even the slightest taste of the city life I became spoiled and wanted much more. But there is a price that is paid for that taste.

        First off, one needs a good job to be able to afford the good life. without that, one just grubs along. Been there and done that. Working minimum wage jobs in the city is the worst experience because lack of money shuts you out of so much of life.

        Second, I have had to live in some god awful places in the city. I mean slums. You can talk about how wonderful city life can be but living in a slum is anything but pretty.

        Three, crime rates are much higher unless you live in neighborhoods that are gated or otherwise patrolled by police. How many individuals are mugged in NYC’s Central Park? Quite a few.

        Cities have noise pollution and light pollution among other problems. One is dependent on civil servants and public employees to not go on strike and let the garbage pile up.

        Now that i am much older, I like the peace and quiet I find in the small village. I have a house in the Haute Marne where there are more cows that people. I like spending time there. I can drive into a small city (Langres or Chalmont) and have a very nice time. But my village is quiet, peaceful, beautiful. For me, when I am in france i have the best of both worlds. I have an inexpensive house or “hotel room” and can explore France when I wish. I can eat good cheese, drink good wines and visit with my neighbors. If I lived in Dijon that would not be possible. I would be just another American and excluded from most of society.

        Enjoy your life as a young woman. time will come when you find where you want to live for a while, ten, twenty years. Then you may decide to live elsewhere. As the spanish say, god go with you.

        Like

  10. Matthew M. Robare says:

    This is a great post.

    The only thing I would say is that you need to think a little more clearly (or maybe do a little more research) — you spend the first 11 portions of the post detailing all of the umpteen regulations that create these terrible environments and then decide that the problem is a “laissez-faire” attitude towards building!

    If we had a much freer market in housing and development, I believe that the automobile-centric places would have sent their pushers bankrupt long ago. Not only do zoning and building regulations restrict what can be built, but the states and the federal government encourage driving by building massive highways and making them free to the user in the first place. Suburban sprawl is further encouraged through the federal creation of the 30-year mortgage and the mortgage interest deduction.

    In the South, one of the interesting things is tax policy: according to Andrew A Price, in states where cities rely on sales taxes for revenue, the cities invest in huge roads and high parking minimums in order to attract as much retail development as possible: http://www.andrewalexanderprice.com/blog20140416.php#.Vy_q94QrLIU

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      That’s a very good point. What I really meant by laissez-faire was “laissez-faire within the framework of perverse incentives to develop sprawl offered at various levels of government”, but that should have been made a lot clearer.

      Like

  11. I agree with many of your points but many people, even those who could choose to live in traditional downtowns, still choose suburbia. They like having lots of space, they find driving to places in cars convenient, and suburban towns often provide a way to exclude demographics that they don’t like. These ‘benefits’ are often perceived as outweighing the disadvantages that you outline. The good news is that even among the sprawl there are often traditional downtowns where you can live if that’s what you value. If/when more people make that choice, development patterns will change.

    Like

  12. oscarhgake says:

    Thank you. This finally gives me something I can point to when people ask me why I hate new suburbs.

    Like

  13. Bob Florst says:

    A very imbalanced assessment of U.S.A. “suburbia” vs. the optimum European model.

    Article contains internal contradictions. For brevity sake will site just one:

    In Point 1 the author states (Suburbia) “…removes any practical motive for walking.” In Point 3 the author states (in Suburbia) “…one cannot simply enter a building from the street. Instead, the building is set back from the kerb (sic), requiring one to traverse a parking lot to reach it.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • abalashov says:

      How is it contradictory? The insinuation is that the factors discouraging walking are interconnected, and I said as much. In other words, even if one did happen to be located close to a meaningful destination (a premise at the beginning of the point you cited), here’s yet another reason one would not walk there.

      Like

  14. rob says:

    I loooove you!! I moved to suburban area, and I wasn’t sure why it feels odd, empty, and depressing at times. I now see why! Thank you!! Moving out of here!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. If I could convince my wife to leave the suburbs for downtown, I’d move in a heartbeat!

    Like

  16. Graham Cooper says:

    If you haven’t read Andrew Alexander Price’s blog, I would highly recommend it. His piece on creating a traditional city is highly detailed and addresses many of the points and issues you raise.

    http://www.andrewalexanderprice.com/blog20130330.php

    Liked by 1 person

  17. rollo says:

    Hi, I was reading the discussion about your article on Hacker News.

    You mentioned something about other literature that has likely influenced yours and Kunstler’s views. Could you recommend something for me to read up on?

    Thanks for the very enjoyable read!

    Like

  18. JoMcC says:

    Great article! I think its hard to measure just how far reaching the negative effects of living in a life impoverished environment can be. I would recommend “the Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs or any writing of Christopher Alexander to anyone interested in this subject. I hope that our generation can work towards building something better!

