Re-Urbanizing Suburbia

This is an interesting New York Times article about restructuring suburbs to be more urban. It is interesting that after 60 some years of suburban development society has realized that maybe the sprawl of suburbia isn’t the best for community, civic engagement, or the economy.

At a conference in Nassau County – Near NY City – suburbanites and organizers discusses the recent failures and shortcomings of suburbia.

Why young people flee the suburbs was the underlying question of the day. But there has never been much mystery about it: There is nowhere to live; not enough to do; and not enough young adults around to improvise the kind of neighborhood scene born every few years in the big city.

Planners have been promoting the idea of suburban downtown life for decades, not just for the young, but also for retirees and workers of all ages. Corporate employers in the suburbs have long lamented the scarcity of affordable rental housing for workers. The environmental advantages of living and working in the same zip code are obvious.

But recent shocks over gas prices, global warming and the tenuous hold many people have on their mortgaged homes seem to have brought new urgency to the idea — at least among professional worriers about the suburbs.

The article refers mainly to downtowns, which is a little disappointing. It is somewhat tragic that when people think of urban they think of downtown. I am a huge prominent of, as the article says, “Cool Downtowns”, but usually downtown developments fail when the purpose is to make it attractive rather than livable. It is great to have trendy shops, sports arenas, festivals, etc. But those things don’t bring people to stay in the city, but rather just to patronize the city.

Most developers are worried about capital rather than community. Its not that they want people to actually live downtown and be able to get all they need, it is that they want people to go downtown and spend their money.

Urban living is more about how neighborhoods are formed rather than having a downtown.

Downtown is the central business, civic, social, recreational, commercial and domestic hub of the entire city, but not the focus. Developers and city officials should be pursing towards a renewal of the traditional neighborhood, in which neighboring homes are able to be walked to – rather than being divided by a pointless cul-de-sac, manmade lake, curvy roads or random green space (to list a few), groceries and daily items are able to be accessible by foot or a short bike ride, churches and other religious institutions are local and are concerned for the wellbeing of their neighborhood first then their city, their state, their country and the world.

The article also presented this interesting point about what suburbanites desire.

“People in the suburbs like the way things are in the suburbs . . . — the big malls, the strip malls, the three-car garages, the three cars that go inside them.”

These comments are unfortunately true, although they are driven more by consumerist tendencies than cosmopolitan ones. Many suburbanites are comfortable with what they have. They don’t really see the negative ramifications their lifestyle has on community, and even on themselves. In the first comment the thing that perhaps stands out the most is the implicit dependency on cars. Anything that would divorce someone from the perceived independence of the car is evil. Suburbanites, and society as a whole, have forgotten that cars reduce our interactions to stoplights and parking lots.

Additionally, we have forgotten that the suburban design which has developed from our rampant car culture has resulted in a dependency on the automobile. In suburbia one really cannot go anywhere without driving. Ironically, in the American search for independence we have learned that humans are naturally dependent beings. Unfortunately, instead of being in community we have become dependent on cars. Instead of being in relationship with or neighbors we rely on our cars. Instead of going next door to borrow some sugar or another small item we decide to go to drive to the store and buy it. Cars have created an integrated dependency, and have farther pushed us away from being citizens towards being consumers (compare how often we are referred to as consumers compared to citizens).

I love the fact that people are realizing that suburban design does not actually produce all that it offers. But I hope that we realize that the point of urbanism is not to create a greater consumer culture, but to create an honest, genuine, and human dependent community.

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