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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Losing Control in the Suburbs

We seek to make the world around us an interactive place that anticipates our needs and responds to our desires.  For millennia, we have domesticated animals, transforming the wild beasts of our collective nightmares into loving pets that follow our commands.  For more than a century, we have illuminated our streets to alleviate our fears of what lurks in the darkness.  We have created doors that open before us, and we continue to refine computers to ask us what we want.

The terrifying wolf that ate Grandma
(engraving by Gustave Doré)
Dogs domesticated from wolves have become
part of our home
Until we consider this innate drive to create a dynamic environment that responds to our needs and desires, we cannot understand the rise of the suburbs and their current crisis. The suburbs offered this promise, and their failing ability to deliver now dulls their luster.

Consider what the suburban dream offered: a yard, modern appliances, accommodations for cars, and more convenient shopping. For decades, these worked together to provide suburban residents a comfortable control over the environments where they lived.  Yet over the past several decades, transformations in the social and economic landscape, together with new technologies, have made the suburban model too rigid and unresponsive to our desires.

The yard is an extension of the home.  It was envisioned as a small parkland or garden that could be configured based on personal preferences.  It served as a playground where children were more closely supervised and protected from strangers.  The family dog became ubiquitous with the backyard.  Today, the relationships are changing.  Longer commutes and the increase in work hours have made yard work more difficult to fit into the schedule; what was once an enjoyable leisure activity has often become an obligation that interferes with other preferences for limited free time. It has become less of a weekend retreat and more a weekly chore.  In some cases, it becomes an additional expense, as busy families contract out their yard work.  An increase in organized activities seems to have reduced the yard's role as a playground for the family children and their friends.  And while the family dog still enjoys free reign of the backyard, as what continues to provide one of the most compelling reasons for families to move to the suburbs, urban areas have become somewhat more supportive with improved dog parks, reducing somewhat this relative advantage of the suburbs.

Likewise, the ability of suburbs to make modern appliances more accessible than in urban dwellings has declined, although not entirely disappeared. As new residential buildings have gradually been added to urban areas, and existing buildings have been modernized, urban living increasingly provides adequate elevator service, sufficient plumbing, and floor plans that accommodate all the appliances that would be installed in a suburban home.

Likely the most contentious change surrounds the relationship with the car. The suburban model was dreamed up during the early love affair with the car.  Today's suburbanites now find themselves in a long-term relationship, and many of them feel like the love is gone. Drivers no longer have a sense of control. The cost of their commute can be volatile, depending on changes in gas prices.  Nor can they control their schedules; they are routinely frustrated by traffic congestion they are helpless to avoid.

With recent developments, they feel even more disconnected as they remain disconnected during their delays, despite the internet-enabled devices they have with them that would allow them to connect with the outside world, because they cannot use them while operating the vehicle.  (Of course, some of them do resort to texting while driving, posing an extreme danger to themselves and everyone else on the road...)

The car does still provide a relatively private environment, where the driver controls the temperature and the radio. The dramatic reduction in nuisances on transit over the past several decades have made the distinction somewhat less important, and have created the conditions that allow passengers to use their devices to stay connected and in control. The localized physical control provided by the car is fading in importance to control through online networks.

One of the most perverse outcomes from trying to rely on cars to maintain control has been the situation at schools. As parents have increasingly taken to driving their children to school, seeking to keep them safer by controlling their transportation, the result has consistently been more traffic congestion and unsafe conditions where the school children mix with the drivers picking them up. The lack of physical activity that accompanies these lifestyle changes has also resulted in an obesity epidemic many parents feel helpless to address. While many parents would like the alternative of walking their children to school, or perhaps riding a bike, the suburban landscape too often does not provide safe infrastructure, and generally spreads residential patterns too far apart for it to be practical.

The alternatives to owning a car are starting to look comparatively better, in locations where people have a choice. As traffic congestion has made travel times and reliability more competitive, technology has made it increasingly attractive to ride as a passenger, with full access to internet-connected devices. Car share companies are enabling some households to give up their own car. At a lower cost, they still have access to car when they need it, but no longer need to handle insurance or worry about taking the car into the shop. It also reduces the amount of space that needs to be set aside for parking, both by individual households and within the larger community.

Suburban shopping options no longer provide so many advantages in convenience. There are no amenities within walking distance; in the suburbs you can't just stroll down the street to meet friends at a coffee shop. You can't send your kid around the corner to grab a gallon of milk or a dozen eggs when you're short. Even quick trips requires getting into the car again. The ease of the shopping cart-car trunk-house transfer is as convenient as ever for weekly shopping trips, but the urban alternatives have improved with excellent direct delivery services that also allow customers to avoid the long weekend checkout lines. Internet shopping in general provides a convenient alternative to the types of stores that thrive in the suburbs, while urban areas are able to support unique, interesting boutiques that are unavailable in the suburbs.

It would be premature and short-sighted, of course, to declare the suburbs dead. And there is at least one significant aspect where the suburban yard still offers an important degree of control over living spaces: nighttime noise. For all the benefits of denser neighborhoods, living in close proximity to neighbors still comes with the risk of noisy neighbors. While soundproofing could be an alternative, there has been no discernible trend in new construction. Anecdotal complaints seem to lean toward the opinion that the walls in new buildings are "thin."

Despite their current crisis, the suburbs still have some very attractive characteristics. There is a reason so many people chose to move there in the first place. Unlike many others, I do not celebrate an impending death of the suburbs. That would be destructive for the hundreds of millions of people who will continue to live there, and it would be catastrophic for our national economy. Instead, we need to view this as a moment of transition. We need to envision ways to change the landscape and lifestyle of the suburbs to make it respond to the needs of its residents again, without threatening to cataclysmically alter the character that defines their communities. Trying to impose radical changes will always be counterproductive in addressing a crisis that is largely frustration with the loss of control.

Changes may take the form of increased bicycle transportation, converting portions of long and unreliable commutes into daily workouts that have been crowded out of hectic schedules. With the right bicycle infrastructure, more suburban homes can eventually find themselves with quick, convenient access to neighborhood restaurants and stores without using the car for every trip.  The changes may rely on new technologies such as driverless vehicles to make car trips more efficient. Different business models like car sharing might help contain costs, while recovering the most squalid portions of the landscape (parking spaces). Altering the relationship with the car can allow for gradual densification in a non-threatening way, as it avoids the fears of traffic congestion and replaces parking lots with something more attractive and useful for the community.

It will take time to reimagine the suburbs, just as it did with our urban neighborhoods when they became too rigid to compete with the lifestyle offered by the suburbs. It is likely many suburbs will go through a similar decline, just as cities did.  But perhaps, if we focus on the problem and understand the underlying desire to have a responsive living space, instead of getting caught up in the I-Told-You-So triumphalism of the current urban renaissance, we just might be able to avoid a long period of neglect for the neighborhoods of so many American families.

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