    Liked by 2 people

  19. joshmccready says:

    Great article! I think its hard to measure just how far reaching the negative effects of living in a life impoverished environment can be. I would recommend “the Death and Life of Great American Cities” by Jane Jacobs or any writing of Christopher Alexander to anyone interested in this subject. I hope that our generation can work towards building something better.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Ben says:

    Interesting read. I’m pretty sure I would be depressed to live like that. I don’t own a car and go to work on bicycle about 12km from edges of city. I prefer to walk for day to day grocery shopping. 🙂 If I moved out I’d still prefer some place where I can combine train and bicycle for commuting…
    (this is Europe, obviously)

    Liked by 1 person

  21. You should take a look at Radburn — one of the country’s first planned communities, in Fair Lawn, NJ. It’s a little different from other suburbs and was planned before the Depression. Times change, and the country changed with it. The Post War boom in the U.S. changed how we developed communities. Even here, you mostly need to drive to whereever you’re going, but cheap gas in the U.S. caused that as much as anything else (in Europe it’s far more expensive). http://www.radburn.org/about — it’s an overview.

    Like

  22. Olivier says:

    Stuart Ewen tackled this very subject in his work. Big cities are ugly and suburbia is a monstruosity, that’s why I live in the countryside, close to nature.

    Like

  23. Paul Legato says:

    Very interesting article, thanks for writing. I mostly agree with your conclusions.

    You’ve got one key ideological aspect backwards, though. The suburban American ethos is, in point of historical fact, not based on an individualist-libertarian mindset, but on the exact opposite: soft-leftist collectivism that presumes to legislate “proper” living conditions for poor people as a social improvement project.

    Zoning laws as such are indeed totally antithetical to an individualist-libertarian mindset, which says that one should be free to do as one likes with one’s own property so long as it does not infringe upon anyone else’s. They are a leftist phenomenon.

    The zoning codes that led directly to the suburbs were developed in the 1910s and 1920s by the American “Progressive” movement[1] consisting mostly of middle class intellectuals who felt they had a moral duty to reform society so as to improve general conditions for the poor via governmental action — according to their own self-appointed judgements of what is right for everyone, of course. They supposed the poor were subject to moral and educational depravity as a result of their living conditions, and were thus unable to look after themselves as a result. Drawing from late 19th century liberal Protestant theology, the Progressives felt that they had a moral duty to help rescue them by (among other things) prescribing the “correct” living conditions by law, and forbidding other ways of life.

    At the time, poor urban Americans lived in densely built tenements, often with very limited bathroom and cooking facilities shared among many families. These were also typically in loud mixed-use developments that included busy commercial areas and heavily trafficked streets. The Lower East Side of New York is a typical example of these physical conditions. All American cities had similar areas.

    The Progressives observed that the rich could afford to live in much more secluded environments: detached houses with large yards and setbacks, in peace and quiet, far from the noise of commerce. They decided to “solve” the problem of the poor by governmental fiat, by enacting zoning laws that forbade mixed-use development, shared bathrooms and kitchens; and prescribed minimum levels of floor space per occupant, minimum setbacks and yard sizes, and maximum traffic levels. The suburbs were the direct result.

    For much more information on how this happened, read “Living Downtown” by Paul Groth: http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft6j49p0wf&brand=ucpress

    [1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Progressivism_in_the_United_States

    Like

  24. […] in a walkable neightborhood, I know how difficult that can be. This post explains why that is and why the suburbs suck. It’s a great read on the differences between European and American cities when it comes to […]

    Like

  25. […] sources which he should have acknowledged more clearly, Abalashov, writing in Likewise a Blog, gives reasons why millennials may not be in love with drivable suburbia.  (If the link doesn’t work, this […]

    Like

  26. […] This post originally appeared at Likewise A Blog. […]

    Like

  27. Bob Dickson says:

    Why do you live in Atlanta?

    Like

  28. dk says:

    Thank you for verbalizing this so thoroughly and well. I can happily say that after 15 years stuck in suburbia, I finally am living in a charming downtown house that makes me smile every time I approach it. It has been two years and there is not one thing about this style of living that is not better. Most everywhere is walkable and the diversity is so refreshing! When I walk, I have many directional choices and, because of the variety of structures and trees, I can walk in the shade. From the tract, I used to have to trek long, hot stretches to get to a strip mall or a walking path. You stated these things and, yes, I agree wholeheartedly! My garage is now in the back down a long driveway and is no longer the focal point of the house. There are those for whom a house in the suburbs is a dream come true but I am not one. I completely relate to and appreciate this article.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abalashov says:

      Thank you, that’s very kind praise. 🙂 I’m glad to hear you’re enjoying urban living!

      Like

      • dk says:

        One more thing: in the tract development home, because backyards are lined up to each other, I was constantly inhaling neighbors’ barbecue smoke and had to contend with people and dog noises. Interestingly, the noise downtown is not as pervasive and there is no barbecue smoke.

        Liked by 1 person

      • abalashov says:

        Indeed. While experience does, of course, vary, I’ve noticed a similar irony in many of the claims made about the privacy and “peace and quiet” virtues of sprawlburbia.

        In my observation, most of the dissonance usually boils down to the argument that suburbia is safe for kids while the city is dangerous and dingy. Here in Atlanta, in my observations, kids don’t play on suburban streets because there’s not really any meaningful content or destinations to go to, and because the streets are 36 ft wide — just perfect for cars going 50 MPH. No kids on the street means no eyes watching them, making others reluctant to let their own kids play on the streets. So, practically, everyone ends up siloed off into their private castle, their only ventures outside being shuttled in an SUV from supervised activity to supervised activity.

        Meanwhile, city kids actually get out more. And whatever the reputed dangers to them–the stuff of much exaggeration, stemming from a very skewed American folklore–they are substantially offset by the chance of death or serious injury in an auto accident in suburbia.

        Liked by 1 person

      • bullmoon says:

        Bizarre – I see kids playing on our streets all the time – probably because I work from home and so my data points may be skewed to what is easily observable – possibly a common problem with anecdotal “research”. They have their basketball goals setup, their bikes they ride, balls they play with, etc. Bigger neighborhoods have pools and recreation areas – you should come out and see – people seem to like it.

        I could also say I don’t observe kids playing in the streets in urban areas – haven’t seen them in Morningside when I visit my friends there, nor in VH when I go down there – although I don’t think Highland Ave would be a safe place to play – haven’t seen them in the Old 4th Ward either or in Little 5 Points. But looking for kids playing in the streets is not my business in those parts of town – usually going out to eat or a show; I try to avoid the narrow neighborhood streets crammed with parked cars that must have no garages to fit them into. I suppose technically, those are suburbs – or they were in the 50s and 60s.

        Like

  29. It’s very clear that the author doesn’t have the foggiest idea of what it’s actually like to grow up in the suburbs or to raise kids in the suburbs. Ergo his entire article can pretty much be dismissed as elitist bull crap.

    I have travelled the world on business and write this from downtown Bogota, a metropolis of about 15 million. The huge investment in transit and the new bus rapid transit has done little to make this place more livable. People here would die to spend even a week at my quiet suburban west palm beach home. Our lakefront backyard sports more than twenty species of birds as well as wildlife including possums, turtles, and the occasional armadillo. We have a canoe, a kayak and a hammock that I would not trade for an apartment on 5th avenue.

    I grew up roaming the suburbs of Philadelphia and my three kids have never grown out of the backyard even though the oldest is nearing 30. It’s the home of family picnics , frisbee, and ping pong every Sunday.

    I have professionally worked with professional new urbanists for fifteen years and generally speaking, their ideas describe a living hell to me. I need a dark sky, I need nature to charge my batteries, I find urban anything sometimes nice to visit but I would not want to live there.

    A former director of a university driverless car think tank, I contend that the “unsustainable” argument becomes obsolete as swarms of driverless taxis and cans serve the burbs.

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      If only. Unfortunately, I have had the misfortune of spending most of my life in a variety of suburban settings around the country, especially as a child.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Jaime Creixems says:

      I agree with you Dennis.

      Although the grid design is more efficient in finding routes and mixed zoning helps sprawling a sense of neighborhood, to me the suburbia is a better deal.

      I like the space, the nature, the front and back yard, the sense of this is my house and my space.

      I grew up in a mid-sized city in Venezuela, then moved to Madrid and then to Orlando, the epicenter of suburbia.

      I’ve experienced both styles of living and I prefer suburbia many times over.

      yes, it’s annoying the cul-de-sacs, yes it’s annoying driving for EVERY LITTLE THING you need but I love the space, the sights, how easy it is to park, and I love the space that I own and share with no one (no neighbors up or downstairs).

      I think it depends a lot on how you grew. I grew up in a house in suburbia and wanted to replicate that as an adult. That’s why Madrid wasn’t for me.

      But I get that the sense of community, the walkability and the multiple zoning creates a more diverse, interesting city,

      So I think there’s no right solution, to each its own.

      Like

  30. cd says:

    Yikes, what prententious bs. Carefully thought out and intellectualized pretentious bs…the worst kind. I consider myself liberal and progressive, and it pains me that dbags like you turn so many off by thinking what you like is so clearly superior and therefore is what everyone should like and the way everyone should live. I mean, do you hear yourself or do you live in such a personal and professional echo chamber that you actually believe this crap?

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      1. No, I get a lot of flak for my position, including in personal and professional circles.

      Middle-class professionals skew suburban.

      2. If it’s carefully thought-out BS, how is it pretentious? What’s the pretension?

      3. While it is sometimes difficult to separate personal tastes from public policy positions, this article is about the latter, and the upshot is that we need more choices for urban living because 90%+ of the country is built out in the manner I described. It doesn’t mean that everyone will make that choice if given it, but nobody is proposing to take anything away.

      4. As to the superiority of what I advocate, I’ve tried to give some convincing arguments. If you’re not convinced, that’s fair enough.

      Liked by 1 person

  31. cd says:

    The pretentious views run rampant. Exaggerated claims (90%?), your perceptions of the importance of your opinions and preferences being so strong that you seem to think they’re facts. I’m wasting my time since you don’t already see it but I’ll bet you really catch flak because you’re being that guy.

    RE: public policy, the great part of living in a democratic, capitalist country is that businesses and public policy will adjust to address demand. Nobody’s gonna wave the magic wand you want waved kid, but I’d say you’re already well on the way to getting what you want by moving to midtown and living near thousands of others that want that lifestyle and have helped to change that area so dramatically over the past 20 years. But I don’t want what you want and it seems pretty clear most don’t either.

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      Way to be specific! 🙂

      Re: democratic choice —

      As long as 90%+ of the country is being built in the manner described in the article, there can’t be a serious conversation about what people want/what the market demands. There are so vanishingly few alternatives that choice isn’t even on the radar for most people.

      First of all, local government everywhere has a very heavy hand on the scale, in the form of zoning rules, building codes, and direct subsidies to suburban/exurban greenfield property developers. In states like ours, building yet another road, or widening an existing one, is practically the 1040EZ of transportation bureaucracy, and, better yet, there are matching federal transportation dollars available to match. When there are so many perverse incentives skewed overwhelmingly against things like urban infill, rehabilitation of in-town buildings, and, of course, transit projects, it’s ludicrous to talk about lifestyle preferences.

      Second, what has existed for two generations now inevitably becomes culturally normal, as is true anywhere. Most Americans aren’t seriously exposed to alternatives, particularly viable alternatives. Even the relative few who travel abroad to, say, European capitals, tend to view them as a kind of Disneyland and don’t make the leap that they can build their own cities to be more livable and at human scale.

      Third, as I’ve already acknowledged elsewhere, the title of the article is deficient; suburbs per se aren’t the problem, but rather the American sprawl implementation. Suburbs exist in every major city, globally, and in many cases they’re fairly viable places to live; they’re rationally connected back to the city centre via transit, and have enough density and coherent land-use boundaries that one can traverse them on foot while still benefiting from the relative tranquility and larger lot sizes.

      The upshot of this article is that we need choices. I’m not proposing to take anyone’s slice of auto-dependent heaven away and forcibly relocating them to city apartments. Nor am I saying that, given the choice, most Americans would choose urban patterns. I can’t say. But neither can you. You say, “it seems pretty clear most don’t [want urban living] either”, but we have no way of knowing that since the vast majority of housing stock available in the entire country is out in the middle of nowhere. That’s a significant conflation of cause and effect.

      I don’t know what percentage of Americans would ultimately settle where. All I can do is advocate for greater choices. As it stands now, those who want denser and more compact development and, critically, a non auto-dependent lifestyle, are entirely at the mercy of zoning rules and local regulations that either effectively prohibit it or create formidable economic disincentives against it.

      Liked by 1 person

      • cd says:

        90%? No choices? 1 in 4 Americans self-report living in an urban environment. There are urban options for every income level. If you understand basic supply and demand you can see that it’s safe to say most Americans don’t want to live in an urban area. The percentage who want to does appear to be growing, or at least percentage of Americans with money, as evidenced by real estate values in urban areas growing faster. The beauty of America is, instead of hoping our dictator or commie overlords choose well for us, people get to vote with their dollars (and votes). It ain’t perfect but it works pretty well. I’ve switched back and forth throughout my life and am very glad to have a wide range of urban, suburban and rural options.

        Sorry, I don’t feel like taking the time to point out all your opinions positioned as facts. Glad your article has fans, that must be nice. But it’s kind of like writing an article about why your favorite band is clearly the best band ever and trying to make it seem objective.

        Like

      • abalashov says:

        I think you’ll find that what is classified as “urban” tract in America, for census and zoning purposes, has no imaginable correlation to the discussion of urbanism encapsulated by the article.

        For instance, East Cobb or Alpharetta would be classified as an “urban” area.

        Liked by 1 person

      • cd says:

        Derp. Yes the govt numbers are much higher, which is why I quoted self-reported.

        Like

      • abalashov says:

        Well, I’ll be derped. Could it be that their self-reporting is marred by the same misapprehension?

        Like

  32. jim says:

    Great article! I was reading this in bed on my phone and got up specifically to leave a positive comment. I was almost derailed from my objective by the outrage your article seems to have inspired in certain pro-suburban sprawl (and travelling wilbury) types.

    perhaps characterising the comments as pro-suburban sprawl is unfair. the tone is more ‘outrage at the idea that an alternative is realistic or possible’ which is a very common sensibility in the suburbs, where the most common interaction with your fellow human beings is glaring at each other across your respective steering wheels, in an eternal, graceless duel for the last parking space.

    i grew up in the suburbs of australia. I’m now, im my mid-thirties have lived in probably as many places, if not more, than williambean2014, although i doubt he believes that’s possible… i currenty live in london, close to the centre of town, about a one hour walk from big ben. unlike your critics, i think your analysis is fantastic and i wholeheartedly concur with your propositions about what makes living in the suburbs so damn soul destroying.

    i’ll take london’s congested roads any day over the congested roads of the suburbs because, surprise, i don’t need or want a car in london. i walk most places (including to my work) and can get a train or bus if i need to get further afield. as an added bonus, the longest you have to wait for public transport is about five to ten minutes on a bad day. i splurged and got an uber home last night.

    the city of london certainly has its limitations. it’s expensive for one. but it’s also built around and evolved to meet the everyday needs of human life. I may pay a lot of money on rent, but i find my day-to-day life very enjoyable.

    back in the suburbs, as a teenager, i used to take my dog on long walks after school. i’d plug my walkman in, make sure i had back up batteries, and set off. generally, we’d walk for about two hours so i got to know my area inside-out. the walkman was critical because, as this article points out, there is absolutely nothing of interest or any opportunity for human interaction in the burbs. the music made it bearable. the streets and parks were always deserted. the only time we would even pass another person was if we’d go down the main highway, past the shops. it was like living in a vast mausoleum.

    i think i liked your article so much because it articulated things i thought on those long walks, but have never spoken of before. of course, williambean will simply dismiss me as pretentious, and fair enough too, i can be pretentious. but if being pretentious also means I make a clear demand to enjoy the range of opportunities life has to offer, then so be it. sorry, but drive-thru macdonald’s, traffic jams and loneliness are not for me.

    i’d like to add two points:
    1. the suburbs as they exist in the new world (America, Australia etc) were a conscious and very deliberate idea developed by 19th century urban planners. in their vision, the quarter acre block with one dwelling was the ideal arrangement for the single-income, 2-3 kid, family unit. the oldest suburbs are the lovely, leafy, well-built and eminently liveable areas populated by rich white people. the sprawling suburbs are the cheap, nastily built, isolated areas that they marketed to the working classes as part of a way to get rid of so-called ‘slums’ and break down organised labour.
    2. the suburbs go hand in hand with the growth of the idea of home ownership and other conservative financial principles. these places were built to be sold to people who could buy them on average incomes to escape the ‘rent trap’. considering the fact that now, even in the least prestigious cities, a house in the sprawl is expensive, it’s a fair question to ask whether or not the ‘mortgage trap’ is a bigger worry. it is no coincidence that luminaries like ronald reagan and margaret thatcher were champions of the suburbs and home ownership.

    “but at the end of the day, it’s subjective, right? some people like the suburbs, some people don’t.”

    unless you’re extremely intellectualy lazy, that’s a ridiculously easy cop-out. when people aren’t given a viable alternative, you can’t say that they chose their way of life. most suburbanites did not choose the suburbs. the suburbs are the only choice. this article makes a range of excellent suggestions for reforms that would allow people to re-create their environments in far more liveable ways.

    Like

  33. LisaKaneZa says:

    Thanks for this. You really managed to capture the reasons why American style suburbia is so depressing. I’ve lived in a version of it here in South Africa, which adopted US style planning in the 50s and 60s. It robs pedestrians of their sense of freedom, dignity and (at its worse) joy and it ties people to that biggest symbol of consumerism – the car.

    Thanks again.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. tony says:

    Absolutely great article Alex spot-on! My nephew sent me this from Bangkok where he lives (previously Sydney) whereas he grew up in small cities including Canberra where I live and does not want to come back to Canberra. I think the type of suburbia you show in your images is absolutely soulless.

    Canberra is an artificial city and as a consequence there is much public housing the majority built in the 1960s and 1970s. There is a sameness to suburbia here but mitigated by being the Bush Capital and the National Capital of Australia. Housing is also prohibited on the hills. There is lots of walking around the suburbs often in the bush. And I think it is a great place to live. You can actually see Kangaroos almost everywhere and the trees have grown up and line the streets. Great birds!

    On the downside Canberra is very like your suburbia. It is often called soulless. The city of 350,000 is 22 miles across. Public transport is lousy and apart from walking, you need your car to go and get everywhere else. Although it is very easy to get out of and doesn’t have any major traffic problems (a good planned road network, highly unusual in Australia).

    My nephew thinks Sydney, Bangkok and London are marvellous but they all have the sorts of problems you allude to in downtown Atlanta. I much prefer the small but highly populated cities of say Germany (say Hamburg) and Italy (Bologna) where all of the good type of issues prevail in the centre of town but they also have their suburbias further out.

    Following your argument towards better design, there are obvious ways of improving even quite bad cities. However, as in Atlanta the chance of the political will to do it is negligible.

    Thanks for your insights.

    Tony
    http://breadtagsagas.com/

    Like

  35. Do you really, actually live in Atlanta? Or do you live in some place like Vinings, Duluth, etc? I ask because City of Atlanta has actually bucked most of the trends that you cite as “what makes it Atlanta”. Most new development in the City is mixed use. I live Downtown and often walk to and through Midtown, the Old Fourth Ward, the highlands, etc. We are growing more dense every year. I’ll walk with thousands of other Atlantans later today in the Downtown and Midtown version of “streets alive” that closes Peachtree to car traffic for several hours. Our mixed use and transit oriented development has been so popular and successful that some of the inner suburbs are starting to adopt it. Chamblee and Brookhaven both are. They are also both part of a recently announced 5 city partnership that is coordinating development and other efforts in a regional way.

    Of course, you can’t really talk about suburban sprawl in this country, but especially in the sun belt, without really talking about racism and white flight. It isn’t a side thing to be given a quick mention. It’s a catalyst, a prime mover.

    Like

  36. mythicflow says:

    Older, denser US cities that might be positive models have also been undergoing a suburbanization of sorts. Their desirability is making them dearer, what with the proximity of affluence sustaining jobs, the reverse white flight of empty nesters, etc. The result is gentrification/condoization turning neighborhood after unique neighborhood into uniform clusters around Whole Foods stores.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abalashov says:

      Indeed, I’ve noticed that here, too. A lot of the “urban infill” built to support rising demand for denser, urban living, while an improvement of sorts, consists of islands whose general archetype is imported from the sensibilities of suburban highway schlock.

      Liked by 1 person

  37. glarrymason says:

    While I agree with all of your points about the architecture (or lack thereof) in the suburban landscape, I think the fact of their existence is caused by a deep American or maybe a perverted capitalistic economic phenomenon. The control, however small, theoretical and absurd that “owning property” has on the American physic. “I own this plot”, however small, and “I have control of it”, and “I have the right to use deadly force over the dominion of it.” Ownership has become more important than the inefficiency, the unsustainability, and the sheer depressing reality or maintaining the charade can overcome. Maybe a “sharing” economy can in time begin to turn that around, and we can again live within community, in communal habitats, in rich dense urban environments, but it seems like it will take time. That I think that is the cause of suburbia and not the result of sprawl.

    Liked by 1 person

    • abalashov says:

      Perhaps. But lots of folks around the world are fond of owning things. I lived in Armenia for two years and can attest that the atavistic urge to “own” property there, and the corresponding aversion to renting, is stronger than in America. Yet Yerevan has a fantastic human quality of life from an urbanist perspective. Then again, you drew an important distinction between land versus some kind of real estate–one which may be more idiosyncratic.

      On the other hand, surely it’s possible to own something while caring in some way about how it relates spatially and psychologically to the surrounding community, to other people’s houses, to the street? I would think. But here, there is a very exclusive fixation on owning a product called a house, regardless of where it is situated or its relationship to its surroundings.

      Liked by 2 people

  38. Joe says:

    The one size fits all lifestyle just doesn’t work for everyone. Yes – I’d like to see more downtown living for folks who want to live there. I would like to see more living above shops. It would fund a more diverse economy and culture in the USA if that existed more frequently.

    It could also create a demand for trains and buses which I think would be a good thing.

    The problem is that fortunes are being made by the way things are in the USA with everyone operating a car and driving everywhere (except the densest populated cities). I doubt anything will change until we the consumers bankrupt those benefiting from the way things are now by not spending our money with those companies. Once their wealth is gone, their influence will be gone too.

    The one size, fits all city life will never suit me or my family. I’ve lived in the USA most of my life but have traveled to several other countries and lived in Italy for several years. In those places I operated as the locals did much of the time. Trains, buses, scooters, and walking. I also had a car that I relied on for trips away from the cities b/c in those places – like here – public transport didn’t function well in the country or the mountains.

    If I live in an apartment above a shop what am I supposed to do with my free time? Read? Watch TV? Go out for food and drinks? Visit the park or watch a play? I can only live like that for so long. I yearn for space. Space of my own. Space where I can make noise without bothering the neighbors and a space where the neighbors don’t bother me – or steal my things. I’ve shared walls and it was terrible. Maybe it would have been better if we all belonged to a higher tax bracket. 😉

    One reason the public places in cities are so well used is because people can only stand to spend their free time in their little boxes for so long. For a family of four – do you want to spend your Saturday in a little apartment with three other people? If you are a teenager I think it would be close to a punishment to be stuck in a tiny apartment on the weekend. f course you want to go to the piazza. Of course you want to go across town to hang out with friends.

    We do those things from time to time now. Cafes, dinners, drinks, music, etc. It all comes at a cost though. A person can spend alot of money in a month’s time “hanging out” away from the apartment and buying food, drinks and riding in taxi cabs.

    There are dozens of things that we do that would never fit in a city lifestyle. I have a workshop where I restore cars, restore, antiques, build cabinetry, and make repairs on all sorts of different things. I will never give these things up b/c they make me and mine very happy. We also like to bicycle, scooter, motorcycle, canoe, camp and play with our family dog. These things don’t fit in an apartment lifestyle either and I’m surely not going to rent an apartment AND a workshop/storage area in a city where rents are already unreasonable.

    Try not to shoe horn all of us into one lifestyle. 😉

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      Joe,

      Those are very fair points. Furthermore, as I’ve acknowledged elsewhere in this comment stream, the article would be more apt to target “suburban sprawl” than suburbia per se. Suburbs exist in almost every city globally, and they are often quite pleasant places to live, offering freestanding houses and larger lot sizes to support your desired lifestyle, as well as the much-touted quietude and proximity to nature, while still being relatively compact and well-organised and within easy reach of some sort of transit artery.

      The editorial is a tough genre; when personal tastes and preferences are comingled with more general policy prescriptions, it’s not easy to disentangle the two. Certainly, I am not suggesting that everyone be relocated to cramped city apartments above thumping nightclubs (enjoyment of this mandatory :-). As it happens, I personally prefer city apartments (not above thumping nightclubs), but I certainly don’t mean that this is the way everyone should live. FWIW, we have three young children and live in a roughly 1200 sq. ft. 2 BR apartment in the Atlanta city centre, but I perfectly grasp that it’s not for everyone.

      I suspect I could have done a better job of making it clear, but the real issue is about the need for a meaningful public realm, about human-first rather than car-first environments, and of course the economic and ecological questions surrounding how we develop and use space and go about our lives.

      Like

  39. josh642 says:

    Most of these comments make sense, either pro- or con-suburbs.

    But one thing left out of the discussion is an aspect of the overall community – the metro area. Most suburbs generally enjoy a quality of life because of feeder economics from the nearby city. In the northeast United States, generally greater taxes are necessary in older cities, and it is the opposite in the suburbs. So residents of the suburbs enjoy all city amenities, but escape the financial burden necessary to maintain the city infrastructure…and they have almost total car-dependency, and are OK with that.

    That is bullshit to me.

    Like

  40. bullmoon says:

    Great to see some critical thinkers have read this article and responded. There are so many points that are at odds with each other, it boggles the mind.
    I have lived in Atlanta for 40 years now – in and around GA Tech in college and now the suburbs. I have grew up a good part of my life on a farm in rural GA – “in the middle of nowhere” – and it was not disconcerting. The lack of boundaries did not freak me out – it was wonderful. I have have walked from Tech to Lenox mall and down to the old Sears building on Ponce when it was Sears (long before this author ever burdened himself with the apparent drudgery of life in ATL).

    I have lived in the suburbs in Beaumont, TX, and in Albany, GA. And I have traveled and visited and walked the streets of NY, Paris, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Hamburg, Hannover, Panama City (yes, in both Panama and Florida!), Tijuana, Puerto Vallarta, Miami, London, Barcelona, Seattle, San Francisco, Portland, Toronto, Montreal, Dayton, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Charlotte, Greenville, small island towns in the Caribbean…and the list goes on and on. If the phrase “variety is the spice of life” comes to mind, congrats – that’s the point. Blanket statements about cities and suburbs or even rural life, which maybe the author should give a shot – one can really walk for miles and never see anything or anyone, blanket statements are absurd.

    I live in Dunwoody now – a conglomerations of suburban neighborhoods. If I still had the stamina I could walk the 15 miles from my house to the author’s and I doubt I’d ever see the 6-lane highway that he complains about – and it would be an interesting walk – and I know because I have walked many of those streets. I still walk to the bank, the deli, and to my favorite pour house – my soul intact even after, heaven forbid, crossing their 70 foot asphalt parking lot to get into the door and a great beer. And I do it sometimes in 90 degree weather because, hello! It’s Georgia!

    News Flash – it doesn’t suck for most of us who live here – we like it. My car is nice too – really nice – and I like it! I like having a garage to park it in – very much. Even though I only drive it six or so miles a week, I like it a lot.

    If your life sucks – or your perspective, it’s probably you – like the man said, “wherever you go, there you are”.

    Why the blog is pretentious: living in Midtown (poor you!) and complaining about suburbs where you don’t live. Come out here – interview us and see if we feel like our souls are crushed, if our glass is as half-full as you imagine. Then maybe you have something. But you may find our glass is quite full – could be full of a good beer too. Cheers.

    Like

  41. bullmoon says:

    “the real issue is about the need for a meaningful public realm, about human-first rather than car-first environments, and of course the economic and ecological questions surrounding how we develop and use space and go about our lives”

    – sounds like a complex cultural topic that at least needs a cursory research-based understanding of how people feel about the various places they may live and how they live, rather than making blanket assumptions that may not be true or granular enough to be meaningful. Additionally, the premise – an apparent lack of a meaningful public realm or the assumption that our neighborhoods are not human-first based – needs to be substantiated. It is ludicrous to start looking for solutions to a poorly characterized problem or to a problem that doesn’t exist.

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      “Additionally, the premise – an apparent lack of a meaningful public realm or the assumption that our neighborhoods are not human-first based – needs to be substantiated.”

      That is the very thing that this article aimed to substantiate, and it’s plainly obvious just by looking at the number of pedestrians versus automobiles in everyday movement.

      Liked by 1 person

      • bullmoon says:

        Human does not equate to pedestrian – there are humans in the cars, humans live in the neighborhoods. That’s my issue in a nutshell with the entire article; most of the points are not well-formed and do not stand up to a test of reasonableness.

        For example, the points about open spaces and the lack of human presence: for part of my life I grew up on a 140 acre farm bordered by…more farms. It was all open space and to see the next non-family human required a tractor, a horse – OK, I’m not that old – we had cars and trucks. We didn’t feel “vulnerable and uncomfortable” – to the contrary, we could park the car and leave the keys in it and not worry about locking the doors on the house and sleep soundly. And many people I know who grew up in rural areas would loathe a city life – no matter how grand. They do not gravitate toward that at all and it is not in their nature.

        Or the street widths: look at how wide Saint-Germaine is – your example. And there’s probably a good reason, but I don’t think it is about “people” – well, people in cars or busses maybe. And there’s no alley behind, the trash in green dumpsters is collected on Saint-Germaine just like it is out here in Dunwoody. Paris is wonderful, but it’s no panacea.

        I have lived in rural areas, in suburbs, and even in Midtown ATL – and BTW, Midtown has been “walkable” at least since 40 years – I have walked it plenty. I have visited and spent time in many cities all over the world. Astute readers will realize many of the points in the article are cherry picked and, as others have pointed out, do not fit a general reality.

        Does suburbia suck? No, the premise is based on personal preference only. So “why suburbia sucks” – only because you think it does.

        Like

      • abalashov says:

        So “why suburbia sucks” … because you think it does.

        Congratulations, you’ve nailed it! Furthermore: you, too, can have a blog of your very own.

        I suggest you call it A Convenient Truth: Why I Like Suburbia. 🙂

        Like

  42. David Pakman says:

    Would like to find a good guest to interview about this subject matter. Your post mentions James Howard Kunstler, Andres Duany, Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk and Jeff Speck. Is there someone in particular you think would be a good guest to discuss this?

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      Hi David,

      I have personally had contact only with Jeff Speck, who is quite active on Twitter. I think he’d be good to talk to on the basis that he seems to do quite a lot of outreach.

      Like

  43. ultygirl says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with this post, although I would refer to these neighborhoods as “bedroom communities” rather than suburbs. “Bedroom communities” are usually newly developed neighborhoods of McMansions built close together, where most residents commute to work by car, only returning to sleep in their bedrooms. Another reason for “bedroom-community depression” is that there are no public places for gathering, so people are isolated from each other. Frequently there are no coffee shops, post offices, playgrounds, markets, cafes, etc where people see each other and get to know each other. And there might be sidewalks – but there’s nowhere to walk to (as you pointed out). Frequently, people in these “bedroom” communities don’t even know their own next-door neighbors! Humans are social creatures, yet bedroom communities isolate us. As well, these neighborhoods frequently lack large trees and mature landscaping, which makes them feel like a stark moonscape.

    The reason that I would not call these communities “suburbs,” though, is because many cities have old suburbs, close to the city borders, that do not share many of these negative qualities. For instance, I live in an older suburb of Washington, DC where we have many large, leafy trees, where houses are not crowded up next to each other, and – probably most importantly – where there are many attractive places for people to walk to and for people to get to know each other outside of their houses. We have a small river that runs through our neighborhood, accessible to all, and it attracts many walkers, bikers, and bird watchers… so people are outside all the time, walking up and down, and neighbors get to know each other. We also have a neighborhood pool club that most people walk or bike to from May to September… and which serves as a natural social hub as it hosts tennis and swimming clubs and community parties. Our neighborhood has basketball hoops in the streets, and our kids play basketball and hockey in the streets. I definitely agree that U.S. zoning rules are archaic (and differ greatly from county to county, which adds to NIMBYism), and that allowing a coffee shop or bakery to open in our neighborhood would only increase the happiness/social factor here. In fact, we have a 7/11 store on the edge of our residential neighborhood, and it has become a de facto hub for kids walking to buy ice cream, etc – simply because there is nothing else that’s walkable! Allowing more business to open up inside of residential neighborhoods would improve things tremendously for residents. it would also allow more elderly residents to stay in their homes longer.

    Like

  44. This blog piece had me CRACKING UP WITH LAUGHTER.
    Nail on Head.
    Writing is spot on, hysterical.
    The suburbs suck so badly, as an adult without children I cannot wait to get back to city life.
    So sick of traffic, cops, mini vans and boring people.
    The suburbs are a waste land, good for nothing.
    I am speaking about NJ in general cuz this is where I (unfortunately) live.

    Like

  45. Rebecca says:

    Living in Phoenix here, lived in the suburbs all my life except for when I was on my university campus. I named my son Paolo after Paolo Soleri. Since the aforementioned son is six weeks old, I’m way too tired to sing his namesake’s praises, but there is another lead re: a European immigrant with Opinions on suburbia.

    Like

  46. Robby Brennan says:

    As the late, great American playwright, Tennessee Williams, observed so keenly: ““America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”

    I very much enjoyed this read. I grew up in the suburbs of NYC, and got out asap when aged 18 (went to college in the small city, but still, a city, friendly-ish to pedestrians, and not without soul and character, the humble “Hub City” of New Brunswick, NJ; then I lived in NYC, and now, the best place on Earth, New Orleans).
    I think I was so depressed from living in suburbia, for all the reasons explained herein, that at age 14 I wanted to die (like most 13-14 yr. olds), and so I came down with a chronic disease at that tender young age that almost killed me. I think suburbia is so toxic that to raise children there is actually child abuse, and no wonder America is more obese and addicted to anti-neurotic drugs — the suburbs are lethal! Give suburbia back to the animals, and reverse “white flight” and come home to our great cities, ‘Merica! xo

    Like

    • abalashov says:

      Thanks for the feedback!

      I haven’t been to Cleveland, but I don’t gather that it’s the worst exemplar of what I’m talking about, even in Tennessee Williams’ time. It still seems to me the worst and most egregious crimes against humanity, from a built environment perspective, are in the South and Sun Belt more generally, as well as LA.

      Like

  47. Alina B says:

    I found your article while google-ing “why is suburbia so boring?” We lived down town Montreal and then moved 30 km from it after we had our child, for more space, two garages and so on. I have to agree with the previous comment describing suburbia as a cemetery. Empty and quiet. Nobody walks and there is nothing walking-distance. I had to learn to drive at 42 yo which was the most stressful thing I ever did in my life. The options are stay at home and be lonely or commute 2-3 hours daily for work and be to exhausted to enjoy the big house.Or to take care of it, mow the lawn, bag the leaves, swash the 3 bathrooms etc …
    I keep telling myself it it not the suburbia which is boring, it is our choice, we can drive any time to see a show and an event downtown and then the long drive gets me mostly always discouraged.

    Like

  48. I too found your article while I was googling. I enjoyed your article and I wholeheartedly agree with you. I live in a Toronto suburb called Mississauga, and I also wrote an article about its sprawl. If you’re interested I’ll link you to it https://sarassheridan.wordpress.com/2016/08/24/mississauga-and-the-lack-of-a-centralized-downtown/

    I figured since we’re both interested in this topic lol.

    Like

  49. Reblogged this on Sara's Sheridan and commented:
    A further analysis on the negative impacts of suburbia.

    Like


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